Protect Farm and Ranch Land - FIC

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Protect Farm and Ranch Land

The following tools can be used by local governments to reduce the conversion of farmland to development or permanently protect agricultural land in the region.


Agricultural Conservation Easements

A conservation easement is a deed restriction landowners voluntarily place on their property to protect resources such as productive agricultural land, ground and surface water, wildlife habitat, historic sites or scenic views. They are used by landowners (“grantors”) to authorize a qualified conservation organization or public agency (“grantee”) to monitor and enforce the restrictions set forth in the agreement. Conservation easements are flexible documents tailored to each property and the needs of individual landowners. The landowner usually works with the prospective grantee to decide which activities should be limited to protect specific resources. Agricultural conservation easements (ACEs) are drafted to keep land available for agriculture. In general, ACEs limit subdivision, nonfarm development and other uses of the land that are incompatible with farming.

Agricultural Protection Zoning

Agricultural protection zoning (APZ) is a form of zoning that designates areas where farming is the primary land use and discourages other land uses in those areas. APZ ordinances typically restrict the density of non-farm residential development and may also contain limits on subdivision and site design criteria including buffers and setback requirements. They may permit complementary, on-farm commercial activities that enhance farm profitability. APZ stabilizes the agricultural land base by keeping large tracts of land relatively free of non-farm development, which can reduce the likelihood of conflicts between farmers and their non-farming neighbors. Also by limiting development potential, APZ can help keep land affordable to farmers and ranchers. Finally, APZ can help promote orderly growth by redirecting development to areas with adequate infrastructure to support it.


Cluster Zoning

Cluster zoning allows or requires houses to be grouped together at densities that exceed the usual requirements. Clustering houses on a small portion of a larger parcel can protect open space. This technique is also called cluster or conservation development. In the context of farmland protection, cluster zoning can allow or require new houses to be sited in wooded areas or on less productive soils while keeping more productive land available for agriculture. However, some question the effectiveness of cluster zoning as a farmland protection tool because the use of remaining open space may be limited. Some communities use this form of zoning between urban and rural areas rather than relying on cluster zoning to keep land available for agriculture.


Mitigation Ordinances

A handful of communities have used mitigation policies to require developers to offset the impacts of developing farmland. These ordinances require developers to purchase easements to permanently protect an equivalent or greater amount of farmland than they develop. 


Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Programs

Purchase of agricultural conservation easement (PACE) programs pay property owners to keep productive land available for agriculture. PACE is known as purchase of development rights (PDR) in many locations. Landowners voluntarily sell agricultural conservation easements to public entities to prevent it from being converted to other uses. After selling an easement, the landowner retains other rights of ownership, including the right to farm the land, prevent trespass, sell bequeath or otherwise transfer the land.


Subdivision Ordinances

Subdivision ordinances govern the division of larger parcels of land and give local officials the authority to review and make decisions about proposed subdivisions. In the context of farmland protection, subdivision ordinances can require review of potential impacts on agricultural resources; establish design standards, including setbacks and buffers and clustering of new houses; and authorize local officials to suggest alternatives or mitigation measures or to deny projects based on the impact to agriculture.

Transfer of Development Rights

Transfer of development rights (TDR) programs enable the transfer of development potential from one parcel of land to another. TDR programs are typically established by local zoning ordinances. In the context of farmland protection, TDR is often used to shift development from agricultural land to designated growth zones located closer to municipal services. TDR is also known as transfer of development credits (TDC) and transferable development units (TDU).


Urban Growth Boundaries

Urban growth boundaries (UGBs) define areas intended to accommodate anticipated growth for a given planning horizon. UGBs are often used to guide decisions about infrastructure development including the construction of roads and extension of water and sewer services. In the context of farmland protection, they separate areas appropriate for future growth from areas intended for agricultural use.

More Resources

Growing Food Connections project integrates research, education, and extension to understand, evaluate, and share lessons learned about food system planning and local policy development. Its overarching goal is to enhance community food security while ensuring sustainable and economically viable agriculture and food production. 



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