Local leaders look for ways to preserve farmland in the face of residential growth

by | Feb 3, 2021

People pick produce on a farm in Johnston County. The county has experienced some of the most severe farmland loss in North Carolina over the last decade.

Education and zoning laws are just a few of the ways that local leaders in North Carolina are hoping to fight farmland loss.

Between 2001 and 2016, around 6.7 percent of North Carolina’s total farmland was converted into residential and commercial land. That is the second highest percentage in the country during that time, and it accounts for over 730,000 acres of lost farmland. Much of that loss can be attributed to low-density residential development, a type of spread-out, sprawling construction which eats up land while providing relatively less tax revenue than commercial development or agricultural land.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the counties adjacent to the largest metropolitan areas in North Carolina. Union County – which acts as a bedroom community for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County – has seen a dramatic reduction in farmland since 2012, losing 7 percent of its agricultural land between then and 2017. The same is true in Johnston County, where people working in and near Raleigh look for more affordable housing just one county over.

Richard Helms, chairman of the Union County Board of Commissioners, said that the board recognizes the importance of preserving agricultural land. The county is getting ready to open a new agricultural center which Helms hopes will help educate people on the importance of farmland.

“I often say that inheritance is one of the things that hits us the hardest when it comes to losing farmland,” he said. “Some young people or young families inherit farmland who are not farming anymore, and now they see that land as dollars instead of the opportunity to continue on that legacy. We have got to educate our people on the value of preserving that land.”

Of course, zoning laws also play a major role in determining what kind of freedom developers have to turn farmland into residential space. Counties often must balance maintaining agricultural land with opening up spaces for new businesses, which bring sought-after services as well as valuable tax revenue for the county.

Larry Wood, vice chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners, sits on the county’s Voluntary Agricultural District board. He said that finding ways to bring development to rural areas is often a balancing act with preserving farmland, as even having residential development adjacent to a farm can cripple it.

“People want to have these amenities. They want to have Lowes’ Foods and Chik-Fil-A, but those companies aren’t going to come to rural areas with no rooftops,” he said. “I’m a municipality guy, I’m a small-town guy, and I tend to lean on the side of pushing development to towns where the services are.”

An example of low-density residential development. This type of sprawling, single-family construction is a leading cause of farmland loss in North Carolina.

More concentrated development within municipal boundaries could be a solid strategy for fighting farmland loss, as building “up” instead of “out” reduces the volume of land needed to house a similar number of people. Changes to county zoning ordinances – or the implementation of them in the first place – may be necessary to encourage or require that kind of development, however.

Johnston County is in the midst of revamping its zoning laws, Wood said. While the county is still early in the process, he said he believes it may be heading toward slowing down some of the rapid residential growth the county has experienced lately.

“We’ve changed some of the units-per-acre regulations, and some of the lot sizes,” he said. “I feel like there is a lean toward maybe slowing some of the growth down, or making the lots bigger and reserving some of our sewer for businesses instead of residential.”

In Union County, zoning is a “hot topic” according to Helms. With a new water system in place in the northern and eastern parts of the county, Helms was optimistic about the future of agriculture in his community.

“A lot of people don’t realize just how dependent agriculture is on our water sources,” he said. “We’re paying a lot of attention to this. I’m not going to pre-announce what I’m trying to do, but we need have controlled, smart growth.”

For more information on farmland preservation, visit https://www.ncadfp.org.