October 23, 2023
The ideas Chris Coffin introduced at a summit on land use in Indiana make sense. Coffin is director and senior policy advisor for the National Agricultural Land Network. She promoted a concept known as “smart land use.”
Simply put, smart land use means recognizing that because there will be development, we should use planning and common sense to arrange that development so it converts the least amount of prime farmland to other uses. For example, instead of requiring homeowners to buy 5-acre lots for a single house along a country road, align zoning laws and incentives so the house is built on less land.
In theory, it sounds like a winning strategy. And several Northeastern states have practiced it for decades. There’s just one problem. This idea is not new in Indiana. It was promoted over two decades ago, the last time there was a big push to make people aware of farmland loss in the Hoosier state.
I know. I sat through information sessions at Purdue University 25 years ago when experts in land use planning from the East Coast explained it. I even visited developments in Lake and LaPorte counties where landowners and developers attempted to cluster homes together, chewing up less land. Stories appeared in Indiana Prairie Farmer. You didn’t read them online because the internet wasn’t a big deal yet.
Maybe smart land use planning didn’t take off because there was less information flowing. There was no social media. Or maybe it was because too many developers and landowners didn’t see the need. They were happy selling land and building homes using the same format that had worked for decades.
Then again, with lots of open spaces, maybe Hoosiers didn’t feel the pressure to save farmland. Plus, many Hoosiers aren’t fans of planning and zoning, which are required to make smart land use successful. At last check, 12 counties still don’t have local planning and zoning.
How did failure to adopt smart land use planning affect farmland loss in Indiana? It’s impossible to know completely. However, data supplied by the American Farmland Trust sheds light on how much farmland was converted to other uses, including housing, from 2001 to 2016. An estimated 265,500 acres were developed or compromised. About 171,500 of those acres were cropland.
The AFT study estimates 39% went into urban housing and development, with 61% — or over 163,000 acres — going into low-density residential development. That’s the kind of development targeted by smart land use planning.
So, will smart land use planning fall on deaf ears again? Or will more Hoosiers heed the message this time? How that plays out depends heavily upon you. Will you tell local and state officials that loss of prime farmland is a big deal?
All development isn’t going to cease. That’s not realistic or practical. But smarter development could have saved a sizable portion of that 265,500 acres AFT says was lost in just 15 years. Why not give it a chance to save crucial farmland over the next 15 years?
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