As of 2014, approximately 3,100 acres or 16 percent of Windsor’s land area is being used for agricultural purposes. Preserving agricultural land will help to maintain local food capacity, economic diversity, as well as historic and community character.
While preserving all remaining agricultural land for farm use may seem like a prudent goal, such a goal is not practical, considering that a significant portion of this land is already zoned for industrial use and constitutes the bulk of available land for economic development in Windsor. Without this pool of land to draw upon for economic development, Windsor would not be able to continue to provide excellent public services without significant increases in property taxes.
“Prime farmland” is defined by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) as “land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, forage fiber, oilseed crops, and is also available for these uses” (i.e. undeveloped). This land could be cropland, pastureland, rangeland or forestland. Prime agricultural soils are mapped by the DEEP and their location in Windsor is illustrated by the agricultural resources plan map.
As the Agricultural Resources map illustrates, there is not always a correlation between prime farmland, actual farming and the Agricultural (AG) Zone. The areas identified as prime agricultural soils at risk are currently zoned for some other purpose than agriculture but may still be actively farmed. The protected prime agricultural soils benefit from AG zoning that generally limits their use to agricultural purposes. However, the AG zone does allow for housing at a low density of one
unit per three acres.
The AG Zone should not be considered as a holding zone, to be rezoned for higher density residential development in the future. The AG zoning of prime agricultural soils, especially those that are being actively farmed, should be maintained to preserve some of Windsor’s rich agricultural heritage in the most appropriate locations. Those AG zoned areas that are not actively farmed should retain their AG zoning for future agricultural use or as a last resort, for low-density housing at a density of 0.3 units per acre. Such residential development should employ an open space development pattern that clusters development on one-third of the parcel while preserving two-thirds of the acreage for future farming or open space. AG zoned land that has already been put to more intensive uses such as nursing homes, and tiny isolated parcels that may be impractical to farm should be reevaluated for possible rezoning.
Ways of Preserving Agricultural Lands
State Programs – Purchase of Development Rights
The best method of preserving prime farmland is through a program that purchases development rights from farmers. The State of Connecticut has such a Farmland Preservation Program that accomplishing four things:
- The farms remain in private ownership and can be farmed in perpetuity;
- The farmland can never be developed;
- Farmers receive an infusion of cash, eliminating the need to sell for development; and
- The land value for tax purposes is permanently reduced.
Funding limitations at the state level have made this program very competitive but thousands of
acres of farmland throughout Connecticut have been preserved. Despite the positive benefits and no expense to the Town, no farmland has been preserved in Windsor through this program. Local farmers should be encouraged to apply for this program and Windsor should offer assistance if necessary.
Local Programs – Regulatory
Windsor’s Zoning Regulations contain an Agricultural Zone (AG). The Agricultural Resource map illustrates the approximately 3,800 acres of land in Windsor that are zoned AG. Of this land, approximately:
- 1,600 acres are used for agricultural purposes (50%);
- Roughly 740 acres are used as managed or dedicated open space;
- Roughly 360 acres are vacant land; and
- Just over 450 acres, or 14% of the zone, is developed for other uses, typically single-family residences.
The AG Zone allows for a variety of agricultural activities and the accessory uses necessary to support them. However, the zone allows single-family residential uses at the low density of 0.3 families per acre. The AG zone has become a more effective preservation tool by discouraging the rezoning of AG zoned land, especially actively farmed land and land containing prime agricultural soils, to higher density residential zones.
Local Programs – Farm Assessment
Windsor participates in a program authorized under Section 12-107 of the Connecticut General Statutes, often referred to as P.A. 490 that allows a community to assess farmland at a lower value when it is actively farmed. As a result, active farms benefit from a lower tax assessment, helping maintain the viability of the farm under sometimes difficult economic conditions. Windsor should continue to offer this program to assist farmers with maintenance of agricultural uses.
Local Programs – Purchase
Towns have used local funds to purchase farms or development rights to for the benefit of the community. Towns can:
- Purchase farms outright to operate them;
- Purchase farms outright to lease them back to the farmer or others for farm use; or
- Purchase development rights allowing the farm to remain in private ownership, but assuring the property will be used in perpetuity for agricultural uses.
The Conservation Commission is currently working on a local purchase of development rights program to assist in farmland preservation.
Agricultural Land Trusts
Land trusts are a good vehicle for preserving land. Agricultural land trusts are dedicated to holding and leasing farmlands. The American Farmland Trust operates nationwide to preserve farms and address farmland issues. The Working Land Alliance, a recently established Connecticut farmland preservation organization, has established the Connecticut Farmland Trust for the donation of land and funds for agricultural preservation.
Windsor could further assist farmers and be “farm friendly” by:
- Providing for good signage and marketing of local farms in the community;
- Organizing local fairs and events around agricultural themes; and
- Consider adoption of a “right to farm policy” that supports agricultural activities.