I got an email the other day from a reader asking what I thought of conservation easements for farmland, and I said I didn’t really know anything about it. The general idea is to try to find a way to take land on the fringes of metropolitan areas and prevent it from being redeveloped into strip malls or suburban houses without screwing over the owner of the land. The problem here is that you’re introducing some potentially large distortions into the economics of the land ownership in a way that can lead to some unpredictable effects. And, indeed, when Sarah Laskow looks for people approaching this issue from the other direction — urban hipsters looking to become small scale farmers — it turns out that these policies don’t really succeed in generating affordable farmland. As she explains “[r]etirees or city-dwellers looking for a second home can outbid a capital-poor farmer” and these easements are also valuable to rich people as tax dodges.
As readers can probably guess, the main idea I have about this is that we should relax regulatory restrictions on increased density in already built-up areas. People are going to live somewhere. If existing suburbs and central cities don’t get denser, then either we have to turn farmland and wilderness into new housing or else everyone has to move to the desert. And as it happens, Nevada was the fastest-growing state over the past decade followed by Arizona. But Nevada is neither a vibrant land of economic opportunity nor an ecologically sustainable place for people to be living.