Farmland Protection Policies and Programs - FIC

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Farmland Protection Policies and Programs

Learn about federal, state and local approaches to retain agricultural land for agriculture. The information on these pages provides an overview of key farmland protection programs and policies. In addition, you will find links to fact sheets, statutes and sample documents.
Federal
  • Federal
  • State
  • Local
Sections
Jump to Section
1. Agricultural Conservation Easement Program
2. Farmland Protection Policy Act
3. National Resources Inventory
4. Regional Conservation Partnership Program
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Federal Approaches

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) implements the key federal policies and programs that protect the nation’s farm and ranch land and assist private landowners with natural resource concerns.

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), administered by USDA NRCS, is a voluntary conservation program that protects agricultural land from conversion to non-farm uses and conserves and restores wetlands. ACEP has two components: Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) and Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE). ACEP provides technical and financial assistance to landowners to conserve farm and ranch lands, grasslands, and wetlands.

ACEP-ALE

Under the Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) component, USDA NRCS partners with eligible entities to buy agricultural conservation easements on working agricultural lands, keeping land available for agriculture by limiting non-farm development. The program also supports agricultural viability by providing liquid capital for farmers to invest in their operations and strengthens the agricultural sector in communities with participating farms.

ACEP-WRE

Under the Wetlands Reserve Easements (WRE) component, USDA NRCS partners with eligible private landowners and American Indian tribes to restore, enhance, and protect wetlands through the purchase of a wetland reserve easement. Wetland Reserve Easements provide habitat for fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species; improve water quality by filtering sediments and chemicals; reduce flooding; recharge groundwater; protect biological diversity; provide resilience to climate change and provide opportunities for educational, scientific and limited recreational activities.

Farmland Protection Policy Act

The Farmland Protection Policy Act (FPPA) minimizes the extent to which federal activities lead to the conversion of farm and ranch land to non-agricultural uses and stipulates that federal programs be compatible with state, local and private efforts to protect farmland. The law also outlines a public education role for USDA and calls for the establishment of a Farmland Information Center, currently fulfilled by AFT’s Farmland Information Center.

National Resources Inventory

The National Resources Inventory (NRI), conducted by USDA NRCS, is a nationwide survey of natural resource conditions and trends on non-federal land. The NRI provides data about soil erosion, wildlife habitat, wetlands, and conservation practices. It also tracks changes in land cover/use. The NRI is an important source for agricultural land conversion data and is typically released every five years beginning in 1982.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) promotes coordination of NRCS conservation activities with partners to address on-farm, watershed, and regional natural resource concerns. Through RCPP, NRCS co-invests with partners to implement innovative solutions to conservation challenges and provide measurable improvements and outcomes tied to the resource concerns identified in a particular region.

Sections
Jump to Section
1. Agricultural Conservation Easements
2. Agricultural Districts Programs
3. Definitions of Agriculture
4. Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Programs
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State Approaches

The following tools can be used by state 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 that 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, non-farm development and other uses of the land that are incompatible with farming. Some may include mechanisms to protect the future affordability of the land and requirements to develop and implement conservation plans and practices.

Agricultural Districts Programs

Agricultural districts programs allow farmers to form special areas where commercial agriculture is encouraged and protected. Programs are authorized by state legislatures and implemented at the local level. Enrollment in agricultural districts is voluntary. In exchange for enrollment, farmers receive a package of benefits, which varies from state to state. Minimum acreage requirements and initial terms of enrollment also vary. Agricultural district programs should not be confused with zoning districts that delineate areas governed by local land use regulations.

Definitions of Agriculture

Definitions for “agriculture” and “agricultural activities” vary from state to state. For terms such as “farming” and “agriculture” states may use multiple definitions in separate sections of their own legal codes.  For the purpose of a state farmland protection program, these definitions can be used to limit or expand eligibility and to help ensure the program works as intended.

Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Programs

Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) programs compensate property owners for restricting the future use of their land. PACE may be known as Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) in many locations. Landowners voluntarily sell agricultural conservation easements to a government agency or private conservation organization that is responsible for enforcing the easement. Conservation easements restrict further development of the property while allowing landowners to retain other rights of ownership.

Sections
Jump to Section
1. Agricultural Conservation Easements
2. Agricultural Protection Zoning
3. Cluster Zoning (or Conservation Subdivision)
4. Farmland Loss Mitigation Ordinances
5. Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Programs
6. Subdivision Ordinances
7. Transfer of Development Rights
8. Urban Growth Boundaries
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Local Approaches

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. Look at which approaches at the federal and state levels can be implemented in localities.

Agricultural Conservation Easements

A conservation easement is a deed restriction that 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, non-farm development and other uses of the land that are incompatible with farming. Some may include mechanisms to protect the future affordability of the land and requirements to develop and implement conservation plans and practices.

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 (or Conservation Subdivision)

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.

Farmland Loss 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 the land 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.

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