The sluggish economy has slowed development that was running wild for a couple of decades, but some towns officials are looking to the future when the pressure is on again.
In 2005 and 2006, many towns and county officials from around the state took part in three land use study tours in the Eastern part of the U.S. where they learned the importance of addressing the issue before development pressure occurs.
The lesson learned on those trips was to ask town residents to consider what they want for their township. In some cases, it may be increased development. In other areas, the desire of residents may be to preserve the rural character that attracted them to the area in the first place.
The Lebanon Town Board, in Dodge County, is seeking comments from residents regarding interest in providing the opportunity for landowners in the township to participate in the Farmland Preservation Program.
The town hosted an informational meeting on the topic with Nate Olson, planner with the Dodge County Land Resources and Parks Department, on hand to explain the program and options for the township.
"The purpose of the Farmland Preservation Program is to preserve Wisconsin rural land by means of local land use planning and conservation practices," Olson said.
Town Chair Lohny Fredrick said during the town's comprehensive plan update meetings there was a great deal of discussion about the future of farmland in the township. The board decided to ask the people of the township what they want.
Olson explained that some townships, such as Beaver Dam, Emmet and Rubicon, are more interested in growth, and therefore have done nothing to try to protect the farmland and rural character of their townships. Because of the influence and control of neighboring municipalities, their goals are different.
In the rural areas, however, there is more interest in protecting productive farmland and preserving the rural character of the township.
In Dodge County, 13 towns use Farmland Preservation Zoning. Ashippun was the first township in the county to enter into an Agriculture Enterprise Area agreement. Since then, seven other townships have entered into agreements.
Dodge County is ranked ninth in the state for earned Farmland Preservation tax credits — around $750,000 a year. There are approximately 107,895 acres enrolled.
Olson explained that all towns have the choice whether to participate in the program, and the program is not mandated.
"Participating towns make their landowners eligible for the program," Olson explained. "Landowners that enroll their land in the program agree to implement conservation activities in exchange for tax credits."
The participation method determines the tax credit for which farmers are eligible. There is a $5 per acre credit for land entered into a Farmland Preservation Agreement. To get this agreement, the town must either adopt Farmland Preservation Zoning or the farm must be in an Ag Enterprise area. There is a $7.50 per acre credit for land zoned in a Farmland Preservation Zoning District, as established by the town. There is a $10 per acre credit for land that is both in the Farmland Preservation Zoning District and is in the Ag Enterprise Area. The credits are not just for the farmed fields, but for the entire farm.
Stressing that the program is not a mandate for the township or for individual landowners within a township, Olson said it is important that landowners understand the program.
He presented the options for the township but noted that there are no changes in the way land is taxed and assessed. He said some concerns about changes are because of the past method of taxing that placed a higher assessment value on prime agricultural land, A-1, than on marginal land, A2.
The Town of Lebanon is facing three options.
The first is to petition the county to create Farmland Preservation Zoning, A-1, for all of the land in the township. Farmland Preservation Zoning Districts must meet minimum standards with regard to non-farm development. There is some flexibility to create unique standards, and this varies by towns.
The landowner must be located in the farmland zoning district to participate in the tax credit program. Under this program, there is a flexible option for the landowner as there is no long-term commitment as was the case with previous state farmland preservation agreements. There is also no penalty to discontinue participation, and it can be canceled at any time.
The second option for the town would be to enroll land in the township in an Agricultural Enterprise Area in order to qualify for a Farmland Preservation Agreement. An AEA is a designated geographic area and not a land use regulation. Its designation only allows landowners the opportunity to apply for a Farmland Preservation Agreement.
Landowners, townships or counties apply to the state for an AEA agreement, and there is a competitive process for acceptance into the program. The idea is to keep farmland together and not preserve a few acres here and a few acres there. By keeping preserved farms together, businesses supplying the needs of the agricultural community have the assurance that these businesses will be going in the future and the farms will not be swallowed up by development.
The former farmland preservation program that began in the late 1960s did not succeed, in part because preserved farms were scattered, and there were not areas strictly reserved for agricultural activity.
"Of course the town has a third option," Olson said. "They could leave the current town zoning map as is and not change a thing. This would leave areas in the town in the A-1 Prime Agricultural Zoning District. As a result, these areas would still be subject to the A-1 Prime Agricultural Zoning standards, despite not being able to collect the Farmland Preservation Zoning tax credits.
"This option leaves it up to landowners to rezone out of the A-1 zoning district if they wish to develop their property."
Fredrick said his opinion, as town chair, is to utilize Farmland Preservation Zoning because it opens it up for the farmers to be eligible to participate in tax credit programs."
"This is a voluntary thing, and no one is forced to participate in any program," he stressed. "There is land in our township that is A-1 land, but right now the farmers aren't eligible to participate in the programs that are available and collect their tax deduction."
He said with Farmland Preservation Zoning, all land would be in A-1 zoning, but it wouldn't make any difference as far as assessments and taxing goes. Regardless of whether land is in A-1 or A-2 agricultural zoning, landowners still must jump through the same hoops if they want to split off a parcel.
Fredrick said he is hoping to hear from town residents in the near future as the board will be considering which direction to go on the matter early this summer. The town has information available for those who want to learn more about the options.