‘Agriculture reserves’ nixed in land-use plan

November 8, 2009
by: Wes Johnson
A proposed land-use plan that riled Greene County property owners more than two years ago has now been approved with changes that, as one lawmaker put it, “accepts the fact that agricultural land is going to be gobbled up.”
Gone are “agricultural reserve” areas intended to keep fertile farmland from being swallowed up by subdivisions.
Gone are swaths around Springfield designated as “urban reserves” which would deter land from being carved into three- and five-acre housing tracts.
In their place, a “guide” for county planners to use when deciding future zoning changes as the county grows.
“I think it’s a good, sound document,” said Greene County Commissioner Roseann Bentley. “We sure heard from the people. When you’re a public servant, sometimes you have to compromise what you wished to accomplish. I personally wish we could have had more consideration for our agricultural land.”
State Rep. Jim Viebrock, who is running for Greene County presiding commissioner in 2010, said county officials should “embrace” development “and get government out of the way.”
“As Springfield grows, you have to accept the fact that some of this agricultural land is going to be gobbled up,” said Viebrock, R-Republic. “It has to be a foregone conclusion that that is going to happen.”
A key part of the plan is a color-coded land-use map that outlines agricultural areas and rural development areas where future housing is likely to follow major road corridors in the county.
Although county officials consider the map only a guideline for future decision-making, many with rural property interests will be watching to see how it will be used.
One of those is Lincoln Hough, who represented the Farm Bureau and Greene County Cattlemen’s Association on a land-use task force that studied the plan for some 18 months.
“If that land-use map is used to curb future development in unincorporated areas, we’re against it,” Hough said. “If not, if it’s used just as a guide for planning and zoning to get an idea of what land uses are doing in the area, it’s OK.”
Case-by-case basis
Greene County commissioners affirmed their support for a retooled land-use plan last week, after numerous public hearings and the lengthy task force review.
The document updates a plan that’s 28 years old.
Presiding Commissioner Dave Coonrod said the plan takes into account where residential growth is likely to occur.
Coonrod and Commissioner Harold Bengsch emphasize the plan will be used as a guide that the planning and zoning board and the commissioners will consider when they review requests for zoning changes.
“We do have respect for property owner rights, and the ability of a citizen to use their land to maximum benefit, as long as they minimize the impact on their neighbors,” Coonrod said. “We’ll look at each zoning request on a case-by-case basis.”
When the commissioners first moved to update the land-use plan in 2007, they advocated the concept of somehow protecting and preserving farmland.
Once agricultural land is sold and developed into subdivisions or rural home acreage tracts, they noted it rarely, if ever, returns to farm use.
The commissioners also were concerned that continued growth of three- and five-acre home sites — with individual wells and septic systems — could have potentially harmful effects on groundwater.
That kind of widely spaced housing also would make it too costly to install sewer lines that would do away with septic systems.
But the effort to conserve agricultural land backfired.
At several land-use plan public hearings, many rural property owners said they felt the county was trying to tell them what they could or couldn’t do with their land.
Many said they were banking on the fact they could sell their farmland to developers to fund their retirements.
“We heard loud and clear from landowners who said, ‘you’re taking away our 401(k) from us,’ ” Bengsch said.
How the plan works
With agricultural and urban reserve areas now gone from the plan, just how will it work?
A future zoning-change request will first be reviewed by county staff, who will make a recommendation to the county planning board.
The planning board will hold a public hearing and then make a recommendation to the county commissioners, who have the final say on whether to approve or deny the request.
Tim Smith, Greene County administrator, said zoning decisions will factor in the character of the area, environmental factors such as whether the soil can support septic systems, and how surrounding land is being used.
“The green areas in the map (brown in the News-Leader version), if you want to rezone to three- or five-acre tracts, chances are better that staff will recommend approval of that change,” Smith said.
“White areas on the map we’ll be more inclined to keep as farmland. In the white areas, staff will likely recommend against it (three- and five-acre tracts) without compelling reasons to do it.”
What could constitute a “compelling” reason?
Smith said staff would consider if there already are developed tracts within a half mile of the property.
There are other ways to develop farmland in the white areas of the map, he said.
Property owners already can divide their land into tracts of 10 acres or more without any input from the county.
They also can carve out up to two five-acre tracts “to accommodate land for family members,” Smith said.
Farmland also could be developed by rezoning into a “conservation district” where homes are clustered together and surrounded by open space.
Smith said the land-use plan is intended to give planning board members land-use policies “with some teeth” behind them.
“But staff can make a recommendation and they or the commissioners could choose to do something else,” he said. “We look at this plan as a fundamental philosophy about how this county will develop.”
Reaction is mixed
Rural property owner Earl Slavens raises cattle on 60 acres near the Greene County-Lawrence County line.
He worries the plan does nothing to keep productive Greene County farmland from vanishing. Farmland and open land make up about 49 percent of the unincorporated areas of the county.
“It’s an urban sprawl plan,” said Slavens. “If you look at the map, they have most of the county designated for residential housing. Their plan basically turns the whole county into residential.”
Real estate broker Sara Ray strongly opposed the first iteration of the land-use plan in 2007, saying it would unfairly limit what rural buyers wanted — country homes on small acreage.
Ray served on the land-use task force and now believes the plan is a reasonable compromise.
“The commissioners didn’t even come close to anticipating the negative reaction they’d get when they first proposed agricultural reserves,” she said. “The reality of the situation now is that it’s a guideline. It’s the best we could get at this point.”
Ray said she was disappointed the task force wasn’t able to take a more in-depth look at how the county will develop.
“Those that spoke with the most conviction were most interested in individual property rights,” Ray said.
Republic property owner Jim Arndt said he was “100 percent for” preserving farmland, and said he believed the county should limit rural homes sites to a minimum of 40 acres.
“It’s just land wasted with five-acre tracts,” he said. “You can’t do anything with it. It’s not big enough to farm.”
Arndt, however, had no qualms selling 55 of his 60 acres to a developer.
The land, formerly his grandfather’s farm, now is a Republic subdivision.
“My $50,000 investment in land turned out to be worth $400,000,” he said.
Before the commissioners voted on the land-use plan, they heard from Galen Chadwick, a proponent of sustainable land use and a locally-grown food supply.
He believes the land-use plan will lead to “almost uninhibited urban sprawl” in the county.
“The reason this is happening is that the commissioners have no vision of a sustainable future,” Chadwick said.
The Springfield League of Women Voters also weighed in on the plan during last week’s public hearing.
President Cindy Stephens said the league supported the first version of the plan — which included agricultural reserve areas.
“We’re glad to see landowners and developers found some common ground with this new plan,” she said. “We hope the county can continue to brainstorm for ways to assist people to keep good farmland as farmland.”
The county commissioners initially planned to review the land-use plan in five years.
But after hearing more concerns about saving farmland, they enlisted the help of Missouri University Extension.
Commissioner Bengsch asked MU Extension to serve as a “facilitator” for groups that want to explore ways to preserve farmland or re-examine the land-use plan.
Tim Siebert, MU Extension urban specialist, said the goal is to “hear from all sides.”
No meeting dates have yet been arranged.