Photo by John C. Lorson.

Land use planning an underused tool for farmland preservation

By Elizabeth Schuster, Sustainable Economies Consulting LLC

While it is widely acknowledged that land use planning has implications for farmland, county-level land use planning remains an underutilized tool for farmland preservation. The award-winning Land Use Actions project in Wayne County identified several ways to influence land use planning that still use voluntary approaches.

Across Ohio, rural and suburban counties are rapidly losing farmland and open space, which can have a direct impact on quality of life and food security. Typically, the land use projects that move forward the fastest are those with the highest ratio of benefits to costs. The types of benefits that are favored are often new jobs created, total investment in manufacturing or retail, or the number of new housing units. The result is more land use by industrial, urban, and housing and a net loss of farmland.

More community input is needed to ensure that the full benefits that farmland provides are considered in the land use planning process. Beautiful scenery, cultural and heritage, and tourism are among the numerous benefits (often referred to as ecosystem services) provided by preservation of our rural landscape.

Ohio’s agricultural base is also a significant economic driver. A 2020 study by Regionomics, commissioned by Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation found that 90,000 workers will be needed in direct farming occupations over the next 10 years. When agribusiness jobs are included across the supply chain, that number increases to 470,000 workers needed.

Given that context, in December 2019, a group of partners in Wayne County formed an ad hoc steering committee. The committee’s objective was to develop shared solutions to the county’s biggest land use challenges, with an emphasis on farmland preservation.

Wayne County serves as a representative case study in Ohio as it is the third largest agricultural producer in the state with a good mix of land use types. Wayne County was also selected because the county had just completed an update to their County Comprehensive Plan, and the opportunity was identified to build on that momentum and keep the discussion alive.

The steering committee partnership included Steve Lyon, Shoshanah Inwood, Melinda Hill, and Brian Gwin from Ohio State University, Lindsay Tournoux of Wayne County Farm Bureau, Pete Wearstler of Wayne County Planning, and Elizabeth Schuster of Sustainable Economies Consulting LLC. The committee received partial funding for the project from a grant issued by Ohio State University’s Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation.

The initial project was to be an in-person workshop call Land Use Actions for the Future of Our County, but given the proposed date of March 13, 2020, it was canceled due to pandemic restrictions. The event was converted to a four-part virtual brown bag seminar series took place September through December 2020, where the goal was to inspire collaboration around balanced land use, engage new stakeholders, and spur new dialogue and partnerships

The steering committee selected a diverse group of 16 speakers to represent the five major land-use types — farmland, open space, industrial development, urban development, and housing. The seminar series helped stimulate conversations with partners who had never worked together before.

The seminar series was considered a success with about 50 to 80 participants registering for each session. Overall, the feedback was positive and suggested there is interest in continuing these discussions through a variety of formats in the future previously.

Another indicator of success is that the Land Use Actions Seminar Series project was the recipient of a national award, a County Activities of Excellence Award from the American Farm Bureau Federation.

This pilot project in Wayne County showed that there are many ways that community partners can make a difference in land use planning. Based upon the comments received throughout the Land Use Actions seminar series and a follow up survey, the following are the top 5 lessons learned from the project.

  1. People want to be more engaged in land use planning; they just are not sure where to start. In general, the community has an interest in being more engaged in land use planning but are not certain when to best engage in the process, or who to contact. The diversity of speakers included in the seminar series highlighted a crucial ingredient for success. Involving speakers that included municipal planners, conservation groups, agricultural organizations, academic researchers, and economic development managers gave participants an opportunity to meet new people, create new connections, and identify new ways to engage in the land use planning process.
  2. The process revealed certain types of misinformation around land use planning trends. One example is around jurisdictions, with participants in the seminar series often being unclear whether a project was a township, municipal, or county-level decision. Another example is around what causes loss of farmland. An American Farmland Trust analysis found that of the 3,369 acres of farmland lost in Wayne County from 2001-2016, 62% was lost to low density housing. While participants seemed aware that housing is a threat to agriculture, the discussions during the seminar series suggest that there was a lack of knowledge for many that housing is the single biggest threat.
  3. Farmers need more support in accessing farmland preservation programs. The most common question received during the seminar series was where landowners would go to find information on farmland preservation. In Wayne County, the agricultural security areas (ASA) program is housed within county planning, while two different non-profits manage other farmland preservation programs. A wider range of partner organizations can be more proactive in their support for farmland preservation and in helping landowners find the information they need to access these programs.
  4. There is insufficient communication with the public around specific land use projects that are proposed. There can be misinformation (or a complete lack of information) on the positive or negative impacts of proposed land use projects. A wider diversity of community partners can all play a role in clearly communicating the facts around the benefits of land use projects that demonstrate smart growth principles.
  5. Opportunities exist to influence new housing developments at the local level. With new housing developments, there is some local decision-making and opportunity for comment at public meetings. Supporting high density housing close to existing infrastructure and utilities can go a long way towards protecting the development of farmland and open space. Also, there is evidence from case studies across the state that there are some opportunities for designing and implementing new voluntary approaches to incentivize higher density housing that preserves farmland and open space.

In the end, land use planning is a complex process and there are no easy solutions. More work needs to be done to truly have a roadmap forward for more farmland preservation.

It is worth the effort, as the whole county benefits from viewing balanced land use as a community benefit. With 75% of Wayne County’s total land base still in agriculture, now is the time to get more involved in land use planning to maintain farmland into the future. The same applies to other agricultural counties in Ohio.

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