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Editorial - Zoning in farm country

July 17, 1997

Like Washington County Commissioner Jim Wade, we share a concern about the wide-open nature of agricultural zoning. This week Wade faulted the county board for failing to address the issue. In fact, it is being reviewed by the county's planning commission as part of an update of the county's comprehensive plan that will begin this fall. That rewrite will take up to a year, but it's the right way to ensure all points of view get a fair hearing.

Zoning was passed here in the early 1970s with the support of the farm community, which wanted assurances built into the ordinance that if farming ever became unprofitable, farmers could sell their land for other purposes.

The other side of this argument is that the houses built on the one-acre lots allowed in agricultural zoning seldom generate enough taxes for the services families living there require, like schools. Over the years, the county has tried to address this through subdivision rules, the Adequate Facilities Ordinance and Urban Growth Area legislation.

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Is more needed? Should the minimum lot size in agricultural areas be raised from one to five acres or larger? Should the number of "principal permitted uses" - now more than 20 are in the ordinance - be trimmed back?

For several years now, the commission and its staff have been meeting with the farming community, trying to work out an acceptable policy on this issue. One possibility: A hike in the real-estate transfer tax, the proceeds from which would be used to purchase easements from farm owners.

The difficulty in addressing this issue is that after the zoning law was passed, farmers began to make plans based on the possibilities written into the law. To restrict those possibilities now without compensation (of some sort) would probably send the issue to court.

That need not happen, as long as those suburbanites who cherish the rural landscape realize that farmers don't preserve it as a public service, but because they can make a living on the land. This is their income, their inheritance. Negotiations to change that won't be completed quickly or easily.

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