anti-sprawl plan may expand
may get $1 billion to keep land from development
Carl Weiser /
Article courtesy Gannett News Service
December 9 ,2001
A federal anti-sprawl program that pays farmers not to develop
their land has proved so popular -- with farmers, suburbanites
and politicians -- that some in Congress want to increase
spending to more than $1 billion.
And that nearly 30-fold increase over
the program's original amount still might not be enough
to pay for all the land threatened by housing developments
and strip malls. Doing that would cost $130 billion over
the next 30 to 40 years, according to the Department of
Agriculture. And farmers are lining up to get into the program,
which has a backlog of $250 million in requests.
The bidding war in Congress for the Farmland
Protection Program -- and other legislation aimed at stopping
sprawl -- shows how curbing development has grown from a
local issue to a national one.
"The zoning laws we have on a local level
don't seem to work. You draw the lines on the map -- here's
for residential, here's for agricultural -- but the pressures
to jump over those lines are so great," said Ross Sargent,
chief of government relations for the American Farmland
So governments and private groups have
turned to buying sprawl-threatened land outright, protecting
about 6.2 million acres according to the Land Trust Alliance,
and buying farmers' development rights, protecting 1 million
When Congress created the Farmland Protection
Program as part of the 1996 farm bill, it allotted $35 million
for six years. The money was gone in two. An additional
$17 million added has also been spent.
Under the program, the federal government
provides up to half the money for local nonprofits or governments
to buy conservation easements. In return, farmers agree
to keep farming the land and not sell to developers, usually
Nine out of 10 farmers trying to get into
such programs are rejected because there's not enough money
to go around, according to a July report from a coalition
of environmental groups.
Dave Mabrey, who grows corn and soybeans
along a rapidly developing corridor between Wilmington and
Dover in Delaware, has offered to put two of his farms into
the program, but the state is out of farmland protection
"Once something's developed, that's it,"
he said. "It never goes back into agriculture."
Mabrey said he felt a little awkward asking
taxpayers to pay him to keep farming. But he said taxpayers
are actually saving money because they won't have to pay
for the new schools, roads or police protection a new subdivision
City dwellers and suburbanites like the
farmland protection program because it preserves open space.
Farmers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic like the program
because, unlike most farm subsidies, it doesn't favor big
wheat and commodity crop growers in the Plains. Politicians
like it because it keeps voters and farmers happy.
Even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,
sprawl has remained a major issue for some members. Sen.
Susan Collins, R-Maine, last month introduced a bill that
would create a protection program for forest areas.
"I am alarmed by the amount of working
forestland and open space that has given way to strip malls
and culs-de-sac," Collins said.
When it comes to stopping sprawl, "the
closest tool we have to a silver bullet is the voluntary
purchase of development rights," said Scott Faber, a lawyer
with Environmental Defense.
Now Congress is drafting a new farm bill,
the five-year law that establishes how much should be spent
on farm subsidies. A version passed by the Republican-led
House would provide $250 million for farmland preservation
over five years. The Senate Agriculture Committee's version
would provide $1 billion. And a version some environmental-minded
Republicans and Democrats prefer would provide $1.7 billion.
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