Strategic municipal planning can support agriculture

Strategic municipal planning can support agriculture

June 26, 2023


Kristina Buckley

Earlier this month, Maine Farmland Trust’s Municipal Policy Associate Thacher Carter had the opportunity to attend the Build Maine 2023 conference hosted in downtown Skowhegan.

The event drew hundreds of attendees from throughout Maine and beyond, including municipal officials, planners, builders, engineers, architects, and smart growth advocates, as well as experts from a variety of other fields.

With a focus on building Maine’s towns and cities, the forum provided an excellent opportunity for MFT to think about our municipal policy work in new ways and to spread the word about the work we are doing with towns to develop farm-friendly ordinances, policies, and planning strategies. Here are a few of our takeaways from the conference about why protecting farmland and farm-friendly municipal planning can help us to grow stronger, more sustainable communities.

Farmland Protection & Climate Resilience

The featured keynote speakers and workshops grappled with topics such as Maine’s affordable housing shortage, the impacts of climate change, as well as inequities tied to certain zoning practices. Speakers also presented a range of tools Maine towns can explore to build resiliency and intentionally shape their communities, such as through forward-thinking building codes, financing strategies, and housing plans.

Nathan Philips, a professor of earth and environment at Boston University, offered a keynote address particularly pertinent to MFT’s work centered around climate migration and encouraging the audience to act with urgency in the midst of a challenging and changing environmental and political landscape. According to a 2020 study Philips referenced throughout his address, by 2100, all 16 counties in Maine are projected to be impacted by sea level rise, either due to in-migration or flooding.

“The climate emergency is an emergency of the status quo,“ Philips underscored, describing his own lived experience and sharing the stories of others whose lives have been upended and displaced by climate change.

But, Philips added, while we do have a climate emergency, we also have an opportunity to embrace migration and to see it as people and diversity that can build and regenerate a vibrant, livable economy in the state of Maine.

At MFT, we view protecting farmland as a critical component of building and regenerating a vibrant, livable economy in Maine. Maine must ensure it has the land base to grow our agricultural economy, particularly as more farmers reach retirement age, new farmers arrive, and development pressures increase. For all the contributions agriculture provides to communities – whether it be economic, environmental, cultural, or as a healthy local source of food – we see farms and farmland, and our mission to advance the future of farming, as a key component to this opportunity to shape Maine’s future in the face of climate change and climate migration, as Philips describes.

Municipal Planning to Promote Urban Density & Support Agriculture

Karen Parolek, an author, zoning reform expert, and the president of Opticos Design, also delivered a keynote address at the Build Maine 2023 conference which intersected with the work we’re doing here at MFT.

In her keynote, Parolek emphasized the importance of creating land use codes that promote a dense and walkable urban core, contrasting that concept with traditional zoning codes which can encourage vast amounts of single-family housing and lead to sprawl and high service costs for communities. In fact, according to American Farmland Trust’s Farms Under Threat research, if rural sprawl accelerates and continues, the U.S. could lose 1 million acres of agricultural land every year, and over 24 million by 2040.

“It’s important for saving our agricultural land,” Parolek stated. “The amount of sprawl that has taken over our farmland in this country is devastating.”

At the town level, MFT is working to support municipalities in developing strategies designed to support agriculture and proactively prepare for the future.

A pillar of our municipal policy work is to help communities realize the many benefits that farms and farmland provide – with just one example being the ability to keep property tax rates low – and that support for agriculture should be a key consideration for any smart and sustainable planning or policy initiative.

We strive to show towns that protecting farmland and increasing a town’s housing stock do not need to be at odds with one another, and in fact, through smart growth strategies like Parolek described, the two objectives can coexist to form vibrant and strong communities.

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