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 Beyond the Urban Edge

By Karen Marshall and Denise Y. O’Meara, RLA for ELCR

Urban-rural boundary – at the edge. Photo courtesy of Keith Mountain.

Not so long ago, the term “sprawl” invoked the image of neighborhoods extending out from an urban core. In one typical scenario, the suburbs form a “doughnut” encircling the downtown business and older residential districts and bordering the open farm and woodlands beyond. In another scenario, suburbs extend as a string of residential, businesses, offices and retail development along a new rural transportation corridor.

Sprawl now has a second home, located in the rural landscape. The pioneer residents of rural sprawl do not necessarily have to be within a daily commute to urban or suburban workplaces, schools or shopping centers. Unlike the “old timers” in the countryside, they do not depend on farming for a living or even have a stake in farming at the commercial scale.

What draws potential buyers to rural subdivisions? Residents might look forward to a small garden, a rolling green lawn and maybe a small barn for a horse or some chickens.  Longer drives are offset by lower density traffic, less crime, and more appealing views – all while enjoying the amenities of satellite technology not available in rural areas until recent times – at their new homesteads. Additionally, these new rural homesteads and the commercial enterprises that often precede or follow them can avoid the higher taxes, stricter building codes and environmental regulations associated with urban and suburban development.

But there are economic repercussions brought about by the need for infrastructure (utilities, roads) and other services.  Although most of these rural developments have self-contained sewage and water supply systems, they may stress other municipal or rural county infrastructure services such as fire and police protection without a commensurate contribution to revenue streams. Property taxes do not support the costs to the municipality or county of building or maintaining these services.

There are also social changes that occur in rural communities with this type of development.  In the past, traditional farm property owners often allowed public access for hunting, hiking, trail riding or as a connecting corridor to public lands and facilities.  In contrast, many new rural residents seek privacy, immunity from liability risks and a low level of engagement with the local community.

Before and after – commercial and industrial development sprawls over previous agricultural lands. Photos courtesy of Julie Campoli, Terra Firma Urban Design, and Alex MacLean, Landslides.

Sprawling residential, commercial and industrial development certainly has a serious effect on the rural landscape.  But other forms of farmland use have equally devastating effects, though it may take longer for the effects to surface.  For example, commercial farming allows for large scale production of specialized crops that may be processed on the farm or sold to an outside processor, wholesaler or retailer. These farms produce goods at a lower cost than traditional farms and can help to price them out of business.  Repeated production of the same crop can deplete soils and nutrients when managed improperly, rendering highly productive land much less productive over time.

Large commercial farms alter the lifestyle, soils and economic base of rural communities. Photo courtesy of USDA-NRCS.

Hobby farms, purchased primarily as residences operate as micro-scale crop or livestock production facilities, private recreational amenities or simply ‘rural lifestyle’ homesteads.  Other than the sale and development of the property, they rarely contribute to the economic viability of the agricultural community, and serve to break up much larger tracts of previously productive land. Buy and hold property purchases constitute a final piece of the rural landscape whose owners speculate that land prices will increase and therefore consider their property as a financial investment in future development.  This prevents true investment in agricultural production and often allows for the eventual removal of the property to development.

These alternative land use forms have their effect on the equine community by raising the price of open land, breaking up open land and taking open land out of the market.  The rural equine lifestyle can be strongly affected by the refusal of new or large-scale landowners, as well as new owners of hobby or mini-farms, to allow access to trails and open space across their lands.

Many municipalities and counties have sought to slow the spread of rural sprawl by requiring larger residential building lots – at least ¼ acre and in some areas five acres or larger. Unfortunately, this approach has generally resulted in a new form of clustered sprawl, often with huge houses and gated communities eating up open land and leaving fragmented natural areas and wildlife corridors. Natural habitat size is also reduced, to the point where the native species populations cannot be sustained.

Effective prevention and mitigation of rural sprawl starts with comprehensive land use planning and flexible zoning both in urban and rural areas. Good planning and flexible zoning can:

  • Well-designed urban infill attracts residents to population centers. Photo credit: Cavan Wilk, Greater, Greater Washington.

    Attract new and returning residents to existing population centers by encouraging more attractive and diverse housing, public transit and a variety of cultural options.

  • Encourage infill development and blighted area redevelopment in urban areas.
  • Develop overlay districts for areas with special needs, such as agricultural, equine, business core and historic districts.
  • Provide incentives to existing residents and businesses to remain in those areas by creating walkable neighborhoods and providing updated, modern, reliable and affordable infrastructure services.
  • Provide incentives to farmers and ranchers to carry out sustainable agricultural endeavors rather than hobby farming and buy-and-hold farm land investment by instituting commensurate agricultural zoning. In these designated areas land uses other than or incompatible with agriculture are discouraged, restricted or prohibited outright by county and municipal zoning ordinances. Delineation of these areas is generally based on soil quality but also considers factors such as drainage, water resources and adjacent land uses. Agricultural zoning is more specific in its intention to encourage commercial farming than open space zoning that fosters recreational, scenic and other interests.
  • Agricultural zoning is usually associated with preferential farm property taxation. Property is assessed based on its agricultural productivity rather than its potential market value for development uses.  Agricultural property class tax rates are considerably lower than residential or commercial class rates.
  • Implement overlay districts such as agricultural districts to encourage appropriate and voluntary land use for that area and prevent development of important agricultural lands.

    Photo credit: Deb Balliet

  • Recognize the importance of state Right-to-Farm laws as protection from suits by new residents against agricultural activities.
  • Encourage conservation easements and the donation, purchase and transfer of development rights to provide further financial incentives to preserve rural landscapes and family farms.
  • Provide preferential farm property taxation based on land use assessment derived from selling prices of comparable farm land or income produced by the land.

These mitigation tools apply as much to horse lands as they do to crop and livestock production land.  Are horse lands defined as agriculture in your state or municipality?  If so, make sure you know what equine activities are required to make your lands eligible for the protection and incentives of other farm land.