A Citizen's Cure for Land-Use Cancer

I compare sprawl on farmland to having cancer. I know sprawl is going to eventually steal my life away from me. Slowly and surely it chips away cell by cell or section by section. It goes into remission, it comes back with fury. When you aren't physically fighting it, you are mentally fighting it. It is always there. I guess only the future can tell whether lawmakers across America will offer a cure for the cancer. Or will the hefty dollars developers pay for stealing our farm heritage and America's most productive acres, serve as a hospice to make the people on the land comfortable and quiet until they are finally gone?

When you have to be the one to break the bad news, it works on you. I wonder if doctors ever become comfortable with telling patients that their lives are going to change, that they have a tremendous fight ahead of them. I suppose there is training available somewhere on the best technique to gently deliver a gut punch. I wish that I would have experienced such training.

For the past week, it has been my job to break the news to my closest neighbors. Some live in Elkhart about five miles away. Others live in Alleman, located three miles away. The rest live in 24 sections of farmland surrounding my farm. A section, in Iowa, is a square mile containing 640 acres. My message to my neighbors is this: "Are you aware that your land and home are now included in a Comprehensive Land-Use Plan for the nearby city of Ankeny? Are you aware, that within 20 years, Ankeny plans on this property to be within their city limits, the eventual site of residential or commercial development?"

I usually get "the deer in headlights" look. I have to place the land-use map in their hand and show them where their home or business sits. I carry with me a copy of the newspaper clipping about the proposed beltway study, and a copy of that map also. The growth on one map correlates directly with the location of the beltway on the other. My message is hard for most to digest. Some are defeated immediately, stating, "You can't fight this." Some are angry. Others smile and say they are going to be rich. The folks living in the nearby small towns simply plan to move.

Ankeny, a city near Des Moines with a population of 27,000, projects that within 20 years they will reach a population of 55,000. From a casual study of their growth plan it appears a total of nearly 50 additional sections of land will be needed for all this predetermined growth. Under the guise of "Smart Growth", such a land grab is, in fact, planned sprawl development if I've ever seen it. As plainly as the lines on the map, this annexation is about facilitating the expansion of Ankeny's boundaries. The plan is to capture any possible retail, commercial, and industrial development and the tax base it will bring along a proposed new highway.

The city's aggressive plan shows no growth accorded the neighboring towns. The plan crosses school district lines and will take tax dollars from existing school districts once annexed. No consideration is given to family farms that have existed here since the state of Iowa was settled -- many still in the same family.

While large companies can come before the city council and request annexation so as to secure very tentative plans for their future business, family businesses that have existed on the land for 140 years can not secure such a plan for the future. Even if they manage to save their farms, they will play a perpetual waiting game, and in all likelihood will have lost the rural ambiance and the support system of neighboring farms and farmers. The easiest answer is to walk away a millionaire and find a new life somewhere else. There is very little that rural residents find appealing about the city of Ankeny with a population of 27,000 surrounding them, let alone a population of 55,000.

Today the cancer is not in remission. It continues to grow. Urban sprawl is destroying small towns as fast as it is destroying farmland. Teens graduate from high school and are told "Don't come back here. There is no future." So they flock to places like Ankeny, or beyond, to Chicago, Minneapolis or the coasts. That explains Ankeny's 8% population increase in a state with 3% growth. Iowa isn't growing. We are simply moving the furniture.

Now is the time for citizens to act. The planning process is the time for people to have their voices heard. If this is happening near you, I urge citizens to speak out. Express to policymakers that taxpayer subsidies are the fuel that feeds this type of growth. Congressmen and state legislators may tell you land use is a local issue. My response is: The issue is fueled in part by federal transportation dollars, rural water systems, and 50 years of poor federal farm policy. Individual state policies also contribute to the problem. Americans need to become informed and engage their neighbors to work with them. Our state and local leaders need to stop looking for the quick fix in their immediate area. All policy leaders must look at the big picture and find a way to help their entire state develop in a sustainable way that enables every community and citizen to have a better quality of life today and six generations from now. But the leaders will do nothing until their constituents demand it. If you aren't part of the solution, please consider yourself part of the problem.

LaVon Griffieon of Ankeny, Iowa, is co-founder and president of 1000 Friends of Iowa, which promotes responsible land use.

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