Recently, the Catawba County Board of Commissioners approved an ordinance that will allow for the creation of voluntary agricultural districts in the county. The new districts, which are supported by local farmers, are designed to encourage the preservation of farm land, raise public awareness of agricultural activities and support local agriculture.
Although regulations allowing counties to create these districts originate with the state of North Carolina, Catawba County's Strategic Growth Plan of 1996 identified a need for a voluntary program to encourage farmland preservation in the county.
Since 1990, North Carolina has lost 14,000 farms to development, a national record. Farming activity in Catawba County has also seen a steady downward trend. The most recent agricultural census, conducted in 2002, showed the number of farms in the County has fallen from 739 to 719 since 1997, a 3 percent decrease. The acreage in farmland has increased (from 76,914 acres in 1997 to 78,516 in 2002), but this may be due to improved reporting techniques used in the census.
More than 60 jurisdictions in the state have a voluntary agricultural district ordinance, including Burke, Caldwell, Alexander, Iredell and Lincoln counties. It's been under discussion in Catawba County since 2002, but the board of commissioners and some in the farming community had concerns about how state legislation affecting these districts would turn out, and that the provision for a public hearing, whenever land was condemned, might be removed. Those issues have been resolved over the last few months, opening the door for final adoption of the ordinance.
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Farmers may also choose to be part of an enhanced voluntary agricultural district, if they agree to commit to a 10-year irrevocable conservation agreement. Those farmers could receive up to 25 of gross sales from nonfarm products and still be considered exempt from zoning as a bona fide farm, be eligible to receive a higher percentage of agricultural cost-share funds, and receive priority consideration for farm-related grants.
The program is expected to begin in early 2009.
Dave Hardin is public information officer for Catawba County.