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3 Suggestions for Land Use Policy


by Mike Yoder
president of Wood-Land-Lakes RC&D Land Trust

Published: Friday, September 15, 2023

The following is from Mike Yoder, president of Wood-Land-Lakes RC&D Land Trust.

Once again, the state is interested in farmland.

The Indiana Legislature is once again studying the loss of farmland. I recently asked two state legislators if there has been a political philosophical change since the last time Indiana investigated this issue. The answer was no, but maybe this time we can find a creative solution. I appreciate their positive attitude.

Elkhart County has been engaged with this issue since the mid-1990s. Three local initiatives intended to protect farmland and improve land use planning originated in our county: 1) amending the county zoning ordinance, 2) innovative use of a Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) district and 3) a new land trust.

While each initiative successfully launched and showed promise of success, momentum toward achieving the goal of preserving farmland stalled because neither the local farm community nor local government embraced these options. The agriculture zoning options still exist, but farmers seldom use the option. The agriculture TIF district, which offered an incentive to protect farmland via a property tax reimbursement, expired after 25 years with no interest in renewing. The experience seems to indicate that property tax incentives and protective zoning are not effective in reducing the conversion of farmland to something else.

The Wood-Land-Lakes RC&D (WLL), a regional non-profit, accepted the role of establishing a land trust. Now in its 28th year, WLL is working with a record number of landowners interested in establishing and donating a conservation easement on their land and WLL has expanded its regional focus to work with landowners across the entire state of Indiana. Today more than 11,300 acres of farmland, woodland and wetlands are permanently protected from development through the collaborative effort of WLL and farmland owners.

The effort to protect farms and open space in any community is challenging because we have two competing loves. Our first love is for farms and open space and yet our public policies and individual actions reveal our focus on a second love, economic development. That economic development often occurs through commercial and residential expansion on farmland. The inability to achieve success with our first love is the result of both a farm community that resists efforts to restrict potential non-farming use of their land and a non-farm business community that desires to have unlimited freedom to convert farmland to another use.

My work as a county commissioner taught me the importance of working with a plurality of opinions, goals and dreams of people in our community. I learned that creating policies or programs that are widely accepted as perfect is a rare accomplishment. However, I also noticed that imperfect solutions often work better than expected. When individuals in our community are encouraged and provided with the opportunity to work on personal goals, they often engage in voluntary actions which align with the community's goals. And if leaders are listening and engaged in their communities, they can facilitate collaborative actions of individuals which also move toward meeting the community's goals.

It's a daunting task for legislators to find solutions acceptable to farmers, economic development supporters and policymakers. If we have learned anything in the last 30 years, we know proposing farmland preservation policies based on anything other than a voluntary decision by a landowner is a non-starter in Indiana. Success relies upon farm families that are committed to the business of farming, generation after generation, no matter what other opportunities present themselves. And today, success also depends upon farmland owners who are willing to donate a part of their retirement resources toward protecting farmland with permanent conservation easements.

What can legislators and community leaders do next?

It's time to again acknowledge the unique qualities farm businesses bring to our communities, including economic diversity, and at the same time understand some farmland will be converted to new uses. From that starting point, here are three action suggestions for both state and local leaders.

• First, never lose focus on keeping the business environment as friendly as possible for farm businesses.

• Second, downtown revitalizations and the trend toward apartment living versus low density rural housing needs to be encouraged.

• Third, develop methods to connect economic development growth to community environmental and green space goals. Can we use dollars from manufacturing businesses, and other industries, to purchase development rights from farmers that will permanently establish woodlands or incorporate farming practices that have measurable and true environmental impact?

WLL believes new creative ideas are only a discussion away and we are ready to facilitate new community collaborations between commercial development interests and farmers interested in preserving farmland for future generations.

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