“Land Use Planning”
by Deb Balliet, CEO
We see it everywhere we go. On a road you drive every day for work, it may happen so gradually that it’s not even noticed at first. Other times its appearance can be shocking, perhaps noticed when visiting an area you haven’t seen for some time. A cluster of houses suddenly sprouts from land where you remember horses grazing, or a cross-country course where you once competed has been bulldozed to make way for a shopping plaza.
There was a time when equestrians did not need to be concerned about development, but as the U.S. population has grown and cities and towns expand, most regions of the country are experiencing “sprawl”. In many communities, the rate of sprawl even exceeds the rate of population growth. This expansion consumes staggering amounts of acreage, which directly threatens the land equestrians need for growing hay, raising and training horses, competition sites, boarding stables, youth riding camps and academies, trails, and recreational riding spaces. Protecting these spaces for equine use requires horse lovers to be not only aware of the issues, but knowledgeable about how expansion and development works, as well as actively involved in the decision-making processes about how land will be used in the future.
What exactly is “Land Use Planning”?
Land use planning is an important activity that assists a community grow and function in the manner that is needed and desired by its residents. As the population in a community changes, there is a need to plan for future land uses. For instance, your hometown’s population may have doubled in the last ten years. These residents need places to live and shop, and traffic snarls on narrow roads have become commonplace. Public health, safety, and education are also key planning issues. Through land use planning, your town’s leaders will try to address current needs (such as through construction of a new bypass, fire station, or water treatment plant) while also looking to the future to plan the direction the community is going (e.g. will the population continue to grow? Where could new houses and businesses be built? Will a larger school be needed? What land should be preserved as open space? etc. etc.). The outcome of these plans is typically articulated through a series of planning guidelines and zoning regulations.
However, in some rural communities, planning and zoning does not exist; so when growth occurs in these areas, there is generally a period of unregulated building and community development, often followed by a backlash from the community. While a more organized approach to that community’s planning and zoning often follows, it’s a hard lesson to learn as critical areas may have already been lost to development. Two points to remember, especially in rural areas, is that the topography and soils of the area are critical elements in land use planning. Lands with well drained, nutrient and mineral rich soils are ideal for agricultural activity and support a strong agricultural economy. If developments are built on the best soils, agriculture is displaced to less productive areas thereby reducing the agricultural economy and quality in a community. Additionally, the lay of the land is important as well as it is easier to produce most agricultural crops on level fields.
A Plan Worth Reading
In order to develop a guide for future growth and development, many communities have a “comprehensive plan”. This plan is developed through a series of information gathering, public input and drafting processes conducted by a community planning employee with the assistance of a committee of volunteers; it is also common for a an independent planning consultant to be hired to assist with the process.
To develop a community comprehensive plan, the most current data about the area is gathered and an initial draft of the plan is assembled (or edited from prior versions) by the planning committee, and then presented to the public for their review and comment. After the comment period, the draft plan is then edited to more accurately reflect the desires of the community members based upon the feedback received. The goal is for the final plan to represent the wishes of the residents in the planning area. The plan often takes into account the preservation of natural features, protection of the water supply, historic elements, transportation needs, locations for residential, commercial, agricultural, public service facilities (schools, hospitals, government buildings) and industrial development.
A completed comprehensive plan usually includes a vision statement, planning goals and guidelines, maps, recommended zoning policies and community regulations, and an implementation strategy. Typically, comprehensive plans are county-based and updated every five to six years. In larger and more densely populated areas, county-wide plans may be broken down into area plans.
Why Is It Important for Equestrians to Participate?
As a horse enthusiast, do you know what’s included in your community’s comprehensive plan? Do you understand the zoning laws which may apply to your equine activities? With land use planning, knowledge truly is power. If a comprehensive plan exists, most communities post the plan or some portion of it on their county planning department website, or a hard copy may be requested from the county planning department or by contacting a government leader. Take time to read it, and become familiar with its elements and goals. Be aware of when the plan is to be developed or revised -typically, land use plans are updated every five to six years. Watch for the notice of the plan revision and the public comment period.
This public comment process provides an opportunity for horsemen to voice their support for maintenance of equestrian land and recreational opportunities. Plan to attend the meeting, and notify your equestrian friends of the meeting and encourage them to attend.
Be aware of urban service boundaries, and the possibility of promoting urban infill and redevelopment rather than continued sprawl. Speak up for your equestrian business and/or hobby and the spaces needed to maintain it. Know your community’s equine heritage and history and honor it. Voice your preference for the preservation of open space and farmland, and the inclusion of equestrian facilities and trails in the community land use and recreation plans. Promote increased equine-based recreational opportunities. Create support for public riding, teaching, training and competition spaces.
Think about what it is that you currently value in your community, and what assets and attributes you would like to protect. As horsemen, we generally need to preserve farms and rural landscapes for feeding, breeding, raising, training and riding or driving and pasturing our horses. Land use plans can identify that preservation of rural landscapes, farms (horse, crop, livestock) and agricultural lands are a priority for the community. The plan can also identify rural preservation tools such as agricultural districts, purchase of developments rights programs, and organizations such as land conservancies.
Additionally, consider features and assets that you have seen in other communities that have value for equestrians which could be included in the comprehensive plan. For instance, a shared-use trail or greenway system (such as for hikers, bikers, and horses) enhances enjoyment of the land for the entire community. Is there a county or state-wide program to encourage the development of trails and greenways to connect public lands using private lands with landowner agreements and liability protections? Does your community have an equestrian-friendly park with a boarding stable and lesson program which not only serves riders but provides a connection to the public? Are facilities available for training, horse shows, youth equine programs and events?
Lack of participation by horsemen and women can lead to dire consequences for the open spaces we value. For example, lack of equestrian representation at public comprehensive planning meetings can lead to the loss of land for riding, driving, training, breeding, camping, grazing, growing hay and grain, and competing. Community planners are not psychic -if equestrians do not make their needs known, then other parties (such as developers) who are interested in the same area of land and make the time to attend meetings will have the opportunity to lobby for their cause. It is most important to remember that those who actively participate are generally able to have their interests represented in the plan (as appropriate), while those who do not participate have missed the opportunity to have their interests incorporated into the plan. Active and interested residents can make a significant, positive difference in a community’s land use plan outcome simply by taking the time to participate in the planning process.
Make a Real Difference
As outlined above, resident equestrians can make a significant, positive difference in a comprehensive plan’s outcome simply through their participation in the planning and public comment process. Going even further, ideally equestrians would be involved at all levels of the planning process, including having a community-employed planning professional who is a horseman or at least understands the equestrian community, its financial impact, and benefits for the community. If that is not the current situation, horsemen are encouraged to get to know their land use planner and/or members of the planning committee, and inform them about the equine activities and economy in the community. Take them on a farm tour; introduce them to a veterinarian, a farrier, a hay producer and others who are a part of the equine economy to help them understand the employment and economic impact of the equine community. It could be very effective to prepare a presentation for your community’s paid and volunteer planners on the many benefits of the equine community including scenic beauty, healthy lifestyles, family-centered activity, jobs and tourism. It is important for planners to understand the low cost of community services for farms as compared to residential development (data on the cost of community services is available from the American Farmland Trust www.farmland.org or www.elcr.org).
Another level of participation is to actually become a volunteer or appointed member of the comprehensive planning committee. Consider becoming a leader in your community’s planning process to make a positive difference for yourself and your fellow horse enthusiasts, as well as to help maintain the equestrian lifestyle and heritage for the benefit of future generations. This role is particularly important because the stronger the equine community representation on the committee, the easier it is to have the horsemen’s interests included as an element in the original plan draft. It is always easier to get equine interests included in the first draft than it is to have them added at a later stage in the process.
Most importantly, every horseman can participate in land use planning. You do not need to own land nor a horse; but simply your interest, time and voice can make a difference in preserving land for horse-related activity in your community.