We need a new philosophy about rural lands

In the past few decades, there has been a recognition that residential sprawl is bad for cities and towns, bad for traffic, and bad for the environment. Smart growth programs have focused on preserving farmland, concentrating new residential development in designated towns and cities and improving the design of towns and cities to make them great places to live, work, and shop.

There has been much less care in planning for rural areas—what we want them to be like and how to make the best use of the resources. Many view rural land as just “open space” or, even worse “land not yet developed.” Preserving just a patchwork of farms is not enough.

I have always viewed rural areas as places to farm and harvest timber, as places to fish and hunt, as places where wild things live, and as places where there is an adventure around the corner. That is why I am so saddened to see them abused and their resources diminished.013

Popular attitude about appropriate land uses in rural areas can be attributed to the first adoption of zoning regulations in the 1930’s. Residential zoned areas were strictly regulated so as not to adversely impact the use and enjoyment of neighboring residents. Commercial zones prohibited industrial uses which might drive away retail customers. Industrial zones were developed for tractor trailers and manufacture/warehouse uses on community water and sewer. However, the agriculture zones allowed all the leftover uses that didn’t seem to fit elsewhere, such as junk yards, landfills, and racetracks. They also allowed institutions such as churches, hospitals, post offices, and schools.

The rise of the local food movement has forced many counties to broaden their permitted land uses in rural areas to allow legitimate value-added agriculture uses such as wineries, farm commercial kitchens, and creameries. Many jurisdictions also have allowed agriculture related uses such as horse riding stables and corn mazes. More needs to be done.

However, most ordinances still allow mega schools and mega churches in rura1l areas, which consume valuable farmland and draw students, parents and parishioners out onto narrow rural roads. They still allow the undesirable land uses that create noise, dust, or odor, such as junk yards, landfills, and racetracks. And of course, most jurisdictions still allow major subdivisions which consume even more farm and forest lands, reduce rural economic resources and render waterways as no longer fishable or even swimmable.  The result is a mindless mix of land uses that do not belong together and further feed the desire of the remaining rural land owners to simply sell out to the highest bidders.


It is time to plan for the future of our rural areas to maintain the rural character, protect rural economic and natural resources, and create rural jobs for rural dwellers who like that lifestyle.

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