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Great Lakes Article:

Popular anti-sprawl plan may expand
Farmers may get $1 billion to keep land from development

By Carl Weiser /
Article courtesy Gannett News Service

December 9 ,2001

   WASHINGTON -- 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 Trust.
   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 more acres.
   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 forever.
   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 money.
   "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 would require.
   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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