To the editors:
Robert Heuer's March 27 article on agricultural land conversion offers convincing evidence that many of our region's most fertile crop lands are at risk for future use in agriculture. Notwithstanding the generous incomes obtainable through trading agricultural commodities, the crops that provide much of our food and most of Illinois' exports can only be produced by farming. It seems folly indeed to allow uniquely productive farm lands to be lost merely to obtain building sites for developments that could be located anywhere adequate access could be provided.
Dispersed development requires expansion of the public roadway network, which then has to be policed and maintained. It increases average trip distances for work, school, shopping, recreation, and social functions. Correspondingly, the energy costs of access among them are increased, and degraded air quality is spread over a larger area. Low population densities render convenient public transit uneconomical, so auto availability becomes all but mandatory for both residents and employees.
Displacing food production farther and farther from our major population centers increases the costs of transporting goods to market. More subtly, it deprives many people, particularly children, of opportunities to see where food comes from, the basis for understanding how critical productive farm lands are to our national survival.
Traditional practice leaves most development decisions to developers and local government officials, who seldom consider the full range of development effects, nor a time period of five years or more. These are the folks we have to thank for building in flood plains and filling in wetlands, confident that public subsidies can be brought to bear on mitigating any serious problems that arise.
If the approval processes for expanding development are not brought under the control of rational public policy, we can expect our standard of living to continue to decline. To avoid ruin by our own devices, we need widespread public understanding of the issues involved and strong political leadership. Much more needs to be done to enable long-term preservation of prime agricultural lands, to establish comprehensive standards for new development, and to rationalize the property tax structure that currently gives unfair advantage to development speculators.
Michael J. Daley