Fairfield is located in the uplands of Franklin County. The Town had a population of 1,891 in 2010, and has among the highest concentration commercial dairy farms in the state. The local government, which has long been well represented by local farmers, has placed a high value on the protection of viable agricultural land as a means of maintaining the local economic base. They have sought innovative ways to do this in the face of growing development pressure.
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Many communities designate agricultural districts, often encompassing large expanses of rural land in which farming, forestry and rural residential development are dominant uses. Too often, though, the uses and development standards for those districts allow new housing without any local review or consideration of likely impacts on productive farmland.
When the Fairfield Planning Commission set out to draft a new land use plan and zoning districts, they decided to designate land located outside of the villages and special conservation areas as the Agriculture District. Encompassing the bulk of the 43,335 acre town, the Agriculture District includes as part of its purpose statement in the zoning bylaw that “(d)evelopment methods to preserve the rural character and protect the agricultural resources of these areas will be enforced.”
While single family homes are allowed within the district, they require a conditional use approval of the local review board. When granting approval, in addition to statutory conditional use criteria, the board must also consider the following criterion: “Residential development should be sited on land least suited for production of crops and maintenance of agriculture, with due consideration to drainage, soil conditions, flooding, topography, etc.”
Despite the protection for farmland encompassed in the siting and farmland protection standards, the Planning Commission and Selectboard realized that the conversion of farmland to development would continue. To address this, the Town has allocated local tax dollars to purchase development rights on farmland. Working with the Vermont Land Trust and Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, over 5,000 acres have been conserved. Because the rate of development could exceed the rate with which funding could be secured to conserve farmland, Town voters also adopted a phasing program to control the number of homes built in any year. This phasing schedule is tied to an analysis of the region’s housing needs and the local capital budgeting process associated with land conservation.
- Agricultural land is a finite resource, and protecting these resources for future generations is clearly in the public interest.
- If the purpose of a zoning district is promoting agricultural land uses, standards are needed to protect those uses from inconsistent forms of development, including housing.
- Regulations to protect agricultural lands are best used in conjunction with non-regulatory tools, such as land conservation.
Note: Fairfield’s zoning, while effectively using the conditional use provision to minimize impacts of residential development on productive farmland, is not structured in a manner that serves as a good model for many communities. Therefore, no link to the regulations is provided.