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Agriculture plan draft presented to public

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

COVINGTON -- The public has a chance to learn how Newton County can protect agricultural land at a 6 p.m. work session Tuesday night.

A draft of the Agriculture Protection Guide will be presented to the Board of Commissioners prior to its regular meeting at Newton County Historic Courthouse.

Newton was selected to participate in a state pilot program to examine ways to conserve and protect agricultural land. Out of four interested counties, Newton was chosen to be the subject of the Agriculture Protection Guide by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.

The purpose of the guide is to provide tools to help realize the long stated goals of preserving agricultural land and making local farms more viable, said Scott Sirotkin, director of the Newton County Department of Development Services.

"Anybody interested in keeping the rural and agricultural feel of the county," will be interested in Tuesday's presentation, Sirotkin said. "For years, folks have been saying this is what we want in Newton, and this is an important tool toward that end."

Conservation and protection of farmland and open space are goals set out in both the 2050 Plan adopted by local governments and the county's Land Conservation Plan. The Agriculture Protection Guide identifies tools local governments and property owners can use to meet that goal.

The guide identifies possible government strategies, such as a conservation overlay ordinance prohibiting residential development in certain areas or allowing conservation subdivisions requiring agricultural easements large enough to be viable as commercial farmland or community gardens. Limiting water and sewer infrastructure to certain areas is also a possibility, as such infrastructure tends to drive development.

Other strategies listed in the draft document include transferable development rights, or allowing owners of property zoned for low-density development or conservation use to sell development rights to property owners in higher density areas. Purchase of development rights or agricultural conservation easements is another option that would allow a third party to purchase development rights and place a permanent conservation easement on property.

An agricultural land mitigation policy could require mitigation as a condition of approval of a rezoning or future land use designation from agricultural to nonagricultural land.

The guide also identifies opportunities for private property owners, such as tax incentives and credits for conservation easements. Economic development opportunities in agriculture are also identified, such as farmers markets, along with funding that is available to boost local efforts already under way.

Following Tuesday's presentation, comments on the guide will be accepted through June 14. The Board of Commissioners is expected to receive the final version on June 21. Sirotkin said he expects the Newton County Leadership Collaborative to take the reins on implementation of the plan, though individual components may come before the board for approval in the future.