Organizations unite to stem tide of urban sprawl

virginiaAs urban sprawl expands westward into Loudoun County’s farm fields and pastureland, farmers and other organizations are working to stem the tide.

“Farmland preservation is the main reason I got involved with Farm Bureau,” remarked Chris Van Vlack, president of Loudoun County Farm Bureau, which has joined forces with Save Rural Loudoun. “We have a vibrant group of young producers in Loudoun, so I don’t fear for the future of farming due to lack of farmers. It’s really the development pressure that concerns me.”

Loudoun is roughly half rural, with more than 1,400 farms on 134,000 acres that generate more than $37 million annually. But Loudoun has lost 72,000 acres of farmland in the last 30 years, so its rural areas are vulnerable. As farmers retire, their land is often sold for residential development. Since 2010, Loudoun County’s population has increased more than 27 percent, to more than 380,000.

The American Farmland Trust’s new study, “Farms Under Threat,” says the U.S. disproportionately urbanized some of its most productive, versatile and resilient farm and ranch lands between 1992 and 2012.

“The rate of farmland loss is significantly higher than we thought, roughly twice as high,” said AFT President John Piotti.

According to John Ellis, a Save Rural Loudoun board member, there are more than 85 approved developments under construction in Loudoun’s rural areas. Van Vlack and the Loudoun Farm Bureau board got involved with Save Rural Loudoun to ensure farmland would stay in agricultural production for the long term.

“The most feasible option right now is to promote conservation easements,” explained Van Vlack, who also serves as the urban/agriculture conservationist for the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District. “One innovative idea is to create a conservation easement ‘cost share’ program, which would help landowners with the upfront costs of placing their farms into easements.”

The group also is examining how other Virginia localities are handling similar issues with sprawl.

“Our neighbors in Clarke County have strong rural zoning, which protects large farms from being broken up and concentrates development around existing towns. Virginia Beach’s Purchase of Development Rights program has preserved a great deal of working land in an area under similar development pressure,” Van Vlack noted. “None of these solutions are magic bullets, but we can’t afford to be complacent with the status quo.”

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