Much of the Wasatch Front was once farmland. In fact, Davis County, wedged between the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountains, has some of the most fertile soil in the country. The trouble is, most of that rich farmland is now under concrete and asphalt.
Utah has lost farm acreage equal to the area of the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined over the past 40 years to housing and commercial development. That's a sad situation that poor planning over the decades has allowed to happen. Urban sprawl should have been restricted and controlled, but such a vision has only recently received any attention at all. And for many counties in Utah's urban megalopolis of the Wasatch Front, it's nearly too late.
That's why the Legislature should pass SB46, which Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, calls the Agriculture Sustainability Act.
The bill is similar to several earlier bills aimed at giving farmers a way to keep their farms and also realize part of the financial benefit that would come if they were to sell it off for development. (By the way, it's inaccurate to call farmland "undeveloped." It is certainly productive and developed, just not as subdivisions and strip malls.)
Under SB46, farmers could sell development rights and continue operating their farms. Money to finance the program would come from "rollback" taxes paid by farm owners who sell to a developer or turn the farmland into building lots themselves. They are required to pay taxes for several previous years at the higher rate charged residential property.
The funds from rollback taxes would go into a county fund, where it would accrue, creating a continuing source of money. Counties could decide to use those funds to buy conservation easements on farmland currently in production. A local elected board with members coming from Soil Conservation Districts, would decide which parcels qualify for the easements.
The easements would remain in effect for a minimum of 30 years and up to perpetuity.
Previous bills to create conservation easements for farmland were rejected because they were not voluntary for counties and did not include the 30-year option.
Jenkins' version should be acceptable to most legislators since it gives counties and farmers more flexibility.
Preserving some of Utah's remaining farmland is important to the state's economy and to maintaining its cultural heritage.