The Law of Unintended Consequences and Impact to Sustainable Farming in Pennsylvania

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John Lynch of Trilogy Investments, LLC asserts new law issued by Commonwealth Court by default imposes new environmental regulation that may undermine initiatives to preseve open space and working farms.

John Lynch of Trilogy Investments, LLC asserts that the decision issued by Judge George Miller in May 2008, and pending regulation by Pennsylvania DEP's Southeast Region to model stream degradation from nitrogen, suffers from the laws of unintended consequences. As result, proven models to set aside open space and farm land in EV and HQ watersheds using limited development proposals, as has been successfully done by non-profit conservation entities for years, is now threatened. DEP needs to change direction and draft sewer regulation that promotes setting aside farm land for sustainable farming.

Pennsylvania already has hurdles in place that work against sustainable farming, as Pennsylvania's Municipalities Planning Code ("MPC") fails to deliver in that it enables local municipalities to prioritize the protection of prime agriculture soils, but does not provide a legal frame work to do so.

Where municipalities have tried to navigate this path alone, results have been mixed. Trying to promote sustainable farming by down-zoning to large 10-acre to 25 acre minimum lots has been done on a limited basis, but that approach misses the point of preserving active farm operations. Alternatively, when municipalities have tried to set aside prime agriculture soils (as is done with wetlands and floodplain without regard to zoning), the courts have interpreted that any acreage set aside for prime agriculture soils must relate to the intended use. In Pennsylvania, where each municipality must provide alternative zoning, it is difficult to honor the court mandate when prime agriculture soils are frequently in areas (properly) zoned for higher density development due to reasons of highway access, utility access, etc already in place.

The strategy to save working farms has to work at the local level and be the vehicle to provide an asset for the community and fair compensation for the farmer. The farmer, after all, will be assuming the financial risk and uncertainty of adopting a nontraditional and unproven approach to preserve a smaller but sustainable farm operation. Since the MPC and local land use law is not set up to protect farms, the farmer, developer, local municipal leaders, and the local community must caucus and agree on how best to proceed. Conservation groups, land trusts, and other non-profits have had success thinking "outside the box" by seeking cooperative solutions.

The next generation solution should involve incentivizing those involved in land planning and development to embrace sustainable farm practices for both crops and animals as part of development proposals. To achieve the desired result, it will be necessary to set aside existing zoning and land development ordinances that normally control density and design. Instead, the focus must be on identifying farm resources needed for the farm to remain economically viable, and then crafting a plan for the balance of the land that compensates the farmer for effectively restricting forever a portion of his farm for continued farm operations.

Whereas the real work has to be done at local level to promote sustainable farming, Pennsylvania DEP should be proactive and the federal government needs to get out of the way. Federal regulations are often a hindrance, as the laws governing the protection of wetlands and high quality watersheds offer no room to look at the bigger picture and possible competing priorities of saving prime agriculture soils and promoting sustainable farming. John Lynch has had the experience of working through government permitting where avoiding possible impact to less than 900 square foot of wetlands over rides saving 1,742,400 square feet of farm land. There has to be balance.

John Lynch is the founder and President of Trilogy Investments, LLC, a West Chester, PA development and investment firm. John Lynch, who has worked in land development for over 25 years and is a proponent of sustainable farm practices being incorporated in to land development plans where feasible. For more information call John Lynch at 610-430-7567.

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John Lynch
Trilogy Investments, LLC
610-430-7567
Email >

John Lynch
Trilogy Investments, LLC
610-430-7567
Email >