Under pressure from local food advocates concerned that a new plan for the county's future would mean paving much of it over, Scott County planners are considering an innovative approach to saving big pockets of farmland.

"I'm putting a lot of thought" into whether the county should permit farmers to be compensated for the development rights to their land, with the housing developments being located elsewhere, Planning Manager Brad Davis said.

The County Board last week voted to send the 2030 blueprint to the Metropolitan Council without a lot of the language its critics are seeking. Commissioners denied a request for a delay in that process. But three of the four board members who will still be serving after January's post-election turnover signaled that they consider the farmland issue a priority.

"Farmland is very important to people in Scott County, including the cities," said Barbara Marschall, of Prior Lake. "We've been reassured that these things will be addressed." Another urban representative, Jon Ulrich, of Savage, said he wants to see a "major effort" to find ways of reconciling the competing forces.

Commissioner Joe Wagner, of Jordan, representing the most rural of the districts, was even more emphatic. "I got continuous calls on this" for two days straight, he said. "It's vitally important."

Three of the county's rural townships also voiced support for farmland preservation in their formal comments on the plan.

The strategy being considered is known as "transfer of development rights." The idea is to address the conundrum that many in society would like for various reasons to keep rural areas rural, but farmers are sitting on valuable tracts of land and many are loath to forgo that income when they're ready to quit farming.

The solution is for the farmer to collect some of the profits that a developer earns by being permitted to build at higher densities -- smaller lots, more stories, or both -- elsewhere. It's associated more with the East Coast, where experts caution that deciding where the transferred development will go and what it will look like is a lot harder than getting farmers to accept checks.

In Scott County, such transfers are now OK across adjoining properties, but not in a way that leapfrogs across a township or the county.

The 2030 comprehensive plan envisions the suburbanization of much of the western half of the county as part of a deal with the Met Council to install a costly new sewer plant south of Shakopee. In its defense, planners say it goes much further than the county ever has toward eliminating the crazy-quilt pattern of 10-acre lots that sprawl critics detest and takes important steps to protect sensitive natural areas.

But critics say it should do much more to treat prime farmland as a resource deserving protection.

Among the changes the county has agreed to make:

• Adding new language to the plan endorsing the importance of local food production.

• It will create an advisory group of farmers; some had complained that the county's standard means of gathering feedback don't do a good enough job.

• The plan was clarified to read that farmers don't have to change land use unless they petition to do so.

• It will add a new map showing prime farm soil and soils of statewide significance.

A new course?

Critics of the plan seem only partly mollified by these efforts and say they are reserving their options for what to do next. They are working with a group of lawyers who represent farm interests.

At the same time, however, those critics are working with the county on a University of Minnesota project that aims to look for national models of combining urban growth with continued farming. All sides agree that with development slackening, there's time to find new ways of doing things.

The evening-long expression of disappointment with the 2030 plan that took place last spring during its last big public hearing has led to a number of adjustments, county officials say.

"We knew then," Davis said, "that this was a topic we needed to spend more time on."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023