New land development patterns could mimic organic growth
By Tara DeRock Mahoney
Senior Staff Writer
A hundred years ago, land-development patterns were pretty straightforward. Farmers lived out in the country; nearly everyone else was located near town.
Fast-forward a century, to a time when nearly every citizen has a motor vehicle. Even those who are not farmers can live and enjoy the rural life, because groceries and needed goods are just a short car-ride away. Accordingly, a current look at a county development map does not show clusters of homes surrounded by huge swathes of farmland; instead, the county is uniformly covered with land parcels of 50 acres or less. Most of the huge farming operations of the 19th and early 20th centuries have been broken up into myriad, smaller homeplaces; and while large tracts of undeveloped land still exist, they do not abound as they once did.
Does this mean that agriculture is going the way of the wind? Hardly. In fact, Morgan County growers and producers today are looking at new and innovative ways of keeping farming local and viable (see related story above). But these smaller homesteads, nestled as they are amongst farms all over the county, mean that the centuries-old pattern of town-center development has shifted—and attitudes toward development must shift also.
“We’re proposing some really sophisticated land-control measures,” said Morgan County Senior Planner Allison Moon at the county’s most recent agricultural land-use discussion meeting. “Is there a future for [agricultural] land other than subdivision? Or, how do we allow families to sell and subdivide their land while preserving the rural character of Morgan?”
There are varying views within the agricultural community itself as to what avenue is best. Some farmers want to keep taxes low in order to hold onto land for future generations. Other landowners want to see prices increase according to market pressures so that they can sell property at a significant profit. The county’s challenge—is there a way to do both?
A number of local groups, including the Morgan County Conservancy, have explored the concept of transferable development rights, or TDRs, as a potential land-control option. Under this model, the county would have to adopt a TDR ordinance that would designate so-called “sending” and “receiving” areas for development in the county.
One of the problems with TDRs, says Moon, is that no single community in Morgan County wants to be a part of the “receiving” area for development.
“During the creation of the county comprehensive plan—and that was just four years ago—no community wanted to welcome growth,” said Moon. “Sure, the county could just designate all the land around [local cities] as growth areas—but Madison doesn’t want that. Rutledge doesn’t want that. Buckhead doesn’t want that. Where do we put these ‘receiving’ areas?”
As an alternative to TDRs, Moon is seeking input on new regulations that could allow property owners to subdivide their land, but cluster new homes on smaller lots and shield them from rural viewsheds.
“Today, when we drive through Morgan County, we see lots of open space, farm land, near the road…and rooftops in the distance,” said Moon. “That’s the reality of the current ‘rural character’ that we want to preserve. What if we could devise regulations that would allow us to continue that pattern of development?”
Such regulations would likely represent a significant departure from the county’s current acreage-based development model for rural land. But, as several of the participants at the agricultural land-use meeting pointed out, the reality is that no one in the county wants to see thousands of two-and-five-acre parcels developed along Morgan County’s byways in the coming decades. So new thought processes are required, and any successful zoning plan will consider the property rights of landowners as well as the implacability of market pressures.
“You can steer the market one way or another through regulations, but you can’t make [the market] go away,” said Charles Baldwin at last week’s meeting.
There are three more agricultural land-use meeting scheduled—at 6 p.m. on April 17, May 1, and May 15 in the Planning & Zoning Conference room at the old Creamery—and they are open to the public. Call Morgan County Senior Planner Allison Moon at 706.342.4373 for more information.