National View of Agricultural Easement Programs

National View of Agricultural Easement Programs

The role of agricultural easements in preserving farmland from urban influences was the focus of a four-part study, A National View of Agricultural Easement Programs, completedby American Farmland Trust and the Agricultural Issues Center, University of California, in collaboration with Farm Foundation.

The study, the final report of which was completed in December 2006, involved a detailed examination of 46 programs across the nation. The final report, Measuring Success in Protecting Farmland-Report 4, outline five principal findings:

  • Numerical achievements: The 46 programs studied had impressive accomplishments, but in relation to preservation, results are mixed. Only six programs have come close to completing acquistions in relation to the total farm acres and farms in their jurisdictions and according to stated program goals.
  • Land market impacts: A strong indication of easement effectiveness is that protected parcels largely remain in farming, even for the many properties later purchased by non-farmers primarily for residential use.
  • Local agricultural economics: It is less clear that easements are effective in contributing to healthy local support services, such as farm supply outlets, tractor dealers and processing facilities.
  • Influencing urban growth: Easements effectively help redirect or influence urban growth in about a half dozen of the communities served by the programs reviewed, working largely in conjunction with local government plannnig policies, zoning and other land use regulations.
  • Long-term preservation: Most programs reviewed are not prepared for the long-term job of protecting the continued viability of their holdings and preventing or responding to problems of noncompliance with easement restrictions.

The report concludes with predictions and prescriptions, several of which are focused on the likely increase in easement compliance problems in the future. The report calls for easement programs to devote more resources to monitoring and stewardship activities.

Released Sept. 22, 2006, were How Programs Select Farmland to Fund-Report 2, and Easements and Local Planning – Report 3.The two reports show that clear preservation goals and priorities that reflect the deliberations and priorities of elected officials, citizens, program managers and planners are critical for effective local agricultural easement programs.

Report 1, released in 2003, profiled 46 agricultural easement programs in 15 states–nearly half of all publically funded farmland portection programs in the nation.  That report found that use of this land conservation tool is most prevalent in suburban and semi-rural parts of major metropolitan areas that have been experiencing rapid population growth for years.

A National View of Agricultural Easement Programs is the most in-depth and comprehensive analysis of agricultural easement programs undertaken in the United States. This report profiles 46 agricultural easement programs in 15 states—nearly half of all publicly funded farmland protection programs in the nation.The programs studied have spent a total of $2.3 billion to protect about 1.1 million acres.

“These newly released reports provide valuable suggestions for new and existing programs to consider for maximizing program effectiveness,” said project co-director Anita Zurbrugg, American Farmland Trust.

Another key finding of the study describes a critical link between an effective easement program and local planning. “Strong planning policies and land use regulations assist easement programs by helping reduce acquisition costs and guide easement location. In addition, compatible easement programs can support planning policies by softening the landowner burden of zoning regulation,” Alvin D. Sokolow, project director, University of California-Davis explained.

The fourth and final report of this study, to be released in November2006, will encompass measurements of success in protecting farmland with easements.

Agricultural easements allow landowners to sell the development rights on their farms to government or nonprofit organizations in exchange for agreeing to keep the land permanently available for agriculture. The use of farm easements has grown exponentially since the 1970s; today 26 states have at least one publicly-funded easement program at the state or local level.

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