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PROTECTION FOR ENDANGERED ACREAGE

Utah County's ever-shrinking farming communities are closer to getting a much-needed shot in the arm from county officials.

The County Commission already has held one public hearing to discuss use of agricultural land in unincorporated parts of Utah County. And this month, the commission named five members to serve on its agricultural protection advisory board.Members are: Jesse Warren, Mapleton; Dick Saunders, Payson; Sherm Bearnson, Spanish Fork; Wallace Berry, Lehi; and Ray Proctor, Pleasant Grove.

Once its procedures are established - by advisory board members, the County Commission and Planning Commission - the board will have the power to designate unincorporated parts of the county as agricultural protection areas for periods up to 20 years. The County Commission will have the final say on the designations, and commissioners and the board are also empowered to expand that 20-year period.

Commissioner Jerry Grover, who has been spearheading the process on the part of the commission, said that with those powers, the board could give local farmers protection from unreasonable restrictions from state or local agencies, nuisance lawsuits and condemnations.

"This proposal does not eliminate a farmer's right to do with his property as he wishes, but does provide an option, at the farmer's request, to protect his property and his right to farm the property from nuisance lawsuits and governmental meddling," said Grover, who has been working on the proposal with Sen. Eldon Money, D-Spanish Fork, and members of the Planning Commission, including Bill Ferguson, a local fruit farmer.

Once established as an agricultural protection area, farmland would be protected from lawsuits unless farming operations on that land negatively affected public health or safety or unless agricultural activities on the land were in violation of federal, state or local laws.

Also, farmland could not be condemned unless the advisory board and County Commission deemed that there was no "reasonable or prudent alternative" to the use of the agricultural land for another project.

"I don't think most residents are interested in having our communities become another Los Angeles, which means losing all of the rural values and lifestyles that make this county a desirable place to live," Grover said.

"I think it is about time that government makes an effort to protect and restore property rights instead of trying to eliminate them by regulation, condemnation or any other stratagem. Whether people realize it or not, agriculture is an important part of this county, both economically and culturally."

The next step for county officials is to define the parameters of the advisory board's powers - such as how many acres can be included in a single request - and how to handle appeals of the board's action. Ordinances firming up the proposal are expected to be discussed in upcoming Planning Commission and County Commission meetings.

The county also will hold additional public hearings but no firm timeline for those discussions or meetings has yet been established.