Preserving farmland and providing new home lots

November 12, 2004|By William Wivell

Re: Comprehensive Rezoning

As you are quite aware, I have a concern over equity loss to large landowners in regards to the proposed downzoning that the Washington County government is contemplating. Also, I have had the opportunity to speak to several in the farming industry, as well as those in the building industry. The farmers believe that the proposed downzoning could actually accelerate the demise of farms in Washington County and the only way to truly preserve farmland is through permanent easements. Those in the building industry believe that housing starts only service the demand, and regardless of whether it takes three farms to build 100 homes or one farm, those 100 homes will be built to meet the demand. We have also discussed Transferable Development Rights - known as TDR's - and the fact that they have a very high failure rate. Given these conditions, I would like to propose the following:


As you know, the task force proposed density bonuses and also felt that TDR's should be looked into. I believe that we have the ability to combine both of these programs into one, preserve agricultural land faster than the pace of development, and compensate for the potential loss in equity to the landowner by allowing the following:

I spoke to Eric Seifarth, the county's farmland preservation specialist, and he indicated that the average price per acre for a permanent easement is about $2,500 (ranging from a low of $1,500 to a high of $4,500, depending on the location). Suppose that we were to adopt the zoning densities as proposed, but also implement a density bonus program that allows densities to be increased through the payment of preservation money.

It would work as follows: A landowner in the agricultural zone would be allowed one lot per five acres. In order to return to a one-to-one density, he could pay $5,000 per acre - twice the current cost of purchasing an easement, allowing us to preserve agricultrual land at potentially twice the rate of development to derive a one-to-one density.

Thus, if the landowner held five acres, he would pay $20,000 to get from a one-lot-per-five acre density to a one-to-one density. (This is a bad example because it ignores the small-lot exemptions, but you get the idea.)

The same formula could be applied in the conservation and preservation districts, although obviously we would not want to allow the density to be reduced to one lot per acre in these areas.

I believe such a program has several positive attributes:

1. It does not rob the large landowner of his equity.

2. It does not increase the demise of farms by allowing development to be concentrated on less acreage, thus consuming less farms.

3. It does not leave small parcels of economically challenged farmland throughout the county.

4. It ties the pace of agricultural preservation directly to the pace of development.

5. It simplifies the density bonus program.

6. It avoids the complications and potential failure of a TDR program.

7. It potentially produces a unanimous vote on the part of the Board of County Commissioners in the adoption of the comprehensive rezoning plan (versus our traditional 3-2 vote).

8. It avoids potential litigation by angry landowners.

William Wivell is a Washington County Commissioner.

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