Study calls for restricting development in Indy area

June 29, 2010
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Prime farmland is like money and fame: Everyone seems to want it. Farmers crave the flat, rich land for its potential to raise huge crops, and developers prize the terrain because it’s cheap to build on.

However, a new Indiana University study questions decades of converting farmland to housing and businesses, and urges tighter restrictions on development. Check out the study, conducted by the Indiana Business Research Center in the Kelley School of Business, is here.

The percentage of Indiana acreage used for agriculture has plunged from nearly 85 percent in 1950 to just 64 percent by 2007. Most of the land lost was classified as prime, and much of it was in the Indianapolis area. It doesn’t take a researcher to predict the trend line in coming decades.

Study author Tanya Hall says local governments should consider research showing that tax revenue from prime farmland is a better financial deal than the costs of extending water, sewer and other infrastructure.

“If we continue to go at the rate we are, we are going to lose a lot of prime farmland,” Hall says. “We need to consider the value agriculture brings to an area.”

In reality, prime farmland has few preservationist friends. As prices rise, farmers sell off pieces and then entire farms, all while complaining about the increasing traffic. They then often plow the big checks into less-expensive farmland farther from the sprawl they help create—without paying capital gains taxes on the profit.

Hall says tighter zoning restrictions could help contain the sprawl to roughly the current suburban and exurban footprint—possibly anathema to farmer and developer alike.

Where to you come down on the highest and best use for farmland?

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  • Incentives are backwards
    I am not so sure farmers are the root cause of sprawl and dwindling farmland. The incentives are there to sell off pieces land, most of the time just to pay for property taxes. Then should they pass off land to their children, there are taxes on top of that. Landowners should be incentivized to keep land in the family and not be penalized just because it was willed to the kids.
  • Stop Eating Farmland
    Zoning & other agencies dedicated to land use policy HAS TO MAKE IT MORE EXPENSIVE to build/develop farmland than to reclaim empty property in the greater metro area. It's sad to drive by block after block of weed-infested, empty homes & lots near our downtown. Keep the city alive, don't subsidize flight to the suburbs by making improvements to farmland. I didn't have to do a study to figure this out, I've lived in the city for my entire life and mourn the decay of the core.
  • Farmland
    On the other hand, should my sisters and I be saddled with farmland my father bought over 50 years ago? There are no farmers left in the family. No one is buying land to farm any more.
    • We'll keep eating farmland unless you force people to stop having kids...
      The problem with a comment like Jenny's above is that it sounds great until you try to find the person that really wants to live in a bad inner city neighborhood that has the financial freedom to move to the suburbs. Lets face it...some areas are just gone never to come back. There will always be bad neighborhoods with abandoned homes no matter how much government money you throw at that problem. Even if you take a few blocks and gentrify them you've still got the issues of being surrounded by crime in every direction and having horrible IPS schools that most people won't send their kids to that have options. Unless if you come up with a solution for poverty and also come up with a solution to keep the population absolutely stagnant then you are always going to have people building houses in the suburbs.

      I live in Hamilton County and love doing things in downtown, Broad Ripple, Meridian Kessler, etc. but the majority of Marion County just isn't a place where I want to raise my family. Sad but true.
    • feedback loop
      IndyTodd, the problem with your statement is that it's an endless feedback loop. You (and previous generations) fleeing to Hamilton county are what made the city what it is today. Poverty in and of itself doesn't cause the crime and school problems, it's high concentrations of poverty. And when everyone with means flies away, all you are left with is ~100% poverty. The problem is that people have absolutely no regard for their neighborhoods or a desire to make them better. Eventually, even fishers, etc will become decaying "inner" suburbs...just look at Keystone Ave and west 38th, they were the suburban growth areas of the 60's.
    • there's more to the story
      Studies about improving locks are typically done after the cows have left the barn! Ironically, as development land values decline, we are now seeing appreciation in the newest hot commodity: tillable acreage (which some say is a better long-term investment than gold). The high land values that encouraged farmers from central Indiana to sell their prime farmland for development created another problem not yet being discussed: the municipalities in these once rural areas are now looking down on exurbs with assessed valuations for tax purposes that exceed their true market value. When the tax appeals start rolling in, municipalities will be facing a 20-30% decline in their projected revenues. Governments at the municipal level will be faced to cut services across the board, further decreasing the appeal of living thirty minutes from work. A lot of really bright people never considered the impact of converting prime farmland to vinyl villages. Hopefully studies like this will encourage people to take a second look at adaptive re-use of existing improvements and conversion and rezoning to discourage sprawl and encourage shorter commutes.
    • Roads
      Transportation policies, or lack thereof, contribute to this problem by building new roads or increasing the size of existing to allow this flight. Of course, this follows zoning, or lack thereof, allowing dense developments on farmland.
    • Infill
      3 words that come to mind that have worked wonders for Portland and other areas - Urban Growth Boundary. Establish a boundary around our area, assess the percentage of development, make sure infill ocurrs, density increases, that way the value for extended infrastructure 10 years ago is returning some of it's value. When only 10-15% of developable land in the UGB is left - it's then brought up for discussion on changing current zonings to encourage more density, or expand slightly the UGB.
    • Farmland
      Joyce,

      I believe you have demonstrated a great tendency to exaggerate. As a former Banker and Trust Administrator, I have seen first hand in recent years the number of farmers that show up for ag land auctions. The bidding is sometimes furious. To say that no one is interested in buying farmland is simply not true!

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