Business

Urban sprawl chips away at prime farmland

Corridor and Des Moines suburbs among few areas growing

Ankeny, which the Census Bureau says is one of the fastest-growing large cities in the nation, is expanding into prime farmland as it annexes to build more housing. Photo taken Oct. 16. (Jeff Sigmund/IowaWatch)
Ankeny, which the Census Bureau says is one of the fastest-growing large cities in the nation, is expanding into prime farmland as it annexes to build more housing. Photo taken Oct. 16. (Jeff Sigmund/IowaWatch)
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Urban expansion, at least in the few areas where Iowa cities are growing, is eating up some of the state’s best farmland.

Ankeny, a Central Iowa suburb of Des Moines, presents a prime example. A U.S. Census Bureau report in May ranked it as the nation’s fourth fastest-growing large city from July 2016 to July 2017, but much of the land being developed for the additional housing is high-quality soil for raising crops, an Iowa State University agronomy department survey shows.

Other growing communities in Iowa taking up former farmland include Clive and Urbandale in the Des Moines area and Robins, Tiffin and North Liberty in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor.

Most of the property included in Ankeny’s 2030 comprehensive land use plan scores in the high 70s or greater for ISU’s corn suitability rating, a measure from 5 to 100 of how good soil is for corn production.

As Ankeny has grown in population from 18,482 in 1990 to an estimated 62,416 in 2017, its borders have expanded.

“Farming is not important to them,” LaVon Griffieon, 62, complained about Ankeny city leaders. “In all of their zoning, they don’t have ag zoning at all.”

The Griffieons’ soil scores are almost at the top of the scale for suitability rating, and the neighboring subdivisions cover up soil of the same caliber. The land, Griffieon said, is “better than quality — as good as it gets.”

But city leaders feel they have nowhere else to grow at a time when people want to live there.

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“One of the unfortunate things is Ankeny is completely surrounded by agriculture, so the only place we really have to grow is into agricultural land,” Mayor Gary Lorenz said.

The Griffieon family has been farming near Ankeny for more than a century, since 1902. They are among the last holdouts along Ankeny’s northern border; their land directly abuts a new housing development, which one of the Griffieons’ daughters moved into in February.

ANTICIPATING GROWTH

Iowa Code Chapter 352 required every county in the state to establish a land-use and preservation committee in 1984. The law also made each committee responsible for conducting a county land inventory and creating a land-use plan. However, the Iowa Code does not require cities to make any such consideration for farmland.

The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, a statewide nonprofit that partners with farmers to protect farmland and promote sustainable production practices, helps seek conservation easements on farmland, said Joseph Klingelhutz, a farm specialist with the group.

The conservation easement cuts the value of the land by placing restrictions on how the land can be used and farmed. The goal is to promote sustainable farming practices.

But Griffieon said the trust, known by its acronym, SILT, and the conservation easement don’t hold the solution to her family’s problem.

The Griffieons farm about 1,000 acres, 800 of which is owned by their family. They raise and direct market antibiotic free, no-hormone-added beef, pork, chicken, turkey and lamb, in addition to growing corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa. It can take a farm that large and varied generations to implement sustainable practices like no-till or crop rotation that prevent erosion and promote water quality.

Other than the conservation easement, few protections exist for preserving Iowa farmland.

Rural Iowa land considered prime farmland decreased for farming use nearly 4 percent between 1977 and 2012, to about 18,397,900 acres, according to the ISU Extension and Outreach.

Griffieon has watched Ankeny creep closer to her farm for more than 20 years, but said she could see the direction things were headed as early as the mid-1980s. It began, she said, with the city passing plans for urban growth.

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When she and her husband married in 1979, Ankeny was 3 miles from their house. Then, seemingly overnight, a subdivision sprang up out of ground that once grew corn and soybeans.

“We came home from a county fair and there was a house out in the middle of a field. We knew it was going to happen, but that was the beginning of it. That was probably 10 years ago,” Griffieon said.

Over time, more of Griffieon’s neighbors began to sell their land to developers, using the money, she said, to buy more land elsewhere.

“People who trade their land will sell out for sprawl and they’ll buy next to an urban area like Fort Dodge that’ll be growing eventually so they can do it again,” Griffieon said.

A state development law allows cities to annex areas where at most 20 percent of the land is owned by parties not willing to annex. The rule is meant to keep city borders smooth and avoid unincorporated islands in the middle of cities.

In a voluntary annexation, landowners submit an application requesting annexation to the city, which must be approved by the city council to take effect. Involuntary annexations are not initiated by the landowners and seldom are successful.

Mayor Lorenz said Ankeny has a significant amount of multifamily housing, but not everyone wants to live in an apartment complex or condominium.

“We haven’t done any high-rises. We don’t dictate what type of building they (developers) are going to make,” he said.

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For now, Griffieon remains a vocal advocate for farmland preservation as Ankeny continues to grow. Asked if she’s received offers to sell her land, or what she would do if Ankeny comes for her property, Griffieon wouldn’t say.

She did say she’s seen other landowners lose land after speculating without using caution.

“You can’t say things in anger,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “You’ve got to check your emotions at the door and just be very focused in everything you say.”

This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch, a nonprofit news website at IowaWatch.org that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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