(This piece was originally published on February 14, 2017 in the Rushville Republican.)
INDIANAPOLIS – A new housing development, strip mall or business park can be a boon to any Hoosier community.
With an increase in property tax revenue, new residents and workers spending money at local businesses and the opportunity to promote the city or town throughout the development, there’s seemingly little downside.
But as rural communities across the state lay concrete foundations and asphalt parking lots on what was previously farmland, development can destroy habitat for local wildlife, increase environmental contamination and decrease the capacity to grow food.
“Most broadly, it’s a loss of wildlife habitat; and when you are talking about the impact of wildlife habitat, one of the key ways development affects habitat is to fragment it and turn it into isolated areas for wildlife,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council.
But it’s not just a loss of wildlife habitat that worries Maloney.
Such development also diverts rainwater, which can cause flooding, and promotes reliance on gasoline-burning vehicles to carry residents to and from work, shopping and other pursuits in urban areas.
The decrease in farmland leads to other, non-environmental problems, as well.
As more of the state’s prime farmland is taken over by residential development, farms can become less productive, pushing up food prices.
The ecological concerns bred by urban sprawl, where small communities grow ever outward, pressing against land that was previously used only for agriculture or left undeveloped, is nothing new. The first known use of the term “urban sprawl” came in 1934 to describe a pattern of land use.
Environmentalists have been urging communities to be mindful of outward growth since. But recognition of the problem hasn’t reaped solutions.
Between 1982 and 2012 in Indiana, more than 1.2 million acres of cropland and grazing land were lost, according to the most recent National Resources Inventory, compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2015. Residential and commercial developments claimed more than 740,000 acres that had previously been cropland, forest land and prairie.
During that same period, the state’s population grew by a little more than 1 million people. However, only 67,000 of those new residents live in areas with populations sparse enough to still be considered rural, according to USDA data.
Though the rate of rural land conversion slowed after the housing market crash of 2008, the pace is picking back up as the economy recovers, USDA data show.
“You can see in Indiana, when things (economically) were starting to recover, it still shows pretty steady growth in acreage of developed land and more farmland and forest being lost,” Maloney said. “Conversion has slowed down, but it certainly still is a problem.”
The answer isn’t to stop building homes and businesses outside of large cities, but to better plan development to avoid uneven and unneeded sprawl, according to Purdue University Professor of Agricultural Economics Craig Dobbins.
“Certainly, this is a trend that has been going on probably since the country was founded,” he said. “So what we can do to prevent excess … comes in the form of planning on the boundaries of how a city or town grows.”
He said many Hoosier counties and communities have set zoning ordinances that encourage development near the center of the community while discouraging development on the rural outskirts.
“Part of it is recognizing that we would like to have growth and make sure we do it in a way that we aren’t going to use up the best farmland in the country,” he said.
Maloney pointed to the Regional Cities Initiatives, a program created under former Gov. Mike Pence that established regional growth plans focused on collaboration and quality of place.
“I think we need a comparable program for small towns and rural areas,” Maloney said. “Not that you want to turn every small town into a big city, but you want to make them places where people may want to live and stay nearby with amenities similar to big cities.”
Though the median age of the Hoosier farmer is 58, and relatively few young family members are following their mother or father’s footsteps into agriculture, Dobbins said he doesn’t foresee a rush for farmers to sell their land to developers in the coming years.
“I don’t think it is going to have a big influence around towns and cities because, you know, converting agriculture land to commercial or residential … it has to be in the right location,” he said. “And if it’s not connected or not right, you won’t have a chance to sell your land.”
Ultimately, Maloney said, the most recent development trends point to younger home buyers wishing to live in small communities instead of purchasing large tracts of former farmland to build homes.
“We had policy that encouraged sprawl, and now it seems that trend is reversing and you see a lot of new urban development and redevelopment focused on bringing people back to the cities,” he said. “From our standpoint, and the environment’s standpoint, those are all positive things.”
Between 1982 and 2012 in Indiana:
Cropland fell by 3.6 percent
Grazing land fell by 26.2 percent
Forested land increased by 3.3 percent
Developed land increased by 70.6 percent
Population increased by 18.1 percent
Source: USDA National Resources Inventory