Massachusetts Food System Collaborative
Massachusetts Food System Collaborative

Land: Goal 2

More farmland and prime farmland soils will be permanently protected.

The APR Program is one of the oldest farmland protection programs in the country, and is complemented by two other land protection tools – the State’s conservation tax credit and its Community Preservation Act (CPA). Even with these tools, just a little over 14 percent of the State’s land in farms is permanently protected.[1]

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) is a zoning tool used successfully in other parts of the country that would be a valuable addition to the Massachusetts toolbox. Although there are some municipalities that allow for TDRs, few are using it to its full potential.

Two aspects of the APR program limit its ability to protect land important for food production – the per-acre price cap, and the five-acre acreage minimum. The per-acre price cap has made APR projects especially challenging in the eastern half of the Commonwealth, especially in communities without the CPA to augment APR funding. The five-acre threshold is a barrier to preserving the type of small parcels valuable to startup farm enterprises or serving urban markets.

State funding for the APR program has declined in recent years; increased State support for the program will become increasingly important to make up for declining dollars through the federal Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), whose rules also make protection of certain types of farmland problematic. Increasing State resources for land protection through the CPA and the conservation tax credit will also help to leverage municipal and private resources for farmland protection. Additionally, other State and federal programs should be explored for permanent protection of open space for community farms and gardens.

Lack of reliable statewide data around farmland trends prevents the development and tracking of meaningful targets around farmland retention, protection, and access. A formal State farmland action plan is being recommended to improve State data collection around farmland and establish formal farmland protection goals and benchmarks, providing a better roadmap for State investments in farmland protection in the future.

Recommendation 2.1: Develop a formal State farmland action plan to: (1) determine the resources needed to improve State data collection around farmland trends; (2) establish a statewide baseline of land in active agricultural production, or the process for doing so with improved data collection, and a system for tracking acres of farmland in production over time; (3) set measurable goals and benchmarks related to farmland protection, retention, and access; and (4) recommend State program spending levels to meet those goals and benchmarks. The plan should consider the regional land use plans that have been undertaken by various regional planning agencies, and any available assessments, modelling or scenario planning that predicts future land use patterns, needs or threats. The plan should review rates of farmland loss and conversion determine the percentage of eligible acres currently enrolled in Chapter 61A, and identify threats to the Commonwealth’s farmland base, including conversion of farmland to solar development and threats to agricultural productivity as a result of climate change. The plan should identify areas of agricultural importance and areas with potential suitability for future food production, including those in urban areas, and include an inventory of farmland owned by the State, counties, and municipalities (such as correctional facilities, former State hospital lands, and other underutilized State-owned lands), and public utilities, identifying parcels that are currently in agricultural use or suitable for agricultural use based on an assessment of soils and other land characteristics. The plan should set measurable goals related to farmland resources in the Commonwealth and recommend a means for measuring progress against those goals. The plan should be formally adopted by the Commonwealth, and used to guide State policies and investments related to public infrastructure, agricultural infrastructure, climate change mitigation and adaptation, farmland protection, and farmland mitigation.

Action 2.1.1: Establish a legislatively-appointed task force to develop a State farmland action plan, and provide necessary funding for its development. Members of the task force should include representatives of State agencies, farm and conservation organizations, University of Massachusetts, and other academic institutions with expertise in agricultural land data analysis, modeling, and mapping, regional planning agencies, and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Recommendation 2.2: Increase the use of TDRs as a farmland protection tool.

Action 2.2.1: Create a statewide TDR credit bank and seek startup funding to get it established.

Action 2.2.2: Clarify through statute that municipalities may develop regional TDR programs, as has been suggested in versions of State zoning reform legislation.

Action 2.2.3: Update the TDR model in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) toolkit and provide interested communities with technical assistance on how to implement TDR in their town or municipality.

Recommendation 2.3: Increase the pace of farmland protection through the APR Program, including small, productive farmland parcels, especially in eastern Massachusetts and those on the edges of population centers.

Action 2.3.1: Fully expend existing bond authorizations provided for the APR Program in the 2008 and 2014 Environmental Bond by 2018, and establish an annual bond cap that allows maximum leveraging of federal farmland protection funds. Increase funding for the APR Program in the next Environmental Bond consistent with goals set in the proposed farmland action plan. See Recommendation 2.1.

Action 2.3.2: Create dedicated APR funding specifically for projects not eligible for NRCS’ Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) program.

Action 2.3.3: Increase the APR program’s current per-acre cap.

Action 2.3.4: Task the Agricultural Lands Preservation Committee (ALPC) with reviewing current APR program policies related to housing, farm infrastructure, the 5 percent impervious surface limit, and limits on renewable energy production if sited away from productive agricultural lands, and recommending changes as appropriate.

Action 2.3.5: Work with USDA-NRCS to include in the proposed State farmland action plan any elements needed to enable the Plan to be used as an alternative pathway for ALE program eligibility. See Recommendation 2.1.

Action 2.3.6: Allow pre-acquisitions of farmland through the ALE and APR program.

Action 2.3.7: Eliminate the requirement that land be in active agricultural use for 2 years to be eligible for the APR program.

Action 2.3.8: Support revisions to the CPA that will provide additional funding to the Trust. Encourage communities to adopt the CPA, which provides funding streams for open space protection (including agricultural land) and affordable housing, as well as recreation and historic preservation.

Action 2.3.9: Provide technical assistance to town community preservation committees, agricultural commissions, and land trusts about how CPA funds can be used to support farmland protection, as well as affordable housing associated with farmland.

Action 2.3.10: Increase the State conservation tax credit, currently at $2 million annually, to $5 million annually, and improve its use with the APR Program.

Recommendation 2.4: Evaluate and consider the elimination of State capital gains tax on the sale of APRs.

Recommendation 2.5: Improve dialogue and information sharing among and between farm and conservation organizations, the ALPC, and State and federal agencies about farmland protection issues and challenges.

Action 2.5.1: Task MDAR and the ALPC with convening an annual forum to evaluate progress through the APR Program and to invite stakeholder input on APR program policies.

Action 2.5.2: Establish a coalition of agriculture, conservation, forestry, and smart growth organizations to work together and with the ALPC and State and federal agencies to identify and take action on common issues and priorities around farmland protection.

[1] According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Massachusetts had 523,517 acres of land in farms in 2012, and as of June 22, 2015, the Commonwealth had protected 74,122 acres of farmland (71,796 acres with APR), or a little over 14% of all farmland.

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Massachusetts Food System Collaborative