Undeveloped arguments about developing farmland
October 7, 1982
Converting prime farmland into very less-than-prime residential subdivisions and shopping centers has proved to be neither the moral or the economic folly that some of us expected it to be in the 1980s, but only because we don’t seem to need prime farmland for farming any more. My own view, not then fully articulated, is that developing stream bottoms and bluffs in and around cities—each a potential park or nature preserve or scenic corridor—is much the graver sin in planning terms.
I fiddled with the original a bit to enhance its readability, but made no changes that matter.
After a prolonged gestation, the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission has advanced a farmland preservation policy for consideration by the county board. It promises to have a difficult birth. If adopted, the program would ban residential development on rural tracts that are at least 40 percent prime farmland. (Existing house lots would be "grandfathered" in and buffer zones allowed around the county's incorporated areas to provide for their eventual expansion.)
Now, preserving farmland is one of those things (democracy is another) which is seductive in the abstract but which people find inconvenient in the doing. In the 1970s alone, 96 new subdivisions were approved for construction in the county. They covered 2,750 acres in all, and two-thirds of that land was prime farmland. Indeed, local developers feel the same itch driving past a cornfield that a graffiti artist must feel when passing a blank wall with a can of spray paint in his hands
Like most debates, the argument over farmland preservation is more likely to confuse than clarify. Part of the problem is that developers converse in a sort of doublespeak. Commenting on a similar controversy involving urban land, the Springfield Board of Realtors said, "We maintain that planning for the classification and use of land adequately consider the needs of housing, commercial, and industrial growth, and environmental quality."
Just so. These are precisely the aims of the proposed new ordinance. There are few better ways to secure the needs of commerce, for example, than to protect the resource base of the county's major industry. Although few people regard farming as an industry in the same sense as steel-making or hair- styling, the fact remains that by preserving prime farmland we preserve an industrial resource that is not just rich but irreplaceable. And redirecting residential development onto marginal rural land or back toward the cities is a strategy of manifest economic as well as environmental wisdom. Reduce sprawl, and one reduces the burden to governments of extending services, powers energy use, and so on.
Beyond that, the fact remains that tillable land is, along with water and air, one of the irreducible requirements of human life. Some argue, as developer Ken Cole did in a statement to the State Journal-Register, that current crop surpluses is proof that we have too much farmland, not too little. Shortsightedness of this sort is no surprise coming from a class which builds nothing expected to last longer than twenty-two years, but it does not flatter planners. It is true that the U.S. is unlikely to run out of farmland; even deserts can be made to bloom, if only at a high cost. The conversion of our best land to non-farm uses means that we will be reduced to eating off our less-than-best. The result will likely be higher food prices, with the result that tomorrow's food buyer will be subsidizing today's subdivider.
Developers often characterize these quarrels as contests over rights, specifically the right to hold—and exploit—private property. Cole insisted to the SJR that stringent land use regulation amounts to a "king-size step toward socialism." I share Cole's distaste for socialism, and regard it as a hormonal dysfunction suffered mainly by the young. But it is a well-established principle that governments have the authority to restrict the exercise of certain property rights to achieve an agreed-upon public benefit; it is that premise on which zoning laws, building codes, and environmental laws are based. Property owners are entitled to demand that such regulations be neither capricious nor frivolous, of course, but developers seems to feel that any regulation is capricious or frivolous, sort of how a counterfeiter regards the laws against printing phony twenties.
The real issue is less subject to dispute. Prime farmland is a little like oil. We used to believe we had enough of it to last forever. It was cheap, and because it was cheap a lot of it was wasted, and because it was wasted it is running out faster than it needed to. Those economic interests who bought and sold in a cheap-land economy—not just developers but bankers, farmers, and home-buyers—are having to make painful adjustments. They are paying the price for our not having adopted sensible land use policies years ago.
As is also the case with energy, these new policies don't necessarily mean doing without, but doing with more efficiently. According to the SSCRPC, there are enough lots in Sangamon County to house people who want a new house. Add to that land the enormous potential on now-vacant land for new housing inside Springfield and one can comfortably accommodate several decades of growth without putting another acre of beans under concrete.
In a lecture he delivered in London in 1939, Frank Lloyd Wright spoke about land and money during the Depression. "Everything we had to live on . . . was some form of speculative commodity. Of course, having everything in life down on the level of speculative commodity, you would naturally enough have a nation of gamblers." (To be fair to Wright, he made this statement in support of his plan to get people out of what he called the "hard pavements and overgrown factory industry" of the cities into the countryside. Wright was right about land, even if he was wrong about people.)
Needless to say, it isn't just developers who have been gambling with land. Harold Dodd of the Illinois Farmers Union told the SJR that he is all for preservation—farmers are as steadfast for preservation as Baptists are against drink, and just about as hypocritical—but he expressed reservations about any plan which "would keep me from selling off a few little acres around the farm to keep enough money to stay in business."
A reasonable enough hope, one might think, except that a few little acres here and there in the '70s added up to an estimated 10,000 acres lost from Illinois farms alone each year.
The relationship of farmers to developers has long been an awkward one. On one hand, speculation in land by developers on the edges of cities threatened to drive many farmers off the land until the tax laws were changed so that farmland was assessed more according to its productive value as farmland rather than its value on the open market. But like Dodd, many farmers have come to depend on such sales in planning their estates.
The new Sangamon County assessment laws recognized that parcels of land used for different things have different values. Recategorize the use, and you change the value. Developers bemoan future profits lost as a result of preservation regulations. But they can console themselves with the fact that the price mechanism works in both directions. A restrictive land use plan would enhance the value of that land which remained developable. And, as the oil companies have proved, the potential for profit when a desired commodity is in short supply is quite respectable.
Besides, it seems in bad taste for developers to castigate the government for cheating them of profits without also acknowledging the government's role in padding their pockets over the years. Developers often characterize the postwar subdivision as a natural expression of demand by home buyers, speaking freely through the mechanism of the marketplace. This (to borrow a phrase of Mencken's) is a geyser of pish-posh. The housing market is about as free as the international oil market. Urban sprawl is a weed watered by a rain of subsidy from Washington. Convenient long-termed fixed mortgages for new owner-occupied single family houses. Government-guaranteed mortgages under the GI Bill. Tax deductions for home mortgage interest payments. Federal aid for highway and sewer construction.
Government made urban sprawl, in short, with its appalling cost in land, energy, and aesthetics; it now has a chance to unmake it. To those who would assert short-term private profit over such expressions of long-term public good, one could do worse than to offer in reply these lines from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: "Houses are individual, and can be owned, like nests, and fought for. But what of the land? It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed but not bought. It may be used, but not owned . . . . We are tenants, not possessors." ●
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