On Development: Bye-bye farmland

Intel and the Honda battery plant are important technology developments, but both projects are planned on farmland at a time when many see regenerative agriculture as a way to mitigate climate change.
Amish farmland in Berlin, Ohio
Amish farmland in Berlin, OhioLeslie Saunders for Unsplash

The residents of Granville Township, which includes the Village of Granville, voted 25 years ago to tax themselves in order to purchase farmland, woodland, green space and development rights to protect the village from urbanization. The 1.0-mill property tax levy has been renewed by voters every five years. Initially it targeted encroachment by Newark from the east, but now is a bulwark against Intel sprawl from the western flank.

The community was an Ohio pioneer in this approach, but there are limits. It may merely preserve beautiful downtown Granville and the surrounding residential blocks like a utopia in a snow globe, while the horrible commercial sprawl that already envelops and strangles New Albany with warehouses and scattered office complexes in seas of asphalt continues oozing eastward.

Meanwhile, about 70 miles to the southwest, Honda paid $23.5 million for 454 acres of a 2,300-acre farm and soybean-processing business (off I-71 near Jeffersonville in Fayette County) to make way for a $3.5 billion factory where 2,200 workers at a South Korean company, LG Energy Solutions, will make batteries for Honda and Acura electric vehicles.

The common thread in the two stories is Ohio’s misunderstanding of economic development.

Intel and the battery plant are important technology developments, but both are planned as enormous projects on farmland at a time when many see regenerative agriculture as a way to mitigate climate change. Both are sprawling sites that will require thousands of workers to travel many miles in carbon-fueled vehicles on additional expensive lane-miles of impervious pavement (unless Ohio invests in commuter rail, LOL). And both are already expecting spinoff industrial development on surrounding farmland. Not to mention parking lots, chain stores, apartment complexes, vast single-family subdivisions – and major public expenditures on sewer, water, and other utilities.

It would be more efficient to put large job centers in urban areas that already have public services. Eastland Mall, anyone? Westland? Much of rural Ohio, on the other hand, is where people really need jobs. Historically, however, small cities grew not because an outsider plopped a giant factory on their fringes, but because local entrepreneurs expanded incrementally.

But in Ohio, where economic development was spun off to a private company fueled by public dollars, JobsOhio is not so focused on helping existing businesses. It exists primarily to count and take credit for the number of jobs it “creates” by spreading around financial incentives – often after state agencies already laid the groundwork.

The seller of the land for the battery plant was an Ohio innovator who built a business unloading shipping containers of automotive equipment from Japan, forwarding it to Honda in Marysville, cleaning out the containers, filling them with Ohio-grown food-grade soybeans, and shipping them back to Japanese consumers. But farm acreage for soybeans is decreasing because of new factories cropping up on farmland.

Even with current agricultural-use valuation (taxing farmland on its agricultural use rather than commercial value), most farms pay more in taxes than they receive in public services. American Farmland Trust has done “cost of community services” studies across the country over three decades, including several in Ohio. Farms consistently pay more than they receive – in effect, subsidizing subdivisions, where households typically pay only a fraction in local taxes for the services they receive.

Likewise, Urban 3 – a land-use consulting firm in North Carolina – has done research in cities from coast to coast showing that, on a per-acre basis, even a half-vacant block of a small-town downtown generates more tax revenue for local governments than does a 35-acre Wal-Mart site on the edge of town. 

Despite this, Ohio’s approach to jobs ends up encouraging a loss of farmland – counter to the mission of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s farmland preservation program. Introducing a $2.5 billion All Ohio Future Fund in his State of the State speech, Gov. Mike DeWine said, "If a manufacturer calls and says, 'We need 400 acres with roads, water, gas, and electricity,' we need to have sites immediately available to show them now."

How will the state identify and prepare the sites? Will it:

  • Work closely with local governments and regional agencies to develop plans?

  • Try to find sites near existing communities, utility connections, adequate roads and transit?

  • Do more to ensure that existing Ohio-based businesses are a greater focus than they are now?

  • Support creation and expansion of agriculture-related businesses?

  • Try to take local food beyond farmers markets and community gardens by seeking development of food supply chain businesses that create new jobs while increasing markets for Ohio farm products?

Don’t bet on it. Ohio long ago forgot that the people who revolutionized the steel, rubber, automotive, aviation, and electricity industries were Ohioans. Instead, it focuses on a grab-bag of public services and subsidies to lure outside companies that take their profits out of the state.

Brian Williams is a freelance writer and a member of the Ohio Farmland Preservation Advisory Board. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the board as a whole.

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