Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Promises of Local Control (Part 2 of a Series)

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of how agricultural zoning should be implemented in Iowa, we need to talk some more about the reasons why it needs to be implemented.

First, I think we need to come to terms with the fact that local control of agricultural zoning is not going to solve all of the world's problems.

California is the top producer of agricultural products in the United States. That state has county-level control of agricultural zoning, and it continues to lead the nation in many aspects of agriculture. But California still has problems.

Despite California's county-by-county local control of agricultural zoning, significant problems exist in its ag economy. According to a report from the International Society for Ecology and Culture, California agriculture is dominated by large corporate agribusinesses. To quote a portion of the report, "in California today, large agribusinesses dominate every sector of the food economy. Vertical and horizontal integration, as well as strategic alliances among input suppliers, large-scale producers, food processors, manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, have created corporate oligarchies with immense and growing power. Today, just 1 percent of California producers supplies 38 percent of the state’s total agricultural production; just three companies control 57 percent of the huge food retail market in California. Similarly high levels of consolidation are now found throughout California’s food system."

Clearly, it won't solve everything. Nonetheless, Iowa needs to institute agricultural zoning.

As we move forward, we need to focus on the purpose of zoning. We need agricultural land-use planning at the county level in Iowa to determine precisely which areas of each county should be set aside and separated from full-scale, modern livestock production. There is a right place and a wrong place for livestock in every county in Iowa, as long as we have strong, statewide environmental protection standards.

That's how industrial development has been done in Iowa for decades, and it works. The line between agriculture and industry has become increasingly gray in recent years, and we ought to start treating them in a similar fashion.

If state legislators move forward with this as their guiding principle -- that the main purpose of zoning is to keep incompatible land uses separated -- I think Iowans will be happy with the results. When it's done correctly, zoning solves problems. But if we screw it up, we could bring a whole host of new problems upon ourselves -- like costly lawsuits that Iowa's counties simply cannot afford.

Iowa legislators need to have a public debate on how land-use planning can help farmers operate more harmoniously with their neighbors. We need to hear more discussion about how zoning can help save Iowa's valuable farmland from urban sprawl. And let's all think about Iowa's crucial role in the production of renewable fuels and what that industry might bring to rural Iowa in the coming years.

We also need to hear more debate about how county-level agricultural zoning fits into efforts to protect the environment. This is where there seems to be the most significant disagreement.

One point to consider: Watersheds don't begin and end along county lines, so why would we want different sets of regulations covering various parts of a watershed? I believe that after a rigorous public debate on this subject, most thoughtful people will come to the conclusion that environmental regulations should be statewide and they should be administered at the state level. And they need to be strengthened.

Undoubtedly, county agricultural zoning would play an important role in protecting our environment, but only if it fits into and enhances the larger set of statewide natural resource regulations. Zoning should be used to keep large-scale livestock operations from being built in environmentally sensitive areas -- but conversely, zoning should be used to determine areas that are well-suited to raising livestock.

So how should legislators begin the process of instituting county-level zoning for agriculture?

First, they might want to take a look at this:
Click diagram to enlarge. Source: County Zoning Officials of Iowa.

We have already discussed the need for statewide uniformity if we add agriculture to our county zoning regulations. This map shows us one of the first major stumbling blocks on the road to uniformity in agricultural zoning. We see that there are quite a few counties in Iowa that haven't yet implemented any form of zoning whatsoever in their unincorporated areas. That needs to change before we can move forward.

Every county in Iowa should be required to prepare a comprehensive land-use plan and create a planning and zoning commission. That's a tall order, but it is necessary.

The first step in tackling any issue of this magnitude should be the creation of a state commission to oversee the process. Let's call it the Iowa Rural Land Use Planning Board, or maybe somebody can come up with something a little more catchy.

Whatever it's called, all interested parties should be invited to the table. Members appointed to the board should include the secretary of agriculture, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, the director of the Department of Economic Development and a representative from the Iowa State Association of Counties. Others who should have a seat at the table include academics from state universities, representatives of environmental advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, as well as agricultural organizations such as the Iowa Farmers Union and the Farm Bureau. Let's face it, we're not going to get anything done unless folks put their differences aside and work together.

First, this board would be charged with the task of reviewing and approving the comprehensive land-use plan of every county in Iowa.

The board would then need to conduct feasibility studies to determine what all of this is going to cost Iowa taxpayers, one of the subjects we will discuss in the final part of this series (Click here).


Bruce Grady said...

Very well thought out! Please keep up your efforts

Anonymous said...

Is the point of this article that strong statewide regulations to protect human health and the environment are needed -- and that county-level agricultural zoning is necessary for all the reasons that zoning is always needed?

If so, then we're finally on our way to a meaningful conversation.