March of progress in St. George eating up agricultural land

Local farmer Ralph Staheli has leased ground at 3000 East and 1580 South in St. George from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the last eight years. The ground he is tilling in preparation for one last crop was announced by the church to be the future site of the Washington County Utah Temple, St. George Utah, Nov. 8, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As the greater St. George metropolitan area continues to grow, the result will be the continued loss of its agricultural land.

Developments such as Southern Hills and potential plans to link it with Little Valley, as well as other residential and commercial construction projects, will reshape land use.

“I think that most people think that ag property doesn’t sell or developers think that there are people who do not want it … but I think people do want (that type of land),” said St. George Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin.

Larkin has firsthand experience having recently put her home up for sale that was on agriculturally zoned land.

Local farmer Ralph Staheli has leased ground at 3000 East and 1580 South in St. George from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the last eight years. The ground he is tilling in preparation for one last crop was announced by the church to be the future sight of the Washington County Utah Temple, St. George Utah, Nov. 8, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she put her home on the market on a Friday and showed it 13 times the following Saturday. By the next Monday, she had six full-offer bids.

To develop the land for other uses will take a zoning change, something that is always at the mercy of the city’s planning and zoning department, along with City Council approval.

“This is one example just how fast ag property is selling right now,” Larkin said. “This is something for (the council) to look at and talk about.”

Larkin added that she is not anti-development, but that agricultural property is “absolutely” necessary.

“I think what we need to be pushing is a good mix (of land use),” she said. “We need to keep pushing back on huge spaces that are medium density that covers up our ag land, covers up our high density and covers up our commercial. This is something we need to be working toward so that we end up with a healthy mix.”

According to a statistic from Modern Farmer, 10% of the world’s arable acres lie within the United States. Agriculture contributes $992 billion to the American economy each year. Approximately 30 million acres of farmland were lost to development between 1992 and 2012.

That’s 175 acres per hour of agricultural land lost to development, or three acres every minute. Slightly more than 40% of the lost acres actually came from development in rural areas.

In 2011, Gov. Gary Herbert created the Utah Agricultural Task Force comprised of legislators and county commissioners from across the state. They concluded that Utah should not become further dependent on external sources “for such a basic and critical need as food,” and warned that our “local food security is at risk.”

According to BYU research, Utah’s fertile soils are worth their weight in gold and they called upon state and local officials to preserve surviving farms, concluding that “the value of these lands surpasses … the value of nearly every other conceivable use, and should be reserved for our food-security needs.”

This image, courtesy of American Farmland Trust, shows the conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential development between 1992 and 2012. Source: American Farmland Trust

The U.S. lost 11 million acres of America’s best agricultural land – land with superior soil conditions and weather for growing food – from 1992 to 2012, and 62% of development between 1992 and 2012 took place on agricultural land. The other 38% was primarily forest and unused land.

Despite Larkin’s suggestions, St. George Mayor Jon Pike doesn’t know where they would be able to preserve agriculture land because the city is running out of space as it grows.

“The reality is that we don’t have a lot left and we will have to protect what (ag) we have left,” Pike said. “While you can’t bind the hands of future councils, this is a key (topic) and we need to do it right.”

The biggest consideration when maintaining viable agricultural land is its accessibility to water.

“Our ag is not the same as other places,” Pike said. “We have a very dry climate with very little water.”

St. George, he added, will never be a green flowing area with an abundance of agricultural products grown.

“We never have been and we will never be an area like that,” he said. “While it’s good to have ag land on an individual family basis and some commercial ag, one of the things we’ve looked at in the past is where there has been water.”

The city has approximately 90,000 residents with the potential for 60,000 to 80,000 or more residents moving into projects currently under development or planned.

“It’s important to have some ag that needs to be protected, but we’re not going to have anything large scale within the city limits,” Pike said. “It’s not feasible in terms of our water and in terms of our climate. I just don’t see us becoming an agricultural mecca.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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