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Thread: Define a farm operator

  1. #1

    Define a farm operator

    Our prime agricultural zoning district tries to preserve farmland by limiting permitted home construction to the farm operator. This term is undefined, however, and we are concerned with enforcement. Other towns in our area have become involved with litigation due to undefined verbage and the resulting inconsistent enforcement as town boards change. We are the only municipality of which I am aware that is this restrictive, so there are no local examples. Percentage of income, primary occupation, tax filings, and more have been suggested.

    My goal is to allow active farm operators to build their primary residences, but prevent someone from buying 35 acres (our minimum lot size in prime ag) and putting a house on it. Renting the land out to a farmer would not be sufficient to qualify as a farm operator in the ideal definition. If we go that route, any landowner might as well be allowed to build. People who invest personal sweat equity in their land tend to be better caretakers. And we very much want to avoid the bad blood and lawsuits that result when city folk (no offense!) move to the country and discover that there are unpleasant noises and smells that accompany the pretty scenery. The best way to preserve farmland is to keep people farming!

    Please help. The pressure for development is growing as our area is expanding economically. A new zoning ordinance is being reviewed by the town board so now is the time to insert this definition. Any suggestions regarding text that we should or should not use?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Greensburg, Kansas
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    Define a farm operator

    Zoning does a rather poor job with enforcing tenancy. How would you regulate the second owner/occupant? Stick with the land use. Farms are getting larger--increase your lot size to 80 or more acres if 35 does not work.

  3. #3

    Registered
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    Williston, VT
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    Define a farm operator

    You are skating out on thin (very thin) ice. Mike is correct in telling you to focus on land use, not tenancy. You can try the Oregon approach, which permits "farm residences" based on production of the farm, usually expressed as just a simple avg annual minimum cash production of ag products. You might try finding ordinances from Benton, Lane, or Linn Counties, OR. If you base it on primary occupation you will eliminate many farmers! And whose occupation? The best way to preserve the family farm may well be to marry a lawyer or accountant or school superintendent or doctor or what not So, what if one resident is a lawyer who makes twice as much in town as her partner does on the farm? Percent of income won't work any better than primary occupation in such cases.

    You also need to remember to address issues directly. If right-to-farm issues are a problem, then don't permit a new residence of any type in a rural area without serious local right-to-farm provisions in your ordinances.

  4. #4

    Define a farm operator

    Thank you both for your responses. I agree that any definition must be tied to land use. We are concerned here only with the construction of a new residence on an undeveloped parcel. We recently conducted a survey of all landowners and residents in the town, and the response was overwhelmingly in favor of preservation of existing farmland and open space. That's one reason why our interpretation of farm operator has limited construction to active farmers and excluded land owners. We have witnessed the difficulties faced by other towns that have a high number of non-farmer landowners. They may object to the noise of harvesting at 2am or the smell of manure when its spread; sometimes their renter doesn't need the land anymore, so it goes to weed and neighboring farmers have to deal with the spread of seed in their pastures.

    The issue as I've tried to present it to others is whether land needs to remain farmed or merely undeveloped. The indication I've had is that land now farmed should remain farmed. Hence, my problem. How do we write and enforce our ordinance in a way that will most encourage the actual practice of farming?

    In addition, we are home to a new PGA-quality golf course. The land around the course is now primarily agricultural. The concern of many is that people from Chicago and other areas will want to build homes near this course, and it is unlikely (to say the least!) that these people will farm. They want to keep the land in farm use rather than have it turn into 35-acre estates. Rather than let them build in the prime ag district and circumvent our ordinance by renting land out for one year, we want them to have to come in for a rezoning.

    I will follow up on the Oregon leads. Thank you. Avg annual minimum cash production could be one facet of a definition, but would not encompass new farmers who are not yet generating income from the property.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Greensburg, Kansas
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    Define a farm operator

    Now we have the bigger question. Can you save farms? I do not think zoning can. It can preserve open space, curtail premature development, etc., but keeping land in ag production is an economic issue. The farmer needs to generate some income, at least once in a while. Selling off the front 40 for development was a response to economic necessity. Talk with some farmers. Find out what it takes to stay in business. The sale of development rights might be one possible solution. Revising tax structures and assessment policies may be another. The issue is much bigger than zoning.

  6. #6

    Define a farm operator

    Agreed. Zoning cannot save a farm. What I think it can do is provide a structure that will discourage development and keep farming a more attractive option. In most cases I encounter, a farmer selling land to a non-farmer is not the result of unprofitability (is that a word?) so much as the amount of money the non-farmer can pay for a piece of land combined with a lack of heirs to take over.

    It's a tight line, isn't it? Given the decrease in the number of people who want to operate farms, remaining farms must get larger to keep the same number of acres tilled. But for a farmer to profitably increase his landholdings, he usually must increase the number of livestock. And there's a mindset against the "corporate farm"--still family owned, but that's lost in the public eye.

    Of course, not all tilled land will remain tilled. It is very hard to persuade some to accept this fact, though, because it sounds so nice, to save the pastoral views of barns and cows in the field. But isn't that one of the challenges integral to planning and zoning? Different visions and reality must be melded by some lucky person or persons into text that's understandable and enforceable.

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