The Town of Dunn is getting closer to permanently protecting 4,000 acres of land from development.
Planning and land conservation director Ben Kollenbroich told the Hub the town is likely to reach that number sometime in 2021. The number is significant, Kollenbroich said, because it represents just how much Dunn has made sure its farming remains profitable in the town, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
The industry has endured major financial blows since March, but Kollenbroich said the town’s preservation efforts allow prospective farmers to feel secure there is land available for them to grow their crop and make a decent living.
So earlier this month — helping Dunn approach the 4,000-acre benchmark — the town permanently conserved 53 acres of farmland on its west side through nonprofit Groundswell Conservancy. Whoever farms the land is likely to use it to grow corn and soybeans, since it comprises 90% prime soil, he said. In April 2019, the town also secured an 80-acre patch of land on the north side of Highway B, between Mahony and Keenan Roads, for grazing dairy purposes.
Dunn protected the 53-acre parcel through a conservation easement with Groundswell, which compensates landowners for not selling their lots to developers, Kollenbroich said.
Farmers can continue to farm, and landowners retain many of their rights – they can use, sell and pass the land onto their heirs or can restore it to how it was before it was before development. And every easement is treated like a land purchase, with electors from the community voting at the town’s annual meeting – or a special meeting if needed – on whether Dunn should move forward at each deal.
Dunn has worked toward easements with entities like Groundswell Conservancy in the near four decades since chair Ed Minihan joined the Town Board. Each entities’ role, Kollenbroich said, is to assist with monitoring the land and enforcing that it stays protected.
Prior to its conservation era, around 1979, the town implemented a tight land use plan, preventing landowners from splitting their property more than once per 35 acres in rural areas. But while zoning land is temporary, this type of conservation easement – which leaves the land in the hands of the owner but gives the town a claim to prevent future subdivisions – is permanent, Kollenbroich said.
The town secured its first conservation easement around 1996 or 1997, Kollenbroich said, and as of 2020, the municipality’s rural preservation program has helped it tally 39 conservation easements through what it calls the purchase of development rights, or PDR.
When the town first established the program, Dunn issued a $2.2 million bond to finance the PDR on the basis of a half-cent increase in taxes per $1,000 of property value. This allows Dunn to pool the revenue it makes from properties in the PDR, Kollenbroich said.
In the case of the 53-acre parcel, 50% of the money to fund the easement came from the PDR. The other 50% came from a United State Department of Agriculture grant, Kollenbroich said.
“Farmers know this land can be protected in perpetuity,” he said.