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Research Confirms Communities Can Save Money by Saving Farmland

rural-urbanMuch of the farmland that is lost to development around the country, and here in California, is turned into sprawling residential developments to meet the needs of growing national population. Unfortunately, new developments are almost always placed on the urban fringe of growing cities. These urban-influenced areas are estimated to be responsible for producing 91 percent of the country’s fruits and berries, 78 percent of its vegetables, 67 percent of its dairy, and 54 percent of its poultry.  With these statistics in mind, it’s easy to see the dramatic impact that unchecked development will have on the nation’s food supply.

With national and state budgets issues continuing to squeeze the financial resources of towns and cities, many communities cite the need to increase tax revenue for turning open space and farmland into developments that will generate property taxes. However, a new study released last week by Smart Growth America, titled Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development, shows that high-density (aka Smart Growth) development can be as much as 38 percent less expensive than traditional, suburban development. Here’s the rational. When new developments are built, communities must shell out for community services such new roads, sewer lines, police and firefighters to serve the new residents, etc. When development is spread out over a large area, the costs of these services increase and, as the Smart Growth America study shows, eclipse any increase in revenue that communities may see from new developments.

While this new study sheds new light on the consequences of sprawl to communities, it was the 1974 report The Costs of Sprawl: Detailed Cost Analysis that put the issue of unplanned development—and its impact on communities—onto the national agenda. In this report, prepared for the Council on Environmental Quality, researchers concluded that land-use “planning to some extent, but [in] higher densities to a much greater extent, result in lower economic costs, environmental costs, natural resource consumption, and some personal costs.” 

Based upon the findings of this report, in the 1990s, AFT began a process to sound the alarm in California where the issue of sprawl was becoming urgent as cities in the state’s Central Valley were beginning to expand and engulf surrounding farmland. In 1995,  AFT released its report Alternatives for Future Urban Growth in California’s Central Valley: The Bottom Line for Agriculture and Taxpayers. It found that compared with a smart growth development scenario, sprawl could cost Central Valley cities as much as $1 billion a year in needless public service costs. It also found that, because of wasteful and unnecessary conversion of farmland, by 2040 the agricultural economy would suffer a cumulative loss of $23 billion (that was 1995 dollars—the figure is probably closer to $60 billion today) in gross output and of 21,000 agriculturally-related jobs.

So with budgets being slashed and the need to house a growing population, how do communities combat the effects of sprawl and plan for a sustainable future for farms? One promising method of land-use and development planning in California is the creation of “greenprints.” These plans document how natural resources like farmland support a region’s economy, health and quality of life, and identify long-term strategies to guide conservation and stewardship of land, water and living resources. Several locations in California—including the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz—have already done greenprints, and AFT is currently working to develop a region-wide greenprint for the San Joaquin Valley


American Farmland Trust