Op-Ed

Preserving farmland for agricultural use makes more dollars and sense than development

Preserving horse farms for agricultural use aids the local economy and adds to Fayette County's quality of life.
Preserving horse farms for agricultural use aids the local economy and adds to Fayette County's quality of life.

The Sept. 5 commentary about rural land use requires a response because it is a dangerous argument based on an incomplete analysis of inaccurate and limited data.

Public policy must be based on a vision that builds on the assets of a community and is grounded in a realistic assessment of the facts.

On each of these points, the commentary's argument is lacking because it is:

 Shortsighted. When farmland is developed it disturbs the topsoil and loses its agricultural-use value. Our fertile soils are the "factory-floor" for the agricultural industry that has been a key aspect of the economic growth of the region for more than two centuries. Today's hottest investment funds globally are those that include productive farmland as part of a diversified portfolio.

The list of the most important factors in productive farmland (soil quality, available water, topography, access to transportation) perfectly describes the agricultural land in Fayette County. As the world faces a growing food shortage, should we be questioning a program that preserves for future production 50,000 acres in a Rural Service Area of 128,000 acres?

 Distorted data. Agriculture, and in particular the equine industry, represents an economic cluster. This is a geographic concentration of firms whose economic activities are interconnected and interdependent. Economic clusters are the basis for enhancing a region's competitiveness in the global economy. But our system of collecting economic data cannot reflect the complexity of an economic cluster because firms are only classified in one industry based on the majority of their economic activity.

So, a dry cleaner that has a 10 to 15 percent increase in sales from cleaning horse blankets or horse show competitors' clothes cannot officially be counted as part of the equine/agricultural industry. But this does not diminish the significant effect of this income for the dry cleaner. Similarly, tourism-related employment is 16.9 percent of Fayette County's economy; more than 2 million visitors came to Lexington last year, and 900,000-plus visited the Kentucky Horse Park, horse farms and other ag-related venues.

Would these visitors still come to see a new factory? Our method of data collection is simply inadequate, so claiming the importance or non-importance of an industrial sector based only on official data is a form of tunnel vision.

 Simplistic. To believe that in a global economy, location decisions are driven only by the cost of land is a 19th-century explanation applied to a 21st-century phenomenon. Studies of the factors that influence business location decisions overwhelmingly demonstrate that an educated and skilled work force, access to markets and quality of life are far more important than land availability or cost.

I think more firms locate here because of our highly desirable quality of life than don't come because we have protected the productivity of our agricultural land. Our farms and open land create a greenscape that is at the heart of the quality of life in this community.

 Incomplete. The assessment ignores the reality of the costs of converting agricultural land to urban uses. Nationally, studies of the cost of community services affirm the results of the one conducted in Fayette County: Agricultural land generates more public income than it receives back in publicly funded services. Specifically in Fayette County, agricultural or open land receives 93 cents back in public services for every $1 in property taxes paid; but that same land when developed for residential use costs $1.64 in public services provided for every $1 of taxes paid.

The gap is always significant because the public-services demands of agricultural land are small compared to the demands of urban users. Fayette County owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties to the Environmental Protection Agency for serious and persistent water contamination problems and will have to spend millions on mitigation. The inability to manage wastewater is exacerbated by the conversion of water-absorbing open land to impervious covered surfaces that increase water runoff which overwhelms wastewater management facilities.

So, as the commentary's writer says, "The people of Fayette County have to make fundamental choices about what is most important for this area's future." But let's be sure that the choice is based on a full understanding of the significance of our soils; the economic interdependence of so many businesses that seemingly have no connection to agriculture or our horse farms; and the real public costs of developed versus open land.

A fair and comprehensive evaluation of our choices would point to continuing to protect the land that is the foundation of our past, current and future economic growth.

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