Breaking New Ground: Kane County officials harvested a truckload of controversy

Jun 1, 2001

Credit Jon Randolph

Kane County

With 10,000 residents moving into Kane County each year, farmers like Randy Klein wonder how much longer there will be room for them amid the subdivisions sprouting on former cropland west of Chicago.

Klein grows sweet corn and other vegetables on 400 acres his family has owned for 40 years near Burlington in the western part of the county, then sells the produce at markets in the Elgin area. "I'd like for things to stay just the way they are, but we're getting development out here," says Klein, who as a teenager in the 1950s farmed with his father in northwest Cook County on land now covered by homes.

Enter Kane County officials, who decided to break some new ground of their own. Faced with surging growth, they devised a farmland protection program, the first of its kind in Illinois, aimed at making it easier for Klein and others to continue farming, even as pressures to develop agricultural land soar. 

They've harvested a truckload of controversy, though.

The innovative, $15 million program overwhelmingly approved by county board members in April hasn't won much support from the farmers it's supposed to help. Many, including Klein, like the idea of trying to preserve local farms as the county becomes more suburban than rural. And cost isn't the issue. The county will pay for the program, not with taxpayers' dollars but with money it receives from the Grand Victoria riverboat casino in Elgin.

What worries the Kane County Farm Bureau, which represents many local farmers, is a provision allowing the county to buy productive ground. That provision, unusual even for similar farmland protection programs across the country, has farmers fretting the plan will mean government control of some agricultural acreage.

The concerns are practical as well as philosophical. Farmers fear the county will be able to outbid them for land, in turn driving up prices overall, making it still more difficult for individuals to purchase ground.

"Our destiny is controlled by what happens to the land," says Klein, whose two sons are involved in his farming business. "We just don't want to trust our future to the county."

Kane officials argue their help may be necessary to ensure a future for farming in the region. And that future does look increasingly grim. A rising tide of development is beginning to threaten the estimated 200,000 acres of farm ground remaining in the county. The plan, called the Agricultural Conservation Easement and Farmland Protection Program, is an attempt to give those who own and work that land more choices. "We'll give some farmers an alternative to selling their land for homes," says Kane County Board Chairman Michael McCoy, who proposed and promoted the plan.

McCoy and other proponents say they want farming to remain a vital industry in the county, despite the changes that are bringing more people, housing and development. While denying they are anti-growth, some of the program's backers say they hope it will help discourage suburban sprawl and bolster efforts to maintain open space as the county grows.

County board members approved the program by a 22-1 vote, despite objections from the farm bureau and more than 125 farmers who signed petitions opposing long-term county ownership of farmland.

It's designed to be voluntary. Land the county buys will be leased for agricultural use, preferably to local farmers. In any event, proponents argue, buying land outright is only one option. The county also will buy conservation easements that will prevent farmland from being developed but will allow it to remain in private ownership and continue to be farmed. A farmer selling development rights to the county could even pass the land on to his children.

"This is something worth doing," says board member William Morse, a Huntley Republican who backed the plan. "Maybe we'll be able to encourage farmers to stay. Maybe we'll encourage farmers' sons to stay in the future."

Kane County
Credit Jon Randolph

The county could obtain its first parcel of land this year. And McCoy foresees a mix of such purchases and conservation easements to protect about 2,000 to 2,500 acres of farmland over the next five years. That's about all the county is likely to be able to afford, given rising land values. A consultant's report estimates farmland in the central part of the county - ground zero for development - is worth about $4,200 an acre for agricultural use. But the American Farmland Trust, which helped the county develop its program, estimates that buying land there now will cost $10,500 to $13,500 an acre because of its development potential.

If the county starts buying up key parcels of farmland, some farmers worry prices will go up even further and faster. And the county would be removing any property it buys from the tax rolls, leaving private landowners to make up the difference, opponents say. 

The farm bureau unsuccessfully lobbied county officials to focus instead on acquiring development rights to prevent farmland from eventually being used for homes, shopping centers or schools. That would leave the acreage in private hands.

A "conservation easement" is the legal tool for acquiring such rights. Buying the easement means buying any future rights to develop a piece of property or make substantial improvements to it. When a conservation easement is placed on farmland, the land can be sold or passed on to heirs, but it can't be developed.

"It might allow us to stay there and farm - and for the second, third or fourth generation to stay and continue to farm," says Steve Ruh, who farms about 1,400 acres with his father in the southwestern part of the county.

Farm bureau leaders even offered an alternative, an amendment that would have allowed the county to buy farmland to keep it from being developed, but would have required the county to sell it back to private interests after putting a conservation easement on the property. The board buried that proposal.

"I don't think the objection is to the county board having power to buy land; it's to them holding onto it long-term," says Steve Arnold, farm bureau manager. "Farmers and rural landowners just don't like the idea of the county owning farmland. They don't see any public policy need for that."

In fact, the American Farmland Trust, in its report to Kane County officials, recommended the county not become a landowner. The trust would prefer to see the county focus on acquiring easements to protect farmland.

"Philosophically, we'd rather see it in the hands of farmers," says Ed Minihan, director of the trust's upper Midwest field office.

The group works with states and counties to create programs to manage and preserve farmland. Such programs exist in more than two dozen states, mostly in the West or on the East Coast, though they also exist in several Midwestern states, including Wisconsin and Michigan.

Most programs focus on acquiring conservation easements, Minihan says, and the handful of programs that do purchase land do so sparingly and often quickly resell it.

Still, Minihan calls Kane County's initiative an excellent plan. "It's a county that's decided to set its own destiny."

McCoy, an Aurora Republican who has focused on land use and development issues since he became board chairman in 1996, has put together a nine-member commission that will identify farmland the county should consider buying or preserving through conservation easements. The farm bureau is guaranteed one seat on the commission, and McCoy appointed farmers to two of the six at-large seats.

Though farm leaders are disappointed with parts of the program, they won't hesitate to sit on the commission. "We hope to have a say. That's all we can do now," Ruh says.

Given the pace of development in the county, proponents say there's little time to waste. While cornfields stretch from horizon to horizon in the western section of the county, subdivisions and strip shopping centers have become common in the eastern and central sections.

Development steamrolling west from Chicago in the last decade has raised Kane County's population to 404,000 � a 27 percent increase since 1990, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures. And about 15,000 acres of farmland were lost in the county between 1992 and 1997, according to estimates from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Robust growth is expected to continue until 2020, when the county's population could top 600,000. Such dramatic changes threaten agricultural land that still covers about 60 percent of the county. They could threaten Kane's economy, as well. Farming is a crucial, $120-million-a-year business in that county and acres of tabletop flat farmland that still remain are the backbone of that industry.

"I think it's viewed as a bottomless pit resource, but that's never true with anything," says McCoy.

More than that is at play, though.

Officials acknowledge they see preserving farmland as a way to help control the growth that McCoy and others believe could otherwise inundate the county from border to border. "Kane County has always been a transition area, where the Chicago metro area changes to rural farmland," says McCoy, a civil engineer who grew up in Aurora but had relatives who farmed. "We want to maintain that. We'd like to keep some land permanently in agriculture."

County officials hope to retain 40 percent of the farmland through 2020, avoiding the fate of other collar counties where rural acreage has virtually disappeared. Next door in DuPage County, less than 10 percent of the land is now used for farming. With new residents pouring in, McCoy and others can see that happening in their county without some quick help. And he believes that means buying land to maintain control. That would include farm ground that borders existing forest preserves and other land that lies in key watersheds of local creeks, particularly those that run into the Fox River.

"We'll do that [buy easements] in some cases, but I think we want to hold ownership in others," McCoy says.

And that, many farmers believe, could have a detrimental impact on their operations. "If the farm next to me came up for sale, I'd be interested in bidding on it," says Klein, who farms near Burlington. "They've got deep pockets from the riverboat and could outbid the farmer looking for land."

"It's them [county officials] competing with private interests with public money," Arnold agrees, adding that such competition would hurt local owners.

McCoy doesn't see that happening. "We're not going to be a big enough player in the market to drive up prices," McCoy insists, noting that the 2,500 acres the county might acquire or obtain easements for in the next five years is roughly 1 percent of the total farmland left in the county.

But McCoy and other county board members do have other concerns. They worry about the permanence of agricultural easements. Forest preserve districts and private conservation groups have used that legal tool for years to help preserve open space, but easements are just beginning to be used in Illinois to protect farmland from being developed. This spring, the county pushed for a change in state law that would clearly authorize it. "I've always worried about the legality of agricultural easements," McCoy says.

Land use experts have similar concerns. "I think it's open for interpretation," says Gerald Adelmann, executive director of the Openlands Project, a Chicago-based land conservation group.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Association of Realtors takes a hard line. "We don't think they can do it," says Michael Scobey, government affairs liaison for the association. "Kane County doesn't have the authority to purchase development rights."

The realtors' group has other complaints, arguing Kane County's plan appears to be more anti-growth than pro-farm. "We think it could encourage a messy patchwork of development," Scobey says.

Still, some farmers who cringe at the thought of the county owning farmland don't bat an eye at a plan that would let them sell off development rights, if they choose to do so. "Philosophically, I'm not opposed to that," Klein says.

Neither is Steve Pitstick, who farms about 1,200 acres in the western and central parts of the county and is the vice president of the bureau.

In fact, acquiring easements rather than buying land outright would likely allow the county to stretch its dollars, simply because easements cost less. In the western townships, where costs are lower and farmland more plentiful, the trust estimates Kane County would cut its costs 60 percent by acquiring easements, rather than the land itself. Even in the central portion of the county, acquiring easements instead of acres would save the county about 35 percent. Buying farmland in the central portion of the county would cost about $10,500 per acre, the farmland trust estimates, based on land purchases by the county's forest preserve district in the last two years. Acquiring easements there would cost about $6,200 per acre, the trust study says.

Even if easement costs increase � and in some areas of the nation they may be within 10 percent of the cost of buying the land outright � some activists argue they are a good deal. "It's still an efficient and effective tool," says Adelmann.

Because the land remains in private hands, it stays on the tax rolls. There's little or no cost for managing the parcel. And the land remains in agriculture. "You're protecting it as farmland, you keep a family working on it, you're preventing development from happening," says Adelmann. "You achieve multiple goals." Officials in other states agree. One of the nation's oldest and largest farm preservation programs, in King County, Wash., has acquired conservation easements on nearly 13,000 acres. By contrast, it owns less than 60 acres of farmland outright. The heavily developed county � home to Seattle, population 540,000 � launched its program in 1979 when residents voted to set aside $50 million to help preserve agricultural land. Since then, the county has preserved 12,800 farm acres by purchasing development rights, though the land remains privately owned.

"The county figured it probably would be easiest to keep the properties privately owned," says Judy Herring, program coordinator for King County.

Land is purchased only when there is no way to acquire the development rights, she says. Even then, the county typically resells to private owners after putting a conservation easement on the property. It currently owns only about 57 acres of farmland, Herring says. And since about 1980, the total amount of farmland in the county has remained steady at about 44,000 acres.

Kane County officials acknowledge that many details of their plan will have to be worked out on the fly. But McCoy and others insist that, as the program develops, farmers and other opponents will become more comfortable with it.

"I think we have to move forward and buy some easements and buy some land and work on these issues," McCoy says. Postponing the start of the preservation program until every issue has been settled might leave the county with far fewer farms left to protect, he says. "If we don't start soon, truthfully, we might as well forget it. "

Dan Rozek is a reporter/or the Chicago Sun-Times.