Johnson County: altered farm requirements may attract developers


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Johnson County officials say altering zoning laws to accommodate the changing landscape of agriculture might cause farmers and developers to compete for farmland.

Under the Johnson County Land Use Plan, a resident must own 40 acres of land and use it for farming in order to be classified as a farm, despite a few exceptions that must be reviewed by an assessor.

Because agriculture is changing and the price of farmland is increasing — at present, around $7,000 an acre — small farmers are not able to afford enough land to have their farms classified as "farms," which carries the benefit of tax breaks.

But county Supervisor Rod Sullivan said if the acreage requirement for being classified as a farm is reduced, developers will "lurk" to resell farm land in rural areas to build homes.

"There might be some repercussions here, and the real purpose won't be for farming," he said. "We already have people who have enough resources to buy the land, and farmers can't compete with the development prices to expand their farming."

Instead of having 40-acre land lots used for farming, he said, the land might be split into 10-acre parcels and sprawling development — large-lot development that's inefficient — would occur.

"You might get people to buy a big mansion and have a big yard," Sullivan said. "And there is nothing worse than a huge, sprawling yard."

People develop in rural areas for a sense of privacy and bigger area than they can get in town, which is bad for the environment, he said.

"I'm afraid the problems associated with sprawl-type environment outweigh the environment of small-business owners," Sullivan said. "Taxes are lower, but otherwise, I don't know why people would do it, because all in all, I don't think it is healthy."

It also creates more maintenance for the county.

Planning Division manager R.J. Miller said roads meant for low-density travel would change to high-density traffic, requiring more maintenance because of damage to the roads.

"We would need to maintain the gravel roads, and we can't keep up with that," he said. "It would make it more difficult for the county to provide our services."

The changing landscape of agriculture — from corn and beans to vineyards and orchards — has complicated the farm-classification process.

Johnson County Assessor Bill Greazel said taxing and zoning laws can be difficult because there is "no right definition of what is a farm anymore."

"If I smell manure, that's usually a good sign," he said. "If I see 40 acres and mobile home, and people using their land to grow crops and sell them to the farmers' market, that's a farm."

Greazel said it is not necessarily the size of the land people own but the primary purpose of the land is.

"If I drive up and I see a pond and seven acres of mowed grass and no farm equipment, and the rest in timber, that's not such a good sign," he said.

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