County approves voluntary farmland preservation program
By Wayne Tompkins
Miami-Dade County commissioners last week approved a program designed to preserve agricultural land and open space, much of it in the southern part of the county.
The "Purchase of Development Rights" program preserves farmland through the purchase of conservation easements that limit residential development rights.
Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who has backed the plan and represents much of the south Miami-Dade agriculture community, said the county will work with willing farmers to draw up conservation easements that will protect eligible properties from development for at least 25 years.
The county will offer to buy the agricultural business' available development rights in exchange for the guarantee that the land cannot be used for anything other than farming. The program is funded through the General Obligation Bonds program.
"For farming to prosper as a way of life in Miami-Dade, the industry must have the tools necessary to adapt to challenges and opportunities," Ms. Sorenson said. "Farmland conservation through this new… program will help farmers stay farming and help protect the agricultural area from urban sprawl."
Most of the targeted land lies outside the county's urban development boundary, areas beyond which land cannot be developed without a waiver from the county. The program will protect those lands should they be incorporated into a redrawn boundary, and make it harder for future county commissions to facilitate development on those properties.
County Manager George Burgess, in backing the program, said agriculture remains an important industry that includes tropical fruits, vegetables and livestock.
When county residents approved the Building Better Communities General Obligation Bonds program in November 2004, a portion included $30 million to preserve viable farmland through the acquisition of development rights on property suitable for agriculture. The funds are available incrementally until 2017, with $4 million available for immediate use, Mr. Burgess said.
The voluntary program allows the county to acquire a property's residential development rights through the purchase of a conservation easement. This, in turn, allows the county to limit the housing density on agricultural land.
To be eligible, a property must be designated as agriculture or open land on the county's land use plan map and have at least 70% of its land devoted to active farming.
The county's agricultural manager will monitor the program and serve as its administrator.
Applications will go through "a rigorous screening and evaluation process" before being presented to county commissioners, said Charles LaPradd, the agriculture manager.
Building Better Communities General Obligation Bonds will fund the program and county staffers will seek grants from the US Department of Agriculture, the State of Florida and private not-for-profits.
County commission approval will be needed before the county buys any conservation easement. The county will use independent property appraisers.