Preserving Rural Character Through Agriculture: A Resource Kit for Planners [toolkit]

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Preserving rural character is a top priority for virtually every small New Hampshire town. Larger communities put a similarly high priority on revitalizing their downtown. The whole state, including the legislature, is seeking ways to curb sprawl. All three of these important goals aim to preserve and enhance the quality of life in the Granite State – and all three are closely related.

Despite this strong desire to hold onto the rural character of their communities, many residents are frustrated and feel they are losing the battle. Part of the problem is that planning, zoning, and other local tax and government policies too often work against the stated master plan goals of preserving rural character and open space. Master plan committees, planning boards, zoning boards of adjustment, conservation commissions, and boards of selectmen or city councils may not see how some of their land use policies and regulations can lead to land use patterns that convert rural character into sprawl. Where we site schools and public buildings, and the locations of roads, sewer, water, and other infrastructure, can all have unintended consequences.

Implementing master plan goals to promote rural character, in the words of one seasoned planning board member, “is not a painless process.” Preserving rural character requires conserving open space and historic places. The planning, zoning, and tax policies required to achieve that goal may be controversial. A growing number of New England communities are realizing that one way to preserve rural character and heritage is to take a stronger role in stabilizing and fostering active, productive family farms.

Agriculture is an important element in open-space land use in New Hampshire. This Technical Bulletin aims to help communities understand the connection between preserving rural character and a prosperous agricultural sector. Like other small business operators, farmers need to be able to make money to support their families, and pay their property taxes. Farm profitability means owners of farm land can keep their farm and woodlands undeveloped. When farmers go out of business, or sell their farm to move to an area with less development pressure, the whole community is affected by the potential conversion of the land. Communities that encourage agricultural and forest-based business activities go a long way toward preserving rural character and open space, the hallmark of New Hampshire’s quality of life. The first section of this Technical Bulletin explains the business of agriculture in New Hampshire, including its role in the local and state economy and in stewardship of our natural resources and scenic landscape. For communities that have decided rural character and local agriculture is important to their identity and futurewell-being, the second section suggests ways local governments can be more farm-friendly and more effectively achieve their master plan goals.

Agriculture is a cornerstone of New Hampshire’s rural landscape and communities. Yet the New Hampshire Coalition for Sustaining Agriculture – made up of government agricultural agencies, farmers and farm organizations, the NH Office of State Planning and Division of Historical Resources, state and local environmental and wildlife conservation organizations, and others — found that farmers struggle with local regulatory pressures and unfriendly attitudes toward farm enterprises. The public yearns for rural quality of life, but may not understand the realities of working farms and woodlots — of the productive, resource-based rural economy, as opposed to the consumptive uses of land and natural resources found in a typical suburban community.

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