Plan's Provisions For Farmland Are Questioned

Front Page / Jan. 8, 2004 12:00am EST

Plan's Provisions For Farmland Are Questioned

As Randolph's long-awaited new town plan nears completion, controversy developed this week over how strongly to encourage "cluster housing" on agricultural lands.

The proposed town plan proposes that the creation of a "Rural Agricultural" zone for the first time. It suggests the eventual zoning ordinance should encourage all developments built on good farmland to cluster the homes, leaving the bulk of the land open for farm uses.

The Planning Commission will hold its second hearing on the proposed plan at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan 13 at the Gifford conference room. It will present the final draft to the Selectboard Jan. 20.

Commission Chair Julie Iffland this week said the clustering idea grew out of frequently-expressed desires by her commission and the public to keep farmland—if it is developed—from being cut up into "cookie cutter" developments of five acres each that would quickly devour open land.

However, former Route 12 farmer Perry Hodgdon this week said he feared this approach might lower the value of farmland for resale. Farmers, he noted, are not likely to accumulate 401-k retirement funds during their working days. Their retirement security is wrapped up in their farmland, and they want to be able to get good value for it, he explained.

"The long range problem with cluster housing is there isn't necessarily going to be a market for cluster-housing developments," Hodgdon said.

Iffland noted that the clustering proposal is intended to help farmers by keeping more land open and available for production.

"The Catch 22 here is we are trying to protect farmland, and yet you want to make sure you make all the landowners whole," she said.

"How can we get a result that the community values (more open land) in a way that doesn't hurt the farmer?"

Changes Made

Hodgdon presented some of his fears at a December hearing, and the Planning Board thought it had met his objections, Iffland said.

The proposal states that standards in the zone should be "particularly flexible … to help enable a landowner to realize financial goals and at the same time conserve prime soils.

"At minimum, the land owner would be allowed to develop the same number of units as they otherwise would …" the plan suggests.

However, other parts of the section say that if a landowner proposes a development involving prime farm soils, "the Town would ask the landowner to draw up a plan" which would include cluster housing.

Finally, the plan states that "care should be taken that the regulations on development of farm soils in this district are not onerous to farmers."

The town plan, it should be noted, is only a guideline. It is not an ordinance and not enforceable. Zoning ordinances must still be written, which would make the recommendations specific and would include enforcement.

Hodgdon is still upset, however, that the phrase "or requires" is in the proposed plan, in reference to cluster housing.

"It's a good idea to encourage cluster housing, but not to require it," he said. "Everybody is in favor of building on the edge of property rather than in the middle of the field."

Regular five-acre zoning in rural areas is wasteful of land, he said.

He has invited other farmers and interested people to a meeting today (Thursday) at 1 p.m. at the former Randolph Center school to discuss the issue. Iffland said the Planning Commission will try to have somebody there to explain the proposal.

For her part, Iffland said she has been encouraged that Hodgdon and other farmers have agreed that cluster housing is to be generally encouraged. The exact wording in the town plan can be agreed upon, she predicted.

As to the economic effect on farmland sales, she said that cluster housing would affect the market but not necessarily hurt it. Some developers would be attracted by such opportunities, she said, noting that experience suggests that when land is conserved around housing, the value of the housing increases.

Hodgdon noted that land issues are of great interest just now.

"A lot of the farmers in this area are in their 50s," he said. "Change is taking place. You have to be careful of how it takes place."

That's something else that all sides can agree on.


Zoning & Planning: What's Next?

After Jan. 13's final hearing, the Planning Commission turns its product over to the Selectboard. The Selectboard must hold two hearings, may make some changes, and can adopt the plan. There is no provision for a petition and a townwide vote on adopting the plan, because it is not an enforceable ordinance.

To have legal weight, the plan's recommendations must be included in new zoning ordinances. With the help of a consultant, the Planning Commission will develop changes to the zoning ordinance. After hearings, the zoning will go to the Selectboard which, after a hearing, may adopt it.

Zoning does not go into effect for 21 days, however, and during that period a petition could require a townwide vote on the proposal. That is what happened in 1998, resulting in the defeat of the zoning changes and resulting in an ordinance that is widely recognized as out of date.

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