Approaches for Preserving Agricultural Land

Since the realization was made that the conversion of agricultural lands to urban uses in the post World War II era was having an impact on the ability of farmers to operate, and threatening future food security in the Western world, a range of approaches have been implemented. Some were designed specifically for, or dominated by, agricultural interests. Others are rooted more broadly in the desire to preserve or maintain natural resources and ecosystems within agricultural contexts. This section briefly outlines some of the primary approaches, which vary greatly throughout the Western world, based on three basic types: incentive programs, land use controls, and integrated programs.

Incentive Programs

Focused in agricultural areas of the industrialized world, and most commonly in the United States, incentive programs are designed to deter landowners from converting their land to nonagricultural uses. Incentive programs focusing on agriculture are of three general types. The most common type focuses on tax incentives, or differential tax assessments, which can include restrictive agreements, deferred taxation, and preferential assessment. Generally speaking, lands are taxed based on agricultural value rather than the general market value, thus reducing tax levels paid by farmers.

The second type of incentive program is agricultural districting. With this strategy, landowners voluntarily have their lands included in an agricultural district for a fixed, but renewable, period of time during which the landowners must maintain the land. This strategy is less costly than tax incentives and tends to be more popular where urban pressures, and therefore property market values, are lower. However, it is not a permanent solution; landowners are not required to participate, particularly given that financial incentives to participate do not always result in prevention of agricultural land conversion where pressures, and therefore market values, are greatest.

The third type of incentive refers to purchase of development rights (PDR) and transfer of development rights (TDR). PDR refers to the voluntary sale of the development rights of one’s land, a more permanent strategy for protecting land. However, if the purchaser is a level of government, it can be quite costly. TDRs are a less costly version and include transferring the development rights within an agricultural preservation district to a nonagricultural area. Once purchased or transferred, lands are designated a preservation district for the present and future owners of said land.

Land-Use Controls

Land use controls are primarily a post World War II response to the loss of agricultural lands to other uses. The UK system of state planning, for example, was built on the recognized need to preserve high quality agricultural lands. The land use control approach for preserving agricultural lands is obtained through control mechanisms, including land use zoning, land banking, and right to farm legislation. Land use zoning for agricultural land preservation is more widely adopted in North America, focused on agricultural land uses, and located in areas adjacent to larger urban centers where development pressures are the greatest. The most widely referred to examples include the States of Oregon, Hawaii, and Wisconsin in the United States and the Provinces of British Columbia, Quebec, and Newfoundland in Canada. Two types of zoning can be implemented: exclusive, whereby only agricultural activities are allowed within an agricultural zone, and, nonexclusive, which allows for limited nonagricultural development to take place. In theory, land use zoning controls are the most affordable because the appropriate level of government simply restricts particular lands from being developed to nonagricultural uses. This is similar to restricting residential development to areas zoned for that development in an urban center. However, in practice, such mechanisms can be difficult to maintain over time.

Land banks, by comparison, are more costly as they involve a particular level of government purchasing the land from farmers, who then retain the development rights. This mechanism can be either voluntary or compulsory. While an expensive action, land banking does encourage orderly growth and provides the opportunity to acquire agricultural lands when their values are lower. The first and most successful example is perhaps Saskatchewan, Canada.

Unlike the initiatives discussed thus far, land trusts are not focused solely on agricultural lands, but can include open spaces and areas of cultural or ecological value. A land trust is a private, nonprofit, citizen based organization that comes together to protect land through purchase or other legal mechanisms. Operating at a local or regional scale, land is purchased or donated. In North America, such initiatives are referred to as easements. In New Zealand, these types of arrangements are referred to as conservation covenants. These are defined as the voluntary surrender of property rights through legally binding agreements. In addition to the National Trust, in the UK, a similar initiative relates to set aside programs and both voluntary and compulsory set aside programs have been implemented.

In the United States, the value of the land donated can be claimed as a tax deduction. The land trusts, or conservation easements, can be for a range of purposes, including the preservation of agricultural, open space, ecological, recreational, historic, or scenic resources. The approach is implemented through the creation of conservation easements within particular land holdings, also referred to as donated development rights, where a less than fee simple interest in the land is voluntarily donated or sold by a landowner to a unit of government or recognized nonprofit conservation organization for the purpose of protecting significant open space, recreation, ecological, agricultural, or historic resources. The easement includes limits to activities on designated portions of a land holding and these limits are legally added to the land title.

Unlike the approaches discussed thus far, right tofarm legislation does not protect the land from conversion, but rather protects farmers from complaints about their agricultural activities, often referred to as nuisance complaints. The implementation of such legislation is most pronounced near urban areas and in rural residential enclaves, where residents raise concerns about noise, smell, and dust resulting from farm activities. In fact, right to farm legislation can assist farmers who wish to expand their operations, including converting natural areas (e.g., forest clearing and draining wetlands) for agricultural purposes. Right to farm legislation has been enacted in various jurisdictions, primarily in areas adjacent to urban development; however, such legislation may offer farmers a false sense of security from litigation.

Integrated Programs

A range of integrated programs exist, including land stewardship, multifunctionality, and smart growth initiatives. Whereas land trusts and easements result in a restriction on development either in perpetuity or for a term limit, land stewardship is a voluntary program focused on how resources are managed. Stewardship programs are also not limited to agricultural land, but can include forested lands and areas of natural significance, such as wetlands. The more general nature of such ini tiatives is indicated in their efforts to create, foster, and enable landowners and resource users to responsibly manage and protect land and natural resources. Several examples can be cited, including: Canada’s landowner contact programs, the UK’s countryside stewardship scheme, and Australia’s land care program.

One of the more recent approaches to protecting natural resources, and one that has been the center of recent World Trade Organization (WTO) debates, is multifunctionality – a concept first officially presented as part of Agenda 21 at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. It centers on the complementarities between landscape preservation and food security. Multifunctionality in Europe and the UK marks a shift from planning designed to protect elite landscapes (e.g., national parks and greenbelts) toward encouraging the development of multifunctional agricultural enterprises. While originating in the UK and European countries, multifunctionality is beginning to be implemented in other jurisdictions, such as Australia and the United States. As the term connotes, multifunctionality seeks to acknowledge that a particular resource base serves more than one purpose. In agricultural systems, for example, the economic, social, and ecological values of agriculture are recognized. As a program of implementation, multifunctionality seeks to offer farmers remuneration for ensuring the protection of the biophysical aspects of their farms. Like other strategies, the actual implementation of multifunctionality varies. The implementation of the environmental dimension of multifunctionality is similar to the notion of land stewardship.

In contrast to easements and multifunctionality, smart growth, or more generally growth management, is the focus of areas adjacent to urban centers. From an American perspective, there are three main types of urban sprawl: expanding urban/suburban areas that push into the countryside at low to medium densities; linear commercial sprawl along major arterial roads leading to and from cities and suburbs; and scattered residential sprawl, or country residential development, outside es tablished settlements at low densities.

One of the first attempts to control urban sprawl in the United States took place in Hawaii in 1961, when land was divided into four categories: urban, rural, agricultural, and conservation. However, given the pressures of growth in the tourism sector and the restructuring of the agricultural sector, the result was still land lost to urban sprawl. One of the arguments for instituting smart growth planning is not just to preserve agricultural land and natural resources, but to reduce the costs of servicing (water, sewer, and transportation) that is necessitated with low density urban development.