Strong Policies Needed to Save Our Farms
Sunday, Dec. 3, 2000
By Thomas Hylton
Buying development rights to farms is a costly way to protect agriculture, as amply demonstrated by the The Intelligencer's recent series on Bucks County's farmland preservation program.
By next year, Pennsylvania will have preserved more acres of farmland through purchase of development rights than any other state, surpassing the current leader, Maryland. Thus far, state and county governments have spent more than $325 million over the last 10 years to buy development rights to about 165,000 acres. At first blush, it sounds impressive, but it amounts to just 2 percent of Pennsylvania's farmland.
Modest as the results might seem, farmland preservation is overwhelmingly popular — and the only sure way to save farms in Bucks County until we have a change of heart in our culture and laws.
Any discussion of land use policy in southeastern Pennsylvania should recognize we contain a very large population squeezed onto a modest area of rich, rolling farmland. The metropolitan areas I define as southeastern Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley, York, Harrisburg, Lebanon, Lancaster, and Reading -- contain just 15 percent of Pennsylvania's land area, but house nearly half the state's population.
If southeastern Pennsylvania was a country, it would be one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Southeastern Pennsylvania has a population density greater than Japan and Germany, and nearly as great as England and the Netherlands. But for 50 years, we've been acting as if we had all the land in the world. With each passing decade, we squander more and more land for each house, store, and office we build. Between 1960 and 1990, the Philadelphia metropolitan area grew by 16 percent in population but consumed 95 percent more land to do it.
Although paying farmers not to develop their land might seem like a huge subsidy to agriculture, America pays even greater subsidies to encourage sprawling development. For example, the federal tax deduction on home mortgages, with no limit on the price of a home, encourages Americans to purchase huge homes on big lots. That subsidy cost the nation $60 billion in 1995 alone. Other subsidies to sprawl include everything from highway building to mail delivery and transmitting electricity.
There is a way to accommodate population growth without sacrificing farms and forests. The Europeans have been doing it for decades: Encourage people to live in cities, villages, and towns. Europeans have protected their towns and countryside by subsidizing both agriculture and cities. In addition, high sales taxes on cars and gas taxes discourage excessive auto travel, and the revenues raised subsidize a comprehensive public transportation system.
As southeastern Pennsylvania residents see ever more landscapes degraded by strip malls and subdivisions, they may be willing to support stronger policies to preserve the dwindling farmland and open space we have left:
- Require counties to establish growth areas that local municipalities must follow in their zoning laws. In most states, planning and zoning are done on a countywide basis. Under Pennsylvania law, each of Bucks County's 53 municipalities must zone for every conceivable land use. Although recently adopted legislation sponsored by Rep. David Steil of Bucks County promotes voluntary cooperation among townships and boroughs, the process is unwieldy at best. If counties could establish growth areas with the force of law, many of Bucks County's remaining agricultural areas could be protected.
- Require town-like development. For most of Pennsylvania's history, development was focused in cities and towns that placed houses, stores, and workplaces in close proximity so people could walk. As towns developed, they grew out from the center in contiguous pieces. Official maps were used from the days of William Penn to the mid 1900s by Pennsylvania towns to direct where development would go by determining where streets would be built.
Using a combination of growth boundaries and the expansion of traditional towns, Bucks County can encourage development that accommodates population growth without consuming huge areas of land.
- Encourage brownfield development. There are hundreds of vacant or underused industrial and commercial tracts in our cities and towns that should be developed first before any more farmland is paved over.
The state has spent $28 million in the last five years to help clean up and re-use about 800 brownfield sites in Pennsylvania. There are thousands more that could be redeveloped. A modest program of state grants to counties to inventory brownfields, begun 18 months ago, should be accelerated and expanded.
- Tax farmland conversion. For many years, Maryland has assessed a real estate transfer tax of 4 to 5 percent when farmland is sold to be developed. Most of the revenue from this tax goes to farmland preservation. Pennsylvania should consider a similar tax on all "greenfields" development, with all the revenue targeted for brownfields remediation and development.
Anything less will doom Bucks County to the same fate as Delaware County. Once a rapidly growing rural area, Delaware County has become fully suburbanized and now has fewer people than it did thirty years ago.
And when Bucks is fully suburbanized, the few farms it has preserved will seem worth it, whatever the cost.