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Lexington County leads SC in farmland loss. A new study recommends extended protection

Lexington County is losing its farmland faster than anywhere else in South Carolina, and a new study suggests additional protections may be needed to safeguard the county’s agricultural lands, amid an already spirited debate over rapid growth and development in the area.

The Lexington pilot study was part of the American Farmland Trust’s Palmetto 2040 project, which follows up on previous research showing that “South Carolina is at very high risk of future farmland loss, with more than 280,000 acres of farmland converted for non-agricultural use between 2001 and 2016, giving the Palmetto State the eighth highest “threat score” in the country.

“Lexington County led the state in agricultural land conversion, with more than 29,000 acres converted to non-agricultural use,” the survey report said.

The trust, founded in 1980 to advocate for the nation’s farms and ranches, provided initial 2040 projections for the state by 2022, detailing that if current development trends continue unabated, South Carolina will lose the equivalent of 3,600 farms, accounting for $239 million in agricultural production. and 5,900 jobs, based on provincial averages.

“The biggest benefit to me is that we have created a path, an optimal path for future conservation in Lexington County,” said Billy Van Pelt, national director of strategic initiatives and senior advisor to American Farmland Trust.

As a result of the pilot study, which modeled what Lexington County would look like in the future under different development scenarios and gathered input from local stakeholders, the trust made a number of different recommendations, including one big one that Van Pelt said the county would can help maintain its position. the province’s valuable agricultural land: a protection zone for the headwaters.

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A graph from the American Farmland Trust's Palmetto 2040 report, which looks at Lexington County, shows a proposed headwaters protection zone and what development there will likely look like in 16 years if nothing is done about it.

A graph from the American Farmland Trust’s Palmetto 2040 report, which looks at Lexington County, shows a proposed headwaters protection zone and what development there will likely look like in 16 years if nothing is done about it.

As the report notes, the conservation zone would cut a broad swath through southern Lexington County, extending almost all the way from the county’s western border to its eastern border and covering most of the rural areas south of Lake Murray and the urban centers of Lake Murray. West Columbia, Cayce and the city of Lexington.

“These are the best soils in the province. These are the best waters in the province,” says Van Pelt. ‘This is the part of the province that is most threatened: agriculture and forests. So let’s focus our conservation efforts on this.”

A map accompanying the report, which projects what the area would look like in 2040 if ‘business as usual’ policies continue unchecked, shows that much of the low-density residential development is moving into the conservation zone of the headwaters moved, much of which follows the American border. 321 and SC 302, major highways connecting the rural south of the county with more urban areas in the north.

Addressing farmland loss in areas like these could be critical to supporting the agricultural industry and overall economy, both in Lexington and across South Carolina.

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“We are seeing some trends that concern us here in Lexington County and other places where we are losing farmland to development or other uses,” South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers told a Lexington Chamber meeting in March, in which he explained why the American Farmland Trust’s research was important.

Bill Stangler, who works as a Congaree Riverkeeper to advocate for the health of local waterways, said the proposed protection of the headwaters is a good start, both for the health of local agriculture and for the local ecology.

“Riverside buffers and wetlands filter pollutants from water, restore floodwaters, reducing flooding, reducing impacts to communities, providing critical habitat for countless species,” he said.

Stangler added that Lexington County’s existing ordinance calling for riparian buffers — strips of trees, shrubs or other vegetation planted along waterways to protect them — is quite good. But now is a good time to push for additional protections as the province actively considers how it wants to grow in the future.

“I think you’re hearing from a lot of people, and this isn’t necessarily just in Lexington County, but it’s happening all over the Midlands,” he said. “People say, ‘Hey, I moved here because I wanted to have this rural character in my community, I didn’t want to be stuck in this urban center. And now it’s coming to me. ”

Eva Moore, communications director for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, noted that decisions affecting land within the proposed conservation area will have to come at the local level. The report makes a number of specific proposals for action at the state level, which it says is already happening.

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“Several of the proposals in the study are about encouraging farmland protection, such as offering some carrots, offering mechanisms by which people can and want to preserve farmland,” Moore said, adding that the state recently established a fund that offers grants for the purchase and preservation of farmland to the SC Conservation Bank and that the South Carolina Farm Bureau has a new private land trust offering conservation easements for much the same purpose.

The provincial government has not yet taken any specific action regarding the investigation, but Lexington County Council President Beth Carrigg said it should be added to the agenda for discussion soon.

Protecting farmland is already a focus of the City Council, as the agency moved in January to expand an agricultural district that already included much of southern Lexington County. That district now covers not only the areas around Pelion, Swansea and Gaston, but also the areas around Gilbert and Summit as well as east of Batesburg-Leesville.

Council has also tightened restrictions within the district, reducing the maximum number of dwellings allowed from two to four for most street types to between one and three and increasing the buffer around agricultural activities from 9 meters to 22 metres.

“As we continue to work on our growth and management, I would like to see more agriculture emerge, and I know they need incentives to successfully navigate that process,” Carrigg said. “I am not a farmer. So obviously I have to work with them and see what their needs are and what we as a province can do to support that.

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