As part of a discussion of its work plan for the coming months, the Waitsfield Planning Commission had an interesting and candid discussion about land use, prime agricultural lands and the perceived notion of a speculative right to a financial return on land.Part of the discussion by planners this week had to do with the notion of the land, specifically the prime agricultural lands by which we are fed, being an asset that needs to be held in trust for all the public.
During this informal discussion, planners returned repeatedly to the idea that prime agricultural lands, the land which has the potential to feed us (in addition to keeping our scenery rural and bucolic and pastoral, etc.) might need to be considered as an asset to all of us, versus a tool for financial gain for some of us.
Specifically, the lands which feed us and allow us to eat local food may well be an asset that should be considered part of the public trust the same way we consider the Mad River to be a public asset and the undeveloped high elevation ridgelines and the pristine high elevation headwaters.
Planners pointed out that they are planning for "20 years from now when gas is $10 a gallon and we may have a right to eat food that comes from here."
These are valid points and this is a critical discussion that local planners have to have among themselves and also with voters. Because the next logical question becomes, if prime ag lands are a public trust, how will we keep them open for agriculture?
How will we avoid pieces being chiseled off? How will we avoid allowing just this one field to be subdivided, or fragmented by septic systems and private ownership lines?
How will we say to those who would sell land for residential development (the last crop that will ever be raised on a parcel of land), no, that land is too valuable for you to sell? How can we create a climate where farmers can afford to farm and where residential development is steered away from prime ag land and onto lands better suited for it?
If prime ag lands are a public trust, how are we going to protect and preserve them for the benefit of all?