Saving Farms in a Strange New Way

Scott County plans to be the first metro-area country to try a new tool for preserving farmland for good.

by David Peterson, Star Tribune

November 2, 2010

Joe Adams just hates the fact that his postal address is Shakopee.

Shakopee, to him, is the “Army barracks” he sees lining Hwy. 169 – unadorned townhome complexes that he’s convinced will be slums in 20 years, if not before.

His own spread many miles south of that city, with its 17 types of culinary herbs and its brilliantly colored rows of native-prairie wildflowers and its child visitors chasing frogs near a lake with trumpeter swans? Not Shakopee.

Yet a new approach to saving swatches of Scott County’s farmland from the slow march of suburbs across the countryside could bring those two worlds into either a closer embrace – or a collision.

Scott is moving toward becoming the first metro-area county to adopt a strategy associated mainly with densely settled East Coast states: A trading system for building rights.

Called Transfer of Development Rights, or TDR for short, the system aims to compensate farmers for the money they give up by not selling prime farmland to developers. In exchange, a developer gets the right to squeeze in extra housing units someplace else.

“It’s an ingenious idea that has been tried in hundreds of places around the country,” said Armando Carbonell, senior fellow at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “It has worked extremely well for some – and for some not at all.”That became apparent last week to a roomful of Scott County folks gathered in New Prague to hear about the experiences of three Minnesota counties that have tried it.

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