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How do we manage growth in the urbanizing West?

By Dave Carter

What is the future of agriculture in the urbanizing West?

Is it a long-term sustainable component of a viable, diversified economy, or, is it simply a short-term proposition, destined for extinction?

The outcome of ongoing debate over growth management in the Colorado legislature may largely determine the answer to the question. Lawmakers in New Mexico and Wyoming are anxiously watching the tone and tenor of that debate because the actions taken in Colorado may foreshadow the future in those states as well.

Over the past three months, Colorado lawmakers have debated terms like “urban service areas,” “presumption of buildibility,” “net density” and “multi-modal transportation.” Beneath the surface of all of the debate, and all of the arcane terminology, simmers the simple question: “What is the future of agriculture?”

If agriculture is finished, the debate is fairly simple: Just show us the money. Thank you very much. Adios. Every producer ought to obtain the highest price for their property they sell to the next housing contractor or strip mall developer. Let’s not worry about the ability of new producers to obtain land, or about the ability of existing producers to move machinery or cattle from one field to the next.

But if agriculture is to continue playing an important role in providing food and fiber, open space buffers, wildlife habitat, watershed protection and scenic vistas, then the debate becomes much more complex. The choices become much more difficult.

Early in the legislative session, State Sen. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, introduced comprehensive legislation that seeks to corral most of the urban sprawl within a series of growth boundaries. Sen. Perlmutter’s approach would require governmental entities to develop comprehensive plans, and to abide by those plans. His bill also encourages the use of incentives like cluster development, purchase of development rights, transfer of development rights, and conservation easements.

In the House, Rep. Joe Stengel introduced legislation with a looser approach to enforceable boundaries. While Rep. Stengel’s proposal created incentives to direct growth inside designated urban areas, several provisions allowed for exemptions within the rural areas.

As these two bills emerged, RMFU convened a working group of Front Range area products to examine the two proposals. Based on their input, RMFU submitted formal testimony on the positive provisions in each measure.

During its journey through the conservative House, though, Stengel’s bill was amended to further loosen the already-flexible provisions concerning growth boundaries. By the time the legislation emerged from the House floor, the primary feature left intact was the concept that eases the regulatory process for developers wanting to build in designated urban areas.

That is why the board of directors of RMFU broke ranks with many of the other agricultural organizations and voted to support Sen. Perlmutter’s approach, with a couple of provisos.

Sen. Perlmutter’s bill allows the creation of certain impact fees to pay for the cost of building new schools. The RMFU working groups proposed that the impact fee concept be expanded to include assessing a fee to offset the costs incurred by producers who will have to farm in the shadow of an urban development. Sen. Perlmutter likes the idea, and is willing to consider language implementing the concept.

The RMFU board also directed that any growth legislation require urban service agreements that protect the service territory of rural electric cooperatives.

The idea of urban growth areas makes sense, as long as it does not involve a solid line on a map that arbitrarily designates property on one side of the line as high value and the property on the other side as low value. Sen. Perlutter’s bill seeks to create buffers that direct growth inside the line, without unjustly diminishing the value of property outside the line. While his legislation limits some of the flexibility of “doing what I want with my property,” that limitation may ultimately be the price we have to pay if we truly want to promote a viable agricultural infrastructure in the years ahead.

In the end, however, agriculture must be economically viable. Farmers Union has suggested one simple method to halt urban sprawl onto agricultural land. Our solution would require only that the legislature enact a law mandating $5 wheat, $4 corn and $1 fat cattle. No one really seemed willing to carry that proposal.

Depressed commodity prices are the major factor driving many producers to make the decision to allow a crop of houses to sprout in fields once dedication to corn, beets or alfalfa. In order to maintain a continuing role within the urbanizing West, agriculture must be economically viable.

Directing growth is one component to curbing sprawl. Maintaining economic viability for agriculture is another. Both must be addressed if agricultural producers and urban consumers are to continue co-existing along the urbanizing Front Range.