R.I. Works to Keep Farms and Forest

By RUDI HEMPE/ecoRI News contributor

It’s not easy to make a living off farmland and forests in Rhode Island.

The farms are relatively small, are increasingly encroached upon by residential property owners who aren’t keen about auxiliary business ventures conducted nearby, and taxes can be a big burden in this state, which has the most expensive farmland in the country — $13,600 an acre, according to the Rhode Island Land Trust Council.

And when it comes to forestland, the parcels are generally small and don’t offer many opportunities for income other than firewood.

It comes as no surprise, then, that owners of farms and forests in Rhode Island are continually tempted to sell to developers to get out of financial problems. For large landowners, Rhode Island brings new meaning to the term “land poor.”

But an effort has been launched by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to help owners of farms and forest to retain their lands, by convincing municipalities to allow certain uses that will enable landowners to reap more income from their holdings, thus heading off the temptation to sell.

The DEM initiative is outlined in a 49-page guide called  “Community Guidance to Maintain Working Farms and Forests.” The guide provides examples of types of business ventures that are auxiliary to farms and forestland, zoning suggestions, zoning examples and a list of performance standards that local officials can use when business proposals come across their desks.

About 20 people representing towns and conservation agencies recently attended a morning workshop conducted by the DEM’s Scott Millar. Millar showed slides of a number of small businesses located on farms and forestlands, asking participants whether they favored such uses.

“We want to encourage large landowners to hold onto their lands,” Millar said. “What I constantly hear from large landowners is that they have this large parcel of land that they would rather die than sell for private development but are really lost on how they can generate any revenue — just to pay the taxes.”

Millar noted that farmers generate revenue by selling crops, but that is limited, especially in the offseason.

Rhode Island has a successful program of purchasing development rights. “But the state can’t afford to buy everything,” he said. Rhode Island features 400,000 acres of forestland, 70 percent of which are unprotected, and the state has 40,000 acres of farmland but 67 percent of that is unprotected, according to Millar.

Farming is a bright economic spot in the state, with 1,200 farms — most of them quite small — providing some 2,500 jobs and generating about $4 million a year. But farmland in the state is expensive and “there is a tremendous incentive for landowners to cash it in,” Millar said. “Compounding the problem is there are a lot of aging landowners.”

The state also lacks infrastructure. For example, there is no kiln for forest owners to use to dry lumber.

But the top problem for large landowners is the proliferation of regulations that thwart adaptation of land uses, and local zoning is the culprit, Millar said. Most farms and forestland holdings are adjacent to residential zones or can even be classified as residential, posing issues when it comes to requests to open small-business ventures such as firewood cutting, and plant, produce and/or crafts sales.

Since requests to start small businesses on farms and forestlands involve zoning codes, the DEM’s guidance document gives local officials advice on what issues that can come up and how to analyze and deal with them.

For example, if a forestland owner wants to open a small retail operation such as selling flowers and herbs, promoting educational opportunities, making maple syrup or providing recreational activities, local officials have a number of questions they must consider.

Among them is to determine whether the property owner is eligible to participate in small-business development, whether the proposed use is allowed, what is the classification of the use — least intense to most intense — and based on the classification what are the reasonable performance standards that can be established?

Issues such as traffic, parking, lighting, signage, hours of operation, structure designs, landscaping, licensing and even noise generation are issues that can be raised by neighboring property owners — and they need to be addressed by local officials, Millar said.

The new guidelines suggest that when it comes to starting auxiliary business ventures, a farm must be at least 5 acres and forestland must be at least 10.

Millar noted that auxiliary business ventures should be appropriate for the area. “We encourage reasonable performance standards because no one wants these uses to become nuisances,” he said. “Every town has had a case study where someone has gone too far with this legally resulting in a nuisance.”