A key committee of the Metropolitan Council unanimously approved late Tuesday a plan by Scott County to spread suburbs over much of what is now farmland. But its chairwoman commended the farmland preservationists who are fighting that plan.

"We're very pleased you did come down today," Council Member Natalie Haas Steffen told the activists. "Stay on that County Board. They run for election. ... You could be onto something -- and could come up with solutions that could be used in other parts of this region to deal with this problem."

The council could not, however, she added, do what the activists were seeking, which was to stall or amend the plan to make it a more powerful force for farmland protection.

"I share the concerns of these farmers," she said. "I really do." The retention of prime farmland for local food production "is a big issue for the region. But we have no oversight over food. Food is not a 'system' that the Legislature has created or given us. But I'd like to see this addressed somehow."

The plan, which envisions developing most of the western half of the county over the next century, ignited a several-hours-long public hearing last spring. It spawned a grass-roots movement with legal representation from St. Paul, including a seven-page letter last fall pleading for more time before the Met Council considered the plan.

Yet when the plan went before the Met Council this week, it was listed as having "no known opposition." Activists were incredulous at that.

"We've been hammering at this for the last year and a half, and now this is thrown in our face?" said Jennifer Jensen, a leader of the Local Harvest Alliance. "Unbelievable."

Haas Steffen permitted four members of the group to address the committee at some length, and instructed council staffer Tom Caswell to make sure the record of opposition to the plan was corrected. Confronted by activists afterward as to what he was thinking, Caswell said he had noted that the county had made some changes in the plan in response to their protests, and, having not heard directly from them, he assumed it was all smoothed over.

"It's long-term," he told them, meaning most of the farmland at issue won't be developed for decades.

Attorney Susan Stokes, executive director of the Farmers Legal Action Group, said the activists and their attorneys emerged from the session with mixed feelings. They appreciated the expressions of support, she said, but worry that the plan will lock the county into slowly erasing its agricultural heritage.

In a letter to the council, Stokes praised Dakota County for steps it is taking to "protect agriculture by limiting rural residential growth." In "sharp contrast," she said, Scott's plan leaves "prime soils to be buried under concrete."

Scott County's top planners testified about the many steps the county has taken to work with farmland activists, and pledged to find ways to make agriculture protection measures work. Caswell praised the public participation process they undertook over several years as "outstanding."

Stokes said the group intends to keep after the issue. "We're not finished with this," she said.

David Peterson • 952-882-9023