Agriculture is an important part of the County’s economy and rural character, but it is highly vulnerable to conflicts with non-agricultural uses. Agricultural activities with a more intense character, such as animal feedlot operations, are particularly sensitive to the proximity of housing, and are most susceptible to such land use conflicts. To help mitigate these conflicts, agricultural zoning has limited residential uses to one housing unit per 40 acres or more. This approach has not prevented the establishment of rural housing, which can make it more difficult to assemble and efficiently cultivate farmland. The County anticipates non-farmstead housing to continue to occur in the agricultural areas as people seek a rural lifestyle and open space. This presents future challenges in our objective to continue to encourage agricultural uses, while preventing barriers to future development opportunities.
Moving forward, the County may consider some of the following tools to protect prime agricultural lands:
Agricultural Zones are implemented through zoning regulations. Agricultural zones in other counties throughout Minnesota have used a density of 80 acres and up to 640 acres, depending on the land’s productivity for crop production. This zoning tool can help protect larger areas of agricultural land, while maintaining open space and wildlife habitat; however, it can limit the land owner’s ability to develop in the future. Stearns County’s zoning districts range between 1 unit per 40 acres and 1 unit per 160 acres.
The purchase of development rights is a voluntary program between the property owner and the County. The County buys development rights and restricts the use of the land to farming and open space in perpetuity. This approach can be very expensive depending on the value of the land. The County does not currently use this tool.
This program allows the development potential of an agriculture preservation area (sending area) to be purchased by a developer and to be transferred to a designated developing area (receiving area). This
tool helps manage urban growth areas, but can be very difficult to implement. Challenges include a supporting market place and financial mechanism to facilitate the purchasing of development rights. The County has a similar program in place, which allows a property owner or developer to purchase their neighbors development rights. The properties must be adjacent or contiguous to one another. This tool allows a property owner to develop at a higher density, while removing the future development ability of the adjacent properties.
Land is taxed for its use-value rather than at its highest and best use for development, which helps encourage farmers to keep their land in production. Stearns County has a program similar in nature, known as Green Acres. The Green Acres Program provides property tax relief to qualifying owners of Class 2a agricultural property in areas where the market value of land is being affected by development pressure, sales of recreational land, or other non- agricultural factors.
An agricultural conservation easement is a voluntary, legally binding agreement between the landowner and a qualified third party that is placed on agricultural land to ensure that the land remains in agricultural production by removing most or all of its residential development potential. This type of tool has been used to preserve over 1,000 acres in the Avon Hills area.
The local government can purchase land before it is ready to be developed. The property can be resold with restrictions, such as conservation easements with limited development. The County does not currently use this tool.