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Town Cited By USDA-CouncilTo Act On Farm Plan



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Town Cited By USDA—


To Act On Farm Plan

By John Voket

(This is the second part of a special report on the Economic Development Council’s proposal to preserve and expand local agricultural industries.)

Hours before Legislative Council members scheduled a public hearing regarding the Economic Development Commission’s revised strategic plan focusing in part on farm-related industries, an undersecretary at the United States Department of Agriculture was complimenting the community on its foresight in preserving and supporting farming.

Mark E. Rey, the USDA’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment, told The Bee Wednesday that  Newtown is on the right path to reaping economic benefits from several strategic initiatives aimed at open space and farmland protection.

Speaking after Wednesday evening’s meeting, Legislative Council chairman Will Rodgers said he also sees numerous advantages to the EDC’s effort, and intends to advocate for it.

“Frankly I think farmland preservation in and of itself is important, but the EDC is putting a great twist on it,” Mr Rodgers said. “If they can give Newtown some economic advantages then, wow…that’s all the better.”

Mr Rodgers said the town has been more “defense oriented” in terms of protecting passive open space and recreational areas. He said perhaps financially supporting an initiative that brings commercial and economic viability while at the same time blocking residential sprawl is the way to go.

“I am, and I believe the council is, wholly in support of that. My impression is the council is ready to act favorably on it,” Mr Rodgers said. He said a public hearing on the overall EDC initiative will precede the next council meeting, after which he expects council members will endorse the plan.

The council’s pending action to the EDC’s proposal is the latest in a cluster of local creative applications that could help block development while bringing more agricultural industry and support services back to Newtown.

Multiple Initiatives

At Work

Last month, the town exercised its first opportunity to block potential residential development by acquiring development rights and securing conservation easements on a key parcel of land in the area of Orchard Hill and Platt’s Hill Roads. That action secured nearly 30 acres of land as permanent open space while allowing the owners some limited use of the property.

The $1.2 million invested in that initiative is providing the family with necessary revenue to repair and retain their home and other buildings that have dotted the parcel since the 1940s.

Over the next five years, the town plans to budget $2 million annually toward land preservation. This program marks the first time the town has allocated tax dollars specifically to fund land acquisitions in an attempt to offset what some have called rampant residential development in recent years.

Many authorities agree extensive residential development without a relatively equal balance of commercial industry slowly erodes the local tax base by creating an inequitable level of demands for municipal and educational services.

For many years on a smaller scale, Newtown has been engaging in a practice the undersecretary said is vital to sustaining opportunities for the next generation of agriculture professionals. Officials have maintained an ongoing relationship with a local farmer who agreed to mow tracts of town-owned land provided the family could bale and keep the hay being cut.

First Selectman Herb Rosenthal has said the practice is advantageous for both entities because it saves the town fuel, equipment wear and tear as well as payroll for municipal personnel who would otherwise be required to do the same chore.

“This is an arrangement the town has had for some time and it has worked out very well for us and the farmer,” Mr Rosenthal said. The first selectman mentioned that other farmers in town have similar arrangements to either mow hay or harvest crops on state-owned land adjacent to Fairfield Hills, further protecting the rural nature of the area.

Speaking from his Washington, D.C., office, Mr Rey observed that all of Newtown’s individual efforts taken collectively denote a positive and strengthening momentum boding well for possible federal funding and other support initiatives. He was especially enthusiastic because the town has already allocated tax dollars toward land acquisition that might be applied to farmland preservation.

“One of the priorities we place on investing in farmland protection or other easement programs is, do we have local partners that can do a match because then we can make the money go further,” Mr Rey said. “It sounds like Newtown has already made the first several steps forward necessary to maximize their involvement with the USDA to make these programs happen.”

Ahead Of Its Time

Mr Rey said Newtown is moving in a direction and at a velocity similar to fast-growth areas in the west, where communities are showing even more rapid “urbanizing” trends than Newtown, which has seen more than 30 percent of its open space converted to residential development in less than 15 years.

“These [rapidly developing western] communities are now taking stock of what is left, and it’s very common to see these communities pass bond levies or raise the money to buy easements to protect agricultural land,” Mr Rey said.

The USDA undersecretary advised other Newtown governmental agencies to work in concert with the local EDC to further streamline procedures helping new and existing agriculture enterprises to thrive.

“It absolutely makes it a lot easier, and the town will find it happens a lot quicker,” Mr Rey said. He pointed to a local winery that recently diversified by opening a tasting room and modest gift shop, creating more of an “agritourism” destination that brings new visitors to town who inevitably spend money at other local businesses like restaurants, stores, and gas stations.

“With wineries there is an interesting mix of issues,” he said. “In order to have a commercial winery, you have to have the tasting facility because that’s what attracts visitors. It’s just a different kind of agricultural industry.”

The EDC Thursday evening was set to present one of its annual Salute to Business awards to Morgan McLaughlin, the owner and operator of Newtown’s McLaughlin Winery. This year, the commission is exclusively dedicating its award recognition to agricultural enterprises in town, with additional awards going to Jim and Sue Shortt of Shortt’s Farm & Garden Center and Steve Paproski of Castle Hill Farm.

Mr Rey said communities like Newtown that recognize the value of existing farmers in the bigger picture, and create a concentrated effort toward agricultural expansion, are ahead of the game when it comes to securing support from his department and tapping other state and private resources to maximize funding for such initiatives.

“You’re seeing a growing awareness that there is an [economic development] opportunity there,” he said. “It’s a relatively benign form of development and it ought to be accommodated to the extent possible.”

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