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Freeman Township moving ahead with Farmland Preservation Zoning
Moving too fast?
Troester speaks in Freeman Township
DAVID TROESTER, Crawford County Conservationist, attended a meeting in Freeman Township to help educate town residents about the Farmland Preservation Program.

FREEMAN TOWNSHIP, which seems poised to adopt Farmland Preservation Program Zoning, held an informational meeting about the program at the Sugar Creek Bible Camp on Monday night.

The informational meeting was part of the regular town planning and zoning committee meeting. In addition to several committee members, the two town supervisors and town chairman were also present. Also on hand for the event were Crawford County Conservationist Dave Troester and Tim Jackson, who leads the Farmland Preservation Program for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

In all, about 30 people attended the meeting. Most came to have their questions answered about how Farmland Preservation would affect them. 

During his brief introduction, the Freeman Planning and Zoning Committee Chair Paul Sampson noted that the township had sent out 350 flyers to landowners of 20 acres or more on Aril 28 explaining a plan to rezone part of the township into Farmland Preservation. 

Then, DATCP’s Tim Jackson launched into a Power Point presentation explaining the purpose and rules of Farmland Preservation. Jackson oversees the program’s management. He is also an expert in zoning.

The goals of the program are to limit pollution of water and save land from eroding, while saving ag land for farm use, Jackson told the group.

Farmland Preservation Zoning starts at the county level with a countywide Farmland Preservation Plan that identifies areas that would be appropriate for the program.

The county plan and map is the foundational step to participate in the Farmland Preservation Program, according to Jackson.

It is a non-binding guidance for future land use decisions. The county map identifies land that will continue to be in agricultural use into the foreseeable future. The plan area must be based on ‘objective’ criteria.

The current Crawford County Farmland Preservation Plan was created in 2017. It will be in place until 2027. A revised plan will be created by the Crawford County Land Conservation Department. That plan will replace the current plan, and will have a new map, based on changing land use patterns.

The county map outlining the areas that can be zoned Farmland Preservation is important to the Freeman Township Farmland Preservation Plan. At leas 80 percent of the area defined as Farmland Preservation on the county map must ultimately be zoned Farmland Preservation by the township for the state to approve the plan.

Areas not included on the county map as Farmland Preservation eligible include land in the municipalities, small parcels of land with residences located on them and any publicly owned land like the Rush Creek Natural Area. So, the 80 percent rule only applies to 80 percent of what the county has designated as appropriate Farmland Preservation property on the county map.

A Freeman Township resident asked why a parcel on North Buck Creek Road, a parcel on Highway 35 and a parcel on Chellevold Road were not included as Farmland Preservation.

DATCP’s Jackson responded to the question

“The plan can be amended to include or exclude property,” Jackson said.

“How does this affect me?” the resident asked. “Can I only sell a parcel that is 20-acres?”

A planning committee member noted that any property that was below 20 acres was not included in the program.

Not everybody included in the zoning district participates in the Farmland Preservation Program.

The program offers a state income tax credit to those who sign up to participate. The credit is currently $7.50 per acre, but the legislature is considering increasing the amount $10 per acre. That credit offsets state income taxes. If the credit exceeds the amount owed, it is given to the participating landowner as a tax refund.

Jackson explained the zoning ordinance is locally crafted and administered.

Most of Freeman Township is currently zoned agriculture-residential. The current zoning requires that a property owner must own one acre of land to build a house. The lower amount of required land is in deference to the many buildings in proximity to the Mississippi River, according to one of the planning and zoning committee members.

The proposed Farmland Preservation Zoning would be a second zoning area in the township. It would have the higher requirement of 20 acres to build a residence.

Jackson said as proposed the township has close to 90 percent of the eligible Farmland  Preservation property in the proposed zoning.

However, township residents can opt out of the Farmland Preservation Zoning. If they indicate their preference to opt out to the town prior to the board meeting scheduled for Memorial Day, they will remain in the residential-agricultural zoning. After the Farmland Preservation Zoning Ordinance is approved, landowners will need approval of the board to leave or enter the Farmland Preservation Zoning.

At one point late in the meeting, it was clarified that for a resident to have their property excluded from the Farmland Preservation Zoning Area, they need only opt out before the ordinance is adopted. It could be difficult for some people to do in the remaining week before the ordinance is expected to be adopted, planning committee chairperson Paul Sampson acknowledged. He suggested that with the adoption of the ordinance, the town board could create a designated period of time, like 30 days, for residents to opt out. 

Once the time to opt out passes being excluded or included from the Farmland Preservation Zoning  would take approval of the board.

To qualify a farm or a renter of land on a farm there must be gross sales of $6,000 annually. Because the credit is based on ag, which could include forestry income, the farm could also use gross sales of $18,000 for a three-year period to better accommodate periodic logging sales. It should be noted that these numbers are based on sales not profits.

The tax credit is a flat per acre payment, there is no maximum  or minimum. It is for every acre in the parcel not just acres directly in agricultural use. The property must meet eligibility requirements.

The Farmland Preservation Zoning Ordinance as written for Freeman Township is based on a similar ordinance written for Harmony Township in Vernon County. Wisconsin State Representative Loren Oldenburg provided that ordinance to Freeman.

Town board member Al Thompson said the ordinance was the same, except where some language duplicated language already in the Freemen ordinance and it was deleted. Planning committee member Bob Severson noted that the current agricultural-residential zoning required just one buildable acre and that would continue to be the case for property under that zoning.

So, what are the eligibility requirements for the Farmland Preservation Tax Credits? 

The biggest requirement is meeting the soil and water conservation rules through creating a nutrient management plan. This plan is a computer-generated document that plans fertilizer needs and other things. It needs to be done by someone certified to write nutrient management plans, which could be the landowner or the renters of the land if they are certified to create such a plan. The other alternative is to pay to have an ag consultant , who is certified, to do the plan.

Other requirements  are the person receiving the credit must be a Wisconsin resident and landowner. The farm must have produced $6,000 in gross income annually or $18,000 in three years. It is acceptable if the money produced was for renters, and not directly for the landowners. Finally the person applying for the Farmland Preservation Tax Credit cannot claim homestead credit or veteran and surviving spouse property tax relief.

Once the zoning side for Farmland Preservation Program is done it is up to the Crawford County Conservation Department to monitor compliance.

Conservationist Dave Troeter explained the nutrient management plan ensures fertilizer is not being over applied and relies on soil sampling.

“It’s saving money and good for the environment,” Troester said of the using the nutrient management plan.

In answer to question about the cost of hiring an agronomist to do the plan, Troester said he was not entirely sure of the costs. However, he believed it was in the single digits per acre. He was guessing it might be $5 per acre.

Troester noted that anyone who was computer savvy could attend a training class and be certified to  write a nutrient management plan. He also pointed out that land renters can become certified and produce a nutrient management plan for the landowner.

Certification involves some class time at a technical college and the certification lasts for four years.

A nutrient management plan is mainly needed for tillable ground, but might be necessary for some pastures.

Soil erosion abatement efforts are only needed on farm land, Troester noted.

There was a brief discussion of acceptable phosphorus levels in the nutrient management plan.

Town of Freeman resident Edie Ehlert questioned the low numbers involved. She said she was familiar with phosphorous parts per million which could range to 200 ppm or more at times.  However, the index number of six or less confused her. Troester explained the numbers were indexed to take other factors into effect like runoff potential as well as ppm. The index runs from 0 to 12. Higher numbers require action to lower them.

Several local landowners discussed owning land in more than one township. Currently, only two townships in Crawford County have Farmland Preservation Zoning–they are Haney and Utica.

A landowner with property in both Freemen and Utica could file separately for the tax credit in both townships.

However, other landowners with property in Freeman and Seneca could only file in Freeman for the property located there since Seneca does not have Farmland Preservation Zoning. 

Another landowner with property in Freeman and the Town of Sterling in Vernon County would face problems with being in  two counties. Interestingly, the whole farm of these divided jurisdictions would have to meet the requirements of the Farmland Preservation Program, even though parts of the property might not be eligible to receive the tax credit.

To offer some perspective, Troester said that the county only has about 70 to 80 participants in the two townships that now have Farmland Preservation Tax Credits.

Jackson and Troester both emphasized that current rules and regulations are not permanent, and the Farmland Preservation Program has changed often since its inception in the 70s. In 2009, there was a big change in the program that made it a lot less restrictive.

Both State Representative Loren Oldenburg and State Senator Brad Pfaff told the Freeman Township  officials to not consider the zoning to be permanent. There apparently are vehicles to get people into and out of Farmland Preservation.

Freeman Township resident and former town board member Andy Novak urged a slower approach to adopting Farmland Preservation Zoning.

“More information needs to be gathered before you make the decision,” Novak said. “You were elected to represent the constituents and do what’s in our best interest.”

Town supervisor Al Thompson noted that the meeting Monday was the third public meeting on the matter. He praised the work of the planning and zoning committee as phenomenal.

Thompson also said the town board had been considering Farmland Preservation for three years, and had spent the past three months deeply involved with the subject.

Edie Ehlert thanked the planning and zoning committee for their work. However, she said way too may people don’t know about it. She urged the township to put things in print for residents to read about it.

“I don’t know if I want to be in it or not,” Ehlert said. “It wouldn’t hurt for more of an opportunity to learn about it.”

“What will it take for you to pump the brakes on this?”  Novak asked the town officials.

Thompson indicated he would be responsive to legitimately concerned people if he heard from them. 

Novak suggested that  the town should put the question of a Farmland Preservation Zoned District to the voters in a referendum.

“We don't have to (have a referendum),” said Freeman Township Chairperson John Leirmo in response.

Novak asked Bob Severson why so much of his land was shown in green on the map (meaning it had been opted out of Farmland Preservation.)

“It (Farmland Preservation) doesn’t fit our plans,” replied Severson, a member of the planning and zoning committee.

Another resident noted that her husband got the flyer in the mail and they were attending the meeting. “It seems like it’s being pushed pretty quickly right now,” she said.

Planning and zoning committee chairperson Paul Sampson answered concerns about the rapidly approaching deadline to opt out without board approval, before the Monday meeting. Sampson said that perhaps a period of time could be reserved for people to opt out of the Farmland Preservation Zoning after the board passed the proposed zoning change at their Monday meeting. He suggested a period of time, like 30 days, to allow people to make their decision might be appropriate.