Blogging Live from APA, Tuesday Edition

Day three of the four-day conference is just beginning. We stayed up a little late into the night last night, discussing issues of planning and "the right thing to do". The great value of this conference is the ability to take information you have received, interpret it and then share that with others, getting their feedback, thoughts and impressions. I'm lucky to have some really bright people to go through that process with.


Agricultural Conservation Easements

I wanted to go to this session largely because I believe this is part of The Answer, that big idea we are searching for. Kind of like the string theory (or unified theory) for small-town planning (for you physics lovers). 

Some facts presented: The average age of a farmer/rancher is 57 years old, so tens of millions of acres is going to change hands in the coming years. The top 120,000 farms account for 75% of the agricultural production in the country. The food supply is highly concentrated in just a few hands.

Challenges Farmers Face: 

  • Profitability - Be the low cost producer or find a niche,
  • Passing the farm on to the next generation,
  • Resisting the temptation to sell the land for development.

Fact presented: Metro areas have 80% of the population in the United States, but metro counties produce the majority of the nation's fruit, nuts and milk. 

Goals of a Farmland Preservation Programs: 

  • Maintain a critical mass of farms and farmland (so they maintain the stuff needed to keep farms running),
  • Maintain affordable land prices for farming,
  • Reliability over time,
  • Reasonable cost in comparision to benefits,
  • Sustained public and political support,
  • Support of the farm community.

A good comprehensive plan establishes a legal basis for zoning and identifies lands that should be preserved for preservation. Generally speaking, agricultural zoning should never be less than 1 unit per 25 acres, the midwest is more like a minimum of 1 unit per 40 acres. 

Interesting fact - You need to monitor the conservation easement (he recommends annually) or the property owner can go to a judge and essentially claim that you have abandoned that easement because you have not shown an interest in it.

The 2008 Farm Bill has $733 million in grants over five years for purchasing conservation easements. the federal government will pay half of the easement.


Anatomy of a RLUIPA Trial

I went to this session because I am interested in the Religous Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). My understanding of the act is fairly rudimentary and my approach fairly common-sense. That is: facilities for religous practices and institutionalized people (like a group home) need to be treated the same as uses of the same scale and scope within the zone. 

As an example, if you permit a single-family home in a zone, you must also allow a group home facility that would have a similar number of occupants. Along the line with this session, if you allow a large school campus in a zone, you need to also allow a large church campus. See - fairly simple. You can't discriminate against a religous use or a use serving people that are institutionalized. 

Well, it was a dreadfully boring session made more so by the fake suspense in the decision. I finally got sick of it and just looked up the answer to see what happened. Church won - county lost. You can read all about it here and know more than what I got out of this session.


Maintaining the Twin Cities' Regional Identity

There was no way I was going to attend this session until it was pointed out to me that one of the speakers was John Adams. I missed him yesterday and was not going to do that twice. I'm not going to blog much in this one, I don't believe, but will perhaps put some notes together when Professor Adams is done.

Yes, brilliant discussion. Professor Adams gave a great talk on the history on Minnesota culture and how it has evolved over time. Some interesting thoughts: he indicated that the Minnesota Brand used to be social conservatism and economic liberalism, but that we have evolved into national politics (red and blue). That was kind of the theme, in general - that we used to be somewhat isolated and, as such, we were pretty good about solving problems and doing great, progressive things. Now that we are more connected to the world, we have lost our "sequestered" (my word) status and it has caused us to have less original thought. 

I agree, and it is very interesting to me how Professor Adams consistently says things that I have been hearing from George Orning, and more recently also from Keith Wieticki, for years. The latter two are on CGI's Board of Governors and I feel so lucky to have their thoughts and insights at my nearly instant reach at the end of a phone line. If I could only get John Adams into that group......


Wow - I had an opportunity to chat some with Professor Adams after the session and, as a result, missed the last session of the day. Time well spent - I should actually get continuing ed credits for it. Adams was talking to a different person and I listened in when he proposed the idea of reworking our metropolitant counties to be pizza-shaped (my description) to basically give each a part of the urban, suburban and rural land use. The notion is that, if each county had part of each type, the interface where all the problems are would be coordinated better because each entity would have a stake in making it work. Not likely to happen, but a great idea nonetheless.


Tonight the team, along with former CGI Planner and now Arden Hill Community Development Director James Lehnhoff, got to see a great Twins game that ended with a bases-loaded, walk-off, fielder's choice that Justin Morneau beat out to allow the winning run to score. Great game!