For decades, farms in the fertile belt of soil along the Wasatch Front have been sprouting "For Sale" signs and growing housing developments. It's simply a matter of economics. Houses are a better cash crop.
In the past decade alone, an estimated 500,000 acres of farmland have been taken out of production. Since 1970, Utah has lost farmland equivalent to the combined acreage of Delaware and Rhode Island. The problem has not gone unnoticed by the public, judging by an independent poll conducted in August for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
Eighty percent of 400 respondents from Salt Lake, Utah, Weber, Davis and Cache counties believe it's important to ask for locally grown food. And they'd put their money where their mouths are when it comes to preserving the land its grown on, with three-quarters favoring diverting a portion of the state sales tax on food to create a fund to purchase conservation easements from farmers.
These are understandable sentiments. As farms disappear, our nation's food security is put at risk. And the loss of local farms, which requires food to be delivered greater distances, contributes to high food costs and air pollution.
But now is not the time to earmark a portion of stagnant sales tax receipts, which go to Utah's general fund. With revenue off by about 20 percent over the past two years, starting a new program with dedicated tax dollars will detract from the pool of funds that pay for numerous existing services that have already been ravaged by budget cuts. And, with the prospects for a quick economic recovery considered tenuous at best, now is not the time to increase taxes, especially a regressive levy like the sales tax, which tends to overburden the poor.
Another proposal to preserve agricultural lands, while favored by just 51 percent of respondents, makes more sense. As farms are sold to developers, the farmers must repay the difference between the reduced "greenbelt" property tax rate for farmland and the higher residential rate. Each year, about $4 million to $10 million is returned in this manner to local tax coffers.
This repayment amounts to a windfall for local governments. The money was essentially forfeited to protect agricultural lands, and should be reinvested in agricultural lands. But a bill to that effect, sponsored by Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, wilted in the Legislature last year.
Draxler should reintroduce the bill, which would require counties to use the funds to purchase development rights from farmers. And lawmakers should give the people what they want by preserving precious farmlands.