State program could help save farmland
Read more stories focusing on Rock County's rich soil and how best to preserve that natural resource.
The PACE/PDR Ad Hoc Committee meets about once a month, and its meetings are open to the public.
The next meeting is at 3:30 p.m. Monday, March 1, in the second-floor conference room in the Rock County Courthouse. 51 S. Main St.
Committee members include:
Al Sweeney, ad hoc committee chair, Edgerton
John Lader, Rock County Towns Association
Neil Deupree, member at large, Janesville
Ron Combs, a member of the county's land conservation committee
Rich Bostwick, a member of the county's land conservation committee
Neil Walter, town of Beloit
Scott Farrington, town of Fulton
Bill Barlass, town of Harmony
Dave Rebout, town of Janesville;
Raymond Henschler, town of La Prairie
Charley Rusch Jr., town of Milton
Mark Gunn, town of Rock
Don Jones, town of Turtle
Brad Cantrell, city of Janesville
Julie Christenson, city of Beloit
Ramona Flanigan, city of Edgerton
Todd Schmidt, city of Milton
Julie Backenkeller, Rock County Environmental Network
Archie Morton Jr., Farm Bureau
Fred Hookham, Rock Green Realtors Association
Doug Marklein, South Central Wisconsin Builders Association
Saving Rock County's natural resource
The soil in parts of Rock County is some of the best in the world. Combine that with the climate, and experts say it doesn’t get much better. Anywhere.
But more and more of our irreplaceable soil is being lost as municipalities expand their boundaries and towns allow development.
These articles focus on the rich soil and how best to preserve this natural resource.
In Day 1, we look at how the soil got here and agriculture’s importance to the state and the county. Should we worry when yet another subdivision or strip mall is carved from the rich loam? Can—and should—agriculture be determined as the best use for some land?
Day 2 looks at four farms and the pressures caused by their physical relationships to the city of Janesville. The circumstances range from a farmer who was forced to abandon his farm for another deeper in the county to a farm secure in La Prairie Township.
Day 3 focuses on countywide and statewide efforts to preserve farmland and some of the tools available. Developers, builders and the city also get their say.
Now is the perfect time to develop a farmland preservation program in Rock County, advocates say.
The Rock County Board recently set aside $700,000 for a conservation program.
A Rock County PACE/PDR Ad Hoc Committee has been meeting since August to develop criteria.
PACE stands for purchase of agricultural conservation easements. It's a way for a landowner to capture the value of the land without selling it.
In exchange, the land is kept in agriculture forever.
The program is voluntary.
The economic downturn has eased development pressure, creating a window during which the committee can carefully fashion a program, members say.
"Municipalities aren't looking to expand their borders quite as much as they were five years or three years ago," said John Lader, committee member. "So it gives them more time to define exactly where their growth can and will be and for everybody to work together to do that."
The state's secretary of agriculture has made preservation a priority, and the state recently passed a Working Lands Initiative, making $12 million available in matching grants. The state will also likely qualify for additional federal preservation money now that it has its own preservation program.
The 21 members of Rock County's committee represent cities, towns, real estate agents, landowners, developers, builders and environmentalists. Rock County is one of the few Wisconsin counties that has town rather than countywide zoning. Differences are likely to create some conflict.
"The idea is to include as many groups as we can that are impacted by it so that we can hopefully reach a consensus of different entities and groups of people," said Lader, also a member of the La Prairie Town Board and president of the Rock County Towns Association.
Money will be limited, so the committee is developing criteria for accepting applicants.
Farmland advocates hope a PACE program will result in better planning between governments and landowners and perhaps even boundary agreements between cities and towns.
Now, cities and villages have "all the leverage" when planning for development, Lader said.
Cities have extraterritorial jurisdiction within three miles from their boundaries, and any annexation adds more acres to that jurisdiction, he said. About half of Rock County is within some city's jurisdiction, he estimated.
From a city's view, agricultural conservation easements might be created on land where the municipality is planning a future road, for instance.
PACE programs encourage cities to work collaboratively and negotiate in better faith, Lader said.
The town of Dunn in Dane County, for example, reached a boundary agreement with the village of McFarland after town residents approved a referendum to fund purchase development rights agreements.
In 1996, Vicki Elkin worked with the town to pass the referendum.
The easements encouraged village officials to negotiate with the town and reach some consensus of where growth and development might occur, said Elkin, now a campaign and policy associate for the American Farmland Trust.
"In that case, it provided that impetus with some leverage," she said.
Elkin called it "an amazing success story." Residents agreed to a tax that generated $160,000 the first year. Since then, the town has protected 23 farms totaling 2,500 acres.
"Part of what they did was create a system for rating and ranking applications of farmers for the program and looked strategically at what farms needed to be protected," she said.
Towns here will hopefully buy into a PACE program, Lader said. Some have not used their land to the best advantage, he said.
Rather than clustering housing, some towns have allowed "popcorn" development, with houses built here and there, resulting in fragmented farmland, said Randy Thompson, dairy and livestock agent with the Rock County UW-Extension.
Cities tend to do a better job of developing more tightly because delivering services is cheaper.
"What we're trying to do is get development to occur where it should occur," Lader said. "This is a win-win situation for builders and cities."
The committee will also consider green space—open space to buffer communities—and area needed to recharge the aquifer and protect forested land, Lader said.
"Not all land should be preserved, and not all land can be preserved. There needs to be some development and some growth," Lader said. "But it needs to be limited, and it needs to be planned, and the cities also need to do a better job with brown fields and infilling of properties."
Cities can emphasize other directions in development, such as infill and in brownfield areas, and encourage higher density.
It is too late for Janesville and Milton to create a buffer between them after the city annexed the acres where Kennedy Homes planned to build 1,000 homes. That development fell victim to the housing slump, but the area surely will be developed when the economy recovers.
"This is all about planning," agreed Al Sweeney, chairman of the PACE committee. "When the realtors and the builders know where development will be—both industrial and residential—then they have something to work with. To have a fight around every corner for every lot takes up too much of their time."
Even with a comprehensive plan, "there's always a battle on the outskirts," Sweeney said. "Right now, there's a gray area around the municipalities. Hopefully, we can shrink that gray area with these criteria."
A PACE program will be a plus for landowners, too, advocates say.
"Now you will know definitely what will happen on the land next to yours," Lader said.
Said Sweeney: "One of the advantages of having an easement program is that younger farmers are able to comfortably build their facilities, infrastructure and be able to count on that land as being farmland versus having it developed out from underneath them."
"(People) are going to have to recognize that agriculture has a minimum critical mass," said Allan Arndt, a farmer in La Prairie Township.
"If you move into an area and begin to develop it, (farmers) on the outskirts of that area will quit, either through attrition—‘My farm is going to be devoured, and I am not going to make improvements; I'm not going to spend the money because it's not likely I'll be here forever'—or they'll flat out give up and say there's too much traffic and too much headache and this isn't the place I want to live."
Bob Wagner of the American Farmland Trust said it's important to create a fringe, a sort of boundary past which development will not go.
That's because land is lost in a sort of domino affect, Wagner said.
"When one goes, the surrounding landowners find it harder to farm," he said.
Rod Nilsestuen, state secretary of agriculture, said there are always "anchor properties."
"If they go in one direction, then all the land around is likely to go. A buffer (is) crucial," he said.
Once that land starts eroding, so do the businesses that support it: the veterinarians, the cheese plants, the grain elevators.
In Vermont, for instance, as dairy farmers went out of business, the owners of milk trucks decided it wasn't worth driving to the few that remained, Wagner said.
Once an easement is created, it is set in stone, and that's something that zoning is not able to guarantee, Lader said.
Many farmers bristle at development maps that label agricultural land as "vacant" or "undeveloped." Some farmers were incensed when the city of Janesville recently labeled rich agriculture land as "urban reserve" in its 20-year comprehensive plan, even though the towns have zoned that land agriculture and even though development won't happen in the next two decades.
"It's not like we're inventing the wheel here," Thompson said.
"One would argue it should have been done 20 years ago, and they're probably right," he added.
States such as Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have had similar programs for more than 30 years.
"So, we're a little behind here in the Midwest," Thompson said.
"It's never too late to start looking to address this whole issue of balancing growth and protecting our greatest natural resource, which is our ag land."