State referenda to include $2.5 million for farm bond
Voters in November will be asked to approve a $2.5 million bond for agricultural preservation, thanks to legislation sponsored by Rep. Donna M. Walsh and Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski and passed by the General Assembly on June 21.
The legislation is aimed at preserving farmland around the state from development, and it was cosponsored by a bipartisan group of legislators who hail from rural areas or are active in environmental issues.
"Even at a time when our state is strapped for cash, it makes sense to save farmland from development," said Representative Walsh, a Democrat who represents District 36 in Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown and Westerly. "Besides the many environmental benefits of keeping the land green and the economic benefits of keeping the farms working, preventing the development of farmland saves money on new infrastructure like schools, sewer and water service and roads that must be built and maintained when communities sprawl into former farmlands. This bond is not a vast amount of money in terms of state spending, but it can be leveraged and used in ways that can save a lot of land from the bulldozer."
The legislation will put a question on November's ballot asking voters whether they wish the state to issue a $2.5 million bond for farmland protection. If the question passes, the money will be used to buy development rights and conservation easements from farms around the state to prevent them from being developed.
In particular, the legislators say the Department of Environmental Management has 18 farms around the state on a waiting list to sell their development rights to the state when the state has money from sources such as this bond. More than 20 other farms are awaiting approval to be added to that list. The legislators say the state bond, if approved, stands to be matched by up to $2.3 million in money from the Federal Farmland Protection Act. If the state were to choose to sit out farmland development rights purchases because of its current financial pinch, it would miss out on rounds of that federal funding.
"There are many reasons Rhode Island has an interest in keeping working farms working," said Sen. Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham), who runs her own organic farm and serves as chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee. "They provide valuable green space and fresh food, close to home, for Rhode Islanders and contribute to our state's economy. They also preserve the character of rural areas and provide a link to a way of life that has all but disappeared from most of Rhode Island during the last century. We should be doing all we can to maintain the few farms we still have."
Rep. Walsh had originally proposed an amendment to the state budget asking for a $5 million bond, but the proposal ran up against opposition from those who felt the state could not afford more debt. By compromising and asking for half the amount, she was able to gain traction for the proposal. The legislation putting the bond on the ballot passed on the last regular day of the 2008 legislative session, June 21.
Since the state began a program to protect farms in 1986, 19 farms constituting 1,279 acres valued at $10.14 million have been preserved with just $4.12 million in state funds.
Farms contribute about $100 million to the state economy. Due in large part to the number and popularity of farmers' markets throughout the state, Rhode Island ranks second in the nation for per-farm direct sale of produce to the customer.