Wednesday, June 06, 2007

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

There is no free lunch. Let's face it, any sweeping reforms in how Iowa controls use of agricultural land for livestock production -- such as the reforms suggested in the first two articles in this series -- are going to cost the taxpayers money. And Iowa's counties sure don't need another unfunded mandate from the state.

Just how much money it's going to cost is difficult to estimate, but the good news is that most Iowa counties, around 80 of them, already have a comprehensive land-use plan and zoning commission.
Les Beck, president of an association of zoning administrators called County Zoning Officials of Iowa, estimates that it would cost at the very least $20,000 per county to write or rewrite all of the state's comprehensive county land-use plans. Multiply that by 99 counties in Iowa, and we're talking about at minimum $2 million just to get started. Others estimate that the cost would be lower.

It sounds like an expensive proposition. But even $2 million is a bargain when you consider the benefits of rural land-use planning and agricultural zoning as part of the solution to Iowa's larger priorities of environmental protection, water quality improvement, economic development and growing the renewable fuels industry. And we're already ahead of the curve in more than 80 of Iowa's 99 counties, given the fact that there are already technical staff and processes currently in place.

Once created, as we've recommended in the second article in this series, a Rural Land Use Planning Board will need to determine exactly what it's going to cost each county to implement these changes, and the state should pay the bills.

The next step: County land-use plans and development codes should be prepared at the local level, by local people. But the cooperation of other services and institutions is imperative to the success of the process. Local planners should be required by code to seek the input of the USDA Soil and Water Conservation Service, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, local economic development groups, and most importantly, local farmers.
Each county in Iowa is different, and each county has its own areas that are well-suited to modern livestock production. The comprehensive land-use plan of each county should help determine exactly where those places are.

Agricultural zoning boundaries would then be set by local zoning boards in accordance with the comprehensive land use plan in each county. A strict set of guidelines must be codified in state law to maintain as much uniformity as possible throughout Iowa's 99 counties. County zoning boards would be required by code to follow the guidelines when setting their ordinances. That way, environmentally sensitive areas would be protected under a statewide uniform standard. And farm operations in areas that are well-suited to raising livestock would be protected from nuisance complaints.

As we've discussed throughout this series, there is no quick fix to all of the problems involved with livestock production in Iowa. Land use planning should be viewed as a long-term solution that will help Iowa be better prepared for the agricultural economy of the future. Local control, land use planning and effective agricultural zoning should be seen as a win-win for everyone on all sides of the issue.

As Iowa continues to lead in the production of renewable fuels with the goal of achieving energy independence, livestock will play a crucial role as part of the economic equation. Livestock producers will play their part by utilizing the co-products of the process of making ethanol and biodiesel. And people considering making investments in this growing economic opportunity will want firm, uniform laws in place so that they are not blindsided by shifting political powers at the county level.

The time is now for this process to begin. Legislators need to start talking about it this summer and throughout the fall with their constituents, so they are ready for the debate to begin in January. Such a sweeping reform of our antiquated system demands an open and honest discussion in the legislature not a back-room deal cut by leaders in the final week of the session.

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