Telling my now husband that he grew up in metro Atlanta is probably the closest we came to breaking it off while dating. He grew up in Barrow County, and describing this community as metropolitan was, to his view, both preposterous and highly offensive. To me, Winder and its surrounding development is a big town. I grew up in rural Georgia where the definition of a big town is the one where people from the small towns go to shop at Wal-Mart. Barrow County has a Wal-Mart and a Target. Not to mention fancy grocery stores. In my neck of the woods that is the metric for a veritable city.
I always get a little tickled when I meet people that moved here to live in a small town. But sometimes I can see it. Like when people give me directions using “the old hospital” as a reference point. Or when someone who comes into my office to ask about tomatoes turns out to be the father-in-law of one of my kid’s teachers. But whether this community is a small town or metro Atlanta, both, or somewhere in between, it is changing.
And I like that. A lot. I like living here in the tension of what it was and what it will be, in the anticipation of what it could be. It feels like possibility. And hope. What I like most about living in the in-between space is that it feels like as a community we have a rare chance to decide what we want to carry forward with us and what we want to leave behind.
Recently I heard a speaker talk about place keeping instead of place making. He described this as communities, instead of planning for what they think they will or should be in the future, taking the time to figure out who they are, and using that to plan for a future. By leaning into their collective values and current strengths, communities can enhance their sense of place through intentional development.
I don’t know what that would look like for Barrow County, what all of those values would be. But, I think that I know one. What I have found as I have become bound to this place, is that those who love it, love the land.
Across the country, many states, regions, and counties actively preserve farmland. In our last comprehensive plan citizens voiced conserving greenspace should be our greatest priority, second only to a solution to traffic. Most of our greenspace is farmland. And while there are incentives for farmers to participate in programs that take development of their land off the table, these programs are adopted by all levels of government because of they benefit the entire community.
I think that our community would find intrinsic value in conserving farmland; those that grew up here remember it as a truly rural area, and many of those that have moved here in recent years chose this community to have a piece of the rural idyll. Maintaining pieces of the landscape, pieces of a culture and way of life has value, but it is not the only benefit of farmland conservation.
Many local governments believe that undeveloped land or farmland is a drain on local revenues; they are not. Dozens of studies show that the impact of farmland preservation programs on local revenues is neutral, if not positive. Farmland is generally taxed lower. However, the amount of services this land requires per dollar of tax revenue is significantly less than residential properties. The median cost to provide public services for each dollar of tax revenue raised is $.37 for farmland, and $1.16 for residential areas. Tax revenue from farmland helps fill the deficit between total revenue and the cost of public services. Local governments can use farmland conservation programs as a tool to achieve a balanced budget.
Well-managed farms protect the environment. Greenspace can be attributed with a myriad of ecological benefits, but one particularly relevant to urban communities is the water holding capacity of undeveloped land. No one wants to pay stormwater taxes, but as more parking lots, roads, driveways and roofs take away permeable surfaces, finding ways to manage water without damage to property or the environment becomes a costly challenge. I am receiving more and more calls about stormwater issues, both from residents and local government. Good farmland acts as green infrastructure, holding on to water and sinking it into the earth. Farmland conservation can play a vital role in stormwater planning.
Active farmland is also key to community resiliency. Multiple times over the pandemic we have seen the effects of disturbances to our supply chains. Unforeseen crisis can and will impact what and how much food is available. A large-scale food system is important, but regional and hyperlocal food systems are just as essential.
There are many community benefits to farmland conservation, but our window for preserving farmland is closing. In a national report by American Farmland Trust in 2020, Georgia ranked 5th in acres of farmland converted to development uses. In their 2022 study using growth trends to predict farmland loss in 2040, Georgia’s projected losses will rank 4th in the nation. Several Georgia counties were listed specifically as a national concern: Hall and Jackson, our next-door neighbors. Our projected farmland loss isn’t far behind.
What does that mean for our shared future here? Change is coming, and growth is coming, and I don’t think we can stop that, or should. I have faith that we are going to build a stronger, more equitable community. I believe that we are going to build a community that improves our collective well-being. But, we have to decide what is important to us. We have to decide what will take with us as we grow into the community that will be. If valuing the land is a shared community value, the time to act is now. If we wait, we won’t have a choice, because that farmland will be gone.