(Editor’s note: Though not yet approved by this Legislative session, this proposal will stay on the legislative agenda as part of next year’s biennium if it is not adopted this session according to Sen. Steve Dille. Click here for updates on this legislation.)

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With various economic development projects slicing up more and more farmland, timber ground and lake shore areas around the state, is it time for a more careful, more planned, in fact a more regulated effort to direct “urban sprawl”?

Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, certainly thinks so. So do three other state senators, Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick and Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, who are co-authors of S.F. No. 1402 which Dille has labeled as the Teddy Roosevelt Memorial bill.

“We’ve been at this for three years now. Essentially it calls for local units of government to step up to the plate and do a better job of preserving ag land, forest land, open space, land for wildlife habitat and also to minimize development around sensitive lake shore areas,” Dille said.

“Over the past 14 years we’ve lost more than 2 million acres of farmland in Minnesota, much of this going to what I call urban sprawl,” Dille said. Admitting this is an extreme example but based on the current rate of land lost to farming, in 200 years Minnesota would not have a single acre left to farm.

The proposed legislation intends to minimize urban sprawl because the ongoing fragmentation of forestland and ag land greatly interferes with the ability to properly log and farm these lands. It details a development priority with highest priority for new development in which city water and sewer service is currently available with the final priority for scattered development in which more than one development or residential unit for each 160 acres would be permitted.

But why the Theodore Roosevelt label?

Dille, a farmer and veterinarian when not pulling legislative duty, and also a bit of a history buff, points out that during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, from 1901 to 1909, (seven and a half years because Roosevelt took office after President William McKinley was assassinated), Roosevelt set aside an average of 84,000 acres of land per day or 230 million acres total for a far-ranging assortment of land use projects including 150 national forests, four national game preserves, five national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 federal bird reservations and 24 reclamation projects.

“He was by far the best conservationist and naturalist that has ever occupied the White House,” is Dille’s description of Teddy Roosevelt.

Dille’s proposed legislation is a comprehensive plan geared to counties outside the metropolitan area simply because economic development, urban sprawl and population overload have already virtually eliminated most farmland of the seven-county Twin Cities area.

“So it’s mostly our out-state counties that need to step up to the plate and start doing a much better job of planning future growth. My home county, McLeod with both Glencoe and Hutchinson, just last year adopted zoning regulations limiting new development beyond a two-mile limit from all cities and towns within the county. So any new residential or industrial development in McLeod County now has to be within existing city limits or that two-mile boundary. Also there is no further development around environmental lakes within 1,000-feet of the shoreline,” Dille said.

An advocate for rebuilding the Minnesota livestock industry because of its economic impact for rural communities, Dille suggests that a comprehensive land use plan is in the best interests of both farmers and non-farmers. “It will make it easier to grow your business if you don’t have people out there bothering you, particularly if you’re trying to make a living producing livestock.”

He pointed out that Minnesota state statute now spells out that local units of economic development must promote environmental protection to include soil erosion control and water quality improvement by increasing livestock production. “I’m trying to promote more livestock as a way to protect the environment.”

Dille and his co-sponsors knew early on that opponents of this comprehensive land use legislation would be those “land rights” people who don’t want government telling them what to do. In theory he admits to being in that camp himself but when he sees the hop-scotch development of land throughout Minnesota, he recognizes that government does in fact play a role in terms of a more orderly and a more conservation and environmentally directed program of land use.

He also admits that township and county governments may resist the proposal simply because they don’t like other units of government telling them what to do. So far, major supporters are Minnesota’s many conservation groups including most hunters and fishermen, most farm organizations, and to some extent local Chambers of Commerce and economic development agencies which see a more structured, better planned development of Minnesota’s out-state areas important for today’s generation, and absolutely necessary for future generations.

According to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors, Americans expecting to buy homes in the next few years lean toward communities with a mix of nearby housing, shopping and walking opportunities and an option of riding transit to work. By 61 percent to 39 percent they prefer this kind of smart growth to the more typical offering: large expanses of single-family homes, no sidewalks, no shopping or schools within walking distance and reliance on driving at least 45 minutes to work.

“Market preference, not government policy, is driving the industry toward smart growth,” said Joe Molinaro of Realtors Association.

Nonetheless, this random survey of 1,130 adults found that 86 percent wanted to concentrate new development in existing communities rather than the countryside.

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