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Conservation easements still the way to go for agricultural preservation

Illinois Senate Bill 286, which would have given county governments the ability to schedule referenda on the levying of taxes to create farmland preservation easement programs, passed 44-6-1 in the Senate on April 2, 2009, but died in the House Counties and Townships Committee on May 7. The bill itself would not have created new taxes, but rather given counties the chance to let voters decide whether to support farmland protection programs with local property taxes. 

While SB286 may not move forward, land conservation challenges are not going away.  One of the principal arguments against SB286 was that counties and municipalities could use zoning authority to restrict uses on farming properties, effectively ensuring their continued agricultural use.  However, a conservation easement is a transfer of real estate development rights, not land, from a landowner to a government agency or land protection organization. There are several reasons why conservation easements are advantageous over zoning approaches.

First, conservation easements are voluntarily entered, contractual agreements between two parties (the county and a farmer in the case of SB286), so there is no hint of a government taking.  It is a market transaction entered into by choice.  Zoning an area for agricultural purposes (and thus excluding other potential uses), in contrast, could be interpreted as a seizure of rights from a landowner.

Second, zoning large areas for agriculture often involves multiple landowners, and can become an arduous process as a result, whereas zoning one person's property could look like a targeted taking.  Easements allow for a more efficient and equitable process of one-to-one negotiation.

Third, conservation easements last in perpetuity.  Zoning, however, is often overturned, rewritten, or adjusted.  An easement allows each property to be dealt with once, whereas zoning can become a back-and-forth struggle.

Fourth, counties, regardless of their desire to protect agriculture and open space, lose that ability once land is annexed. An individual municipality may believe it is in its best interest to convert farmland to homes or stores (to raise tax revenue), but that same conversion may not be in the interest of the broader area.  Preservation of open space benefits many systems that cross jurisdictions – subsurface aquifers, rivers, wildlife, wetlands.  Solutions should match the scale of the problem.  Counties need the ability to create conservation easements so they may respond to these broader issues that cross municipal borders.  SB286 would have given counties the ability to ask the public for that flexibility.

Farmland preservation is a vital part of securing a more environmentally sustainable and economically competitive Illinois.  Farmland provides food and cover for wildlife, flood control, protection for wetlands and watersheds, open space, recreational opportunities, and, of course, the foundation for a vital rural economy.  Ensuring smaller farms can continue to provide urban centers with fresh produce will reduce the transportation cost of food, preserve rural character, and create jobs.  Furthermore, farmland preservation will channel new development to areas where infrastructure – roads, sewers, streetlights, etc. – already exists.  This will lower the burden on state, county and municipal governments to expand and maintain these systems.

In a perfect world, zoning would be an effective means of preserving open space and farms, but that simply is not the way it plays out in real life.  Easements allow landowners to voluntarily donate or sell their development rights to preserve the agricultural use of their property. The biggest roadblock is the lack of funding for governmental bodies and the public to purchase development rights from willing landowners.  Counties and their residents need the ability to develop those funds so that farmland throughout Illinois might be preserved for the future.  SB286 would have done that in 2009 – now we need to work together to ensure that 2010 yields a better crop.

For more information, contact Josh Ellis at jellis@metroplanning.org or (312) 863-6045.

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