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Inventorying, Managing and Preserving Agricultural Historic Landscapes in Minnesota

Contents: Chapter 3

3.  Planning for Historic Agricultural Landscapes

    Conduct A Resource Inventory
    Define Issues, Opportunities and Goals
    Define Alternatives (Different Scenarios or Approaches)
    Develop a Landscape Preservation Management Strategy
    Education and Recognition
    Incentives and Land Stewardship Actions
    Land Management or Regulation

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Planning should be the first step in local community action to address rural conservation. Although planning will not solve every problem that confronts a rural community, it does provide an organized approach to land use and to other areas of governmental regulation and services. Good planning, as long as it is faithfully carried out, is first and foremost a money-saving exercise. It encourages a local government to consider its future and to set its priorities for expenditures. So serious are the ramifications of designating land for new development -- siting utility, water, and sewer lines; providing roads and schools -- that each rural community should consider planning among its most important tasks. -- Saving America's Countryside, p. 161.
This section presents a simple process for planning at the local level for agricultural historic landscapes. It resembles the typical land use planning process described above: the process by which a local government makes decisions about where to locate new land uses or facilities. Planning for agricultural historic landscapes, however, emphasizes the quality and importance of the resources that should be protected -- i.e. field patterns, farmsteads, rural roads and views -- as well as those resources that might ultimately be developed.

The planning process typically includes most if not all of the following components:

Conduct A Resource Inventory

What are the historic and other resources that make your landscape unique? The inventory process for cultural landscapes has been described in the preceding chapter. In addition to the historic and natural resources that are typically evaluated as part of a landscape assessment, you should also consider the existing plans and land use regulations that may apply to all or part of the landscape. For example:
  • What is the condition of local roads? Are there any plans to widen, straighten or otherwise upgrade them?
  • What local zoning requirements, if any, apply to the area? What kinds of new development are permitted, and at what densities? For example, in the Nansen district in Goodhue County, parts of the district are in an Agricultural Protection district that limits residential development to one house per quarter-section, or 160 acres. Other parts of the district allow one house per quarter-quarter section, or 40 acres. In areas on the outskirts of a city, allowable densities may be much higher.
  • Are there other regulations that apply to specific natural areas, such as shorelands, floodplains or steep slopes?
  • Do municipal services -- public water and sewer service -- exist within the area? Are there plans to extend them into the area?
Assessing existing regulations will help you determine the level of pressure within the area for new non-farm development, and help to set a direction for the plan.

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Define Issues, Opportunities and Goals

To be effective and supportable, a plan should grow out of a community-based participatory process -- local residents, as well as their elected and appointed representatives, should be involved in its development. This means that the plan should identify and address the issues that are important to local residents. Issues can be defined as problems or questions about the future of the community that should be addressed and hopefully resolved through the planning process. A community meeting or a series of informal meetings or interviews provide a useful method for identifying issues. In the Nansen Agricultural Historic District in Goodhue County, the following issues, among others, were raised:
  • New homes, often in prominent or inappropriate locations
  • Development of driveways in inappropriate locations -- i.e. on north slopes with steep grades
  • Poor development locations due to the small number of available properties; high real estate values
  • Concern about future restrictions on farm operations, ability to sell property, and on modernizing buildings
  • Number of residents in full or part-time farming is decreasing -- fewer all the time
  • The nearby highway corridor and its related development
  • Concern about restrictions on hunting in the wood lots (turkey and deer)
Residents should also be involved in identifying opportunities and setting goals for their landscape area or region. Opportunities can be defined as actions or programs with the potential for positive change -- for example, the availability of funding or support for rehabilitation of a specific building, or the potential for economic development related to heritage preservation.

Goals (often called "objectives" or "principles") are statements that articulate the desired outcome of the planning process. They shape and guide the programs and actions that may be recommended in the plan. Goals developed for the Nansen District included the following:

  • Keep a strong sense of community.
  • Provide growth in an orderly manner, not randomly as land becomes available.
  • Tap local resources for information and consider doing oral histories.
  • Keep responsibilities and tools as local as possible.
  • Find funding and set up an on-going program for rehab of buildings.
  • Help everybody regardless of income so all can afford to do historic preservation.
  • Maintain sense of privacy; avoid broad public knowledge and tours of the district.
  • Develop creative economic incentives for preservation.
  • Develop flexible and easy-to-apply guidelines for decision-making.
Sometimes a community may decide to conduct a broad visioning process as the first step in a plan. "Visioning" is a process by which citizens jointly define a statement of the future they imagine and are willing to work toward. Goal-setting then follows as a way to realize this vision statement.

There are many publications and manuals that provide more detailed guidance for the planning process, and for public participation, for example the second edition of Saving America's Countryside, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (see References for additional sources).

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Define Alternatives (Different Scenarios or Approaches)

Many planning processes include the generation of more than one alternative. Alternatives can best be defined as different scenarios, approaches or courses of action that will achieve the desired goals. For example, three alternative courses of action for management of a given landscape might include:
  1. Pursue designation of a National Register historic district but do not change existing local management structures or land use regulations;
  2. Create a new historic preservation commission at the local level to establish preservation standards and requirements; or
  3. Establish an informal advisory task force to work with existing county and local governments and initiate preservation activities.
Defining alternatives can be a good way to articulate the various possible approaches, and ultimately choose one approach or a "hybrid" of several. However, it is not always necessary to define alternatives. It is sometimes obvious that only one management approach is likely to be feasible, given the political and cultural realities of the community, and this step can be eliminated.

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Develop a Landscape Preservation Management Strategy

The concept of "landscape preservation" presents a set of unique challenges, from defining the boundaries of a landscape area to establishing appropriate tools and techniques for the protection of traditional agricultural practices while continuing to allow farmers and landowners to adapt to changing conditions.

Most historic landscape preservation plans to date have focused on "designed" landscapes such as parks and parkways, estates, institutions such as hospitals or cemeteries, and cultural landscapes within the national parks. There are as yet few examples of management strategies for historic landscapes in private ownership. The following questions should be considered as part of the development of a management strategy.

  • What role should area residents be asked to play in protection, interpretation or management of a district's historic and cultural resources?
  • To what extent are existing government programs helping to protect these resources, and where do significant gaps exist?
  • How can the district's resources be protected without compromising residents' desires for privacy and independence?
The Nansen district in Goodhue County offers an example of the delicate balance that is sometimes needed. Residents wish primarily to retain their rural character and sense of privacy, without imposing new land use regulations or management structures. The recommended preservation strategy for that district centers on creation of a local advisory committee that could initiate a variety of preservation activities, with assistance from a variety of sources, including the Goodhue County Historical Society and the County Department of Land Use Management.

Preservation techniques can be grouped into three broad categories: education and recognition; land stewardship actions/incentives; and land management and regulation. Many of the techniques described below are available to Minnesota landowners and local governments. Others would require new initiatives by state and county governments.

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Education and Recognition

Goal: to protect the resource by increasing public awareness and appreciation of it. These actions are designed to document, publicize and create broader awareness of the historic landscape. This type of action may not seem to be directly related to planning, but public support for preservation often evolves from an awareness and understanding of the landscape's resources. They can include the following:

1. Documentation of the landscape's features in a readable and accessible form -- pamphlets, brochures, thematic maps, local guidebooks, etc.

2. Identification of the landscape's features through historical markers, plaques or other signs.

3. Interpretation to a broader public, through the publications listed above or through guided or self-guided tours. Exhibits and other educational programs can also be used to interpret the landscape.

4. Recognition of the landscape through its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places as an historic district. A National Register district designation offers the following advantages:

  • making properties eligible for grants-in-aid, when available;
  • offering federal income tax credits (20%) for rehabilitating income-producing properties;
  • increasing awareness of historic properties and promoting a sense of pride in past achievements;
  • increasing a district's standing, visibility and ability to withstand outside threats;
At the same time, the National Register does not interfere with a private owner's property rights. It does not prevent private property owners from making changes to their property not force them to make improvements. Nor does it limit the use of listed buildings or require them to erect or purchase plaques, or require that properties to be accessible to the public.

5. The interpretation of the landscape as part of a heritage tourism program. Heritage tourism provides the traveler with opportunities to explore the cultural and natural resources specific to a place.

Nationally, an increasing number of vacationers and travelers seek distinctive heritage and cultural experiences. A 1997 survey profiling the heritage traveler notes that heritage travelers spend more time on the road, and spend more money on meals, lodging, and shopping per trip than do average travelers.... The tourism industry, local communities, and preservationists recognize the "partnership" potential of heritage tourism to shore up a region's economy while providing an understandable, dollars-and-cents reason to preserve distinctive buildings and structure that local residents may consider to be just old buildings (Weber,The Minnesota Preservationist, 1999)

In Minnesota, the Iron Range region is beginning to explore the potential of heritage tourism as a way to link a variety of sites that express the region's strong ethnic and mining heritage, with, preservation and business recruitment efforts, group tours and a series of self-guided tours planned. The heritage tourism approach is equally applicable to rural agricultural historic landscapes, especially those that can be linked to nearby parks, recreational areas and towns with visitor facilities. It is suitable for areas that are actively seeking economic development and welcome a certain level of tourism, not for areas where residents wish to protect their isolated, rural character.

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Incentives and Land Stewardship Actions

Goal: to encourage landowners to preserve historic resources on their properties. These actions are primarily those that can be undertaken by individual landowners without outside help, or those that are designed to assist landowners in protecting their land's resources. They include:

1. Donation of conservation easements (covering scenic, historic, and/or agricultural resources) to a land trust. The Minnesota Land Trust (MLT) promotes the protection of open space, including farmland, wetlands, woodlands, bluff lands, wildlife habitat and scenic areas. MLT specializes in providing landowners with the legal tools they need to pursue a variety of land protection options, including donation of conservation easements. MLT will hold and monitor easements not only on ecologically significant lands but also on lands with historic, scenic or open space value. Lands protected by an easement can still be used and sold for agriculture. Significant tax advantages may be available to easement donors, including federal income tax deductions, estate tax benefits, and reductions in property taxes.

Another type of easement is one that would protect historic buildings and structures from alteration. Landowners can seek assistance from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, a statewide preservation advocacy and assistance group, in holding and monitoring easements on historic properties.

2. Purchase of conservation easements. The Board of Water and Soil Resources, in partnership with the Department of Natural Resources and the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, will purchase easements on land that will be managed for wildlife habitat and wetland conservation. The Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) Reserve Program places land in permanent natural vegetative cover, and the Permanent Wetland Preserves (PWP) Program -- restores drained wetlands. Goals are enhanced fish and wildlife habitat, reduced soil erosion and sedimentation, flood control and groundwater recharge. Payments are based on the County assessor's average market value for tillable land. The program does result in the "retiring" of certain lands from active farming, which may alter the appearance of an historic landscape.

3. Purchase of development rights (PDR). Under a PDR program, a landowner voluntarily sells his or her rights to develop a parcel of land to a public agency or nonprofit conservation organization. A conservation easement is placed on the land, while the landowner retains all other ownership rights. The buyer is essentially purchasing the right to develop the land and "retiring" that right permanently. Compensation generally equals the difference between the land's appraised value for development and its value for agriculture or conservation. Many PDR programs exist in other states, and enabling legislation now exists to allow PDR in Minnesota. Programs would likely need to be created at the county level; Washington County is currently considering a PDR program.

4. Other land stewardship programs. Many programs are available to help landowners manage natural and forested areas on their properties. These include the Conservation Reserve Program (administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service) and a number of forestry and habitat enhancement programs offered through the DNR that provide cost-sharing or technical assistance.

5. Limited development, under which a portion of a property is developed while the remainder is retained as open space. If the developed area is properly sited (see Development Guidelines below), this approach allows landowners to benefit from a portion of their property's value for development, while minimizing its visual impacts. The feasibility of this approach depends on the zoning that applies to the property -- in other words, how many house lots would be permitted.

6. Tax incentives. These may include:

  • Preservation tax credits for income-producing properties in National Register districts;
  • The Minnesota Agricultural Property Tax Law (the "Green Acres" law, Mn. Stat. 273.111) The "Green Acres" Law provides for deferment of assessment and taxes payable on farm lands whose valuations have been increased due to residential or commercial development potential. This approach may help landowners experiencing development pressure from urban areas.
7. Landowner compacts or private land plans. Under this approach, a group of landowners jointly plan which areas of their properties should be developed and which should remain in agriculture or open space -- essentially "limited development" (see above) across an entire district or landscape. Its goal would be to preserve a landscape area's agricultural character while allowing a limited amount of carefully sited development to enable property owners to realize their long-term financial objectives. Landowner compacts may be feasible in areas with a fairly small number of properties, intensive development pressure and high land values.

8. Technical assistance with barn restoration. Although barns and outbuildings may not seem practical for today's agricultural operations, there is a wealth of information available on cost-effective ways to repair and adapt these buildings to new uses. One source of technical assistance is the "Barn Again!" program of the National Trust and Successful Farming magazine, which offers a series of technical manuals on updating and modifying old barns, as well as an awards program.

Some states, such as Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa, offer technical assistance or their own awards program. Kane County, Illinois produced a manual, That Darn Barn, documenting a demonstration project that the county co-sponsored with the local Farm Bureau. It is possible that Minnesota state or county agencies may offer this type of assistance in the future.

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Land Management or Regulation

Goals: To better protect certain resources;
  To guide future development to appropriate areas.
  To improve coordination between levels of government
The actions in this category are those typically associated with "planning" -- the management or regulation of the use of land or buildings, often through zoning or other locally-administered regulations. Land regulation is viewed by some as a restriction of individual property rights. Others view it as the first line of defense against unwanted development. Ideally, regulations should be based on community goals and designed not only to limit development in key resource areas but to encourage high-quality development where appropriate.

1. Local historic districts (Heritage Preservation Districts). While a National Register Historic District, described above under "Education and Recognition" places no restrictions on private property owners, a local historic district can be considerably more restrictive. In addition to encouraging preservation of historic buildings and structures, locally designated historic districts use design review to ensure that rehabilitation maintains historic character and that new development fits into its surroundings. Within a district, for example, a Heritage Preservation Commission is established to review plans for exterior alterations to buildings and new "infill" development.

There are currently 42 Heritage Preservation Commissions in Minnesota cities and villages, 27 of which are Certified Local Governments (CLG's). To become a CLG, a local government must enact a preservation ordinance that meets certain state standards, including provision for local designation of historic properties and review of proposed changes to those properties. CLGs are eligible for federal historic preservation fund grants administered through the SHPO for historic property survey and planning projects.

None of the state's locally designated historic districts are found in rural agricultural areas. By their nature, local historic districts are oriented primarily toward buildings and structures. However, it would be possible to integrate landscape features into design guidelines specific to a rural historic district.

2. Local conservation districts. A conservation district is usually a less-restrictive "cousin" of the local historic district. Some cities have created conservation or "neighborhood conservation" districts as "a means to recognize the special historic character of certain neighborhoods and provide planning assistance and improvement without passing through the often arduous process of historic designation and design review" (Zellie, 1998). These districts are usually included within the zoning ordinance as special "overlay" districts, and may include limited design review, often focusing on new construction. In Minnesota, the City of Red Wing has adopted an ordinance covering neighborhood conservation districts in addition to local historic districts. The ordinance includes design guidelines for these conservation districts, emphasizing compatibility of new construction and additions with their surroundings, examining factors such as building height, scale, placement, setback and materials.

3. State historic districts. The Minnesota Historic District Act (M.S. 138.71-75) designates certain historic districts and enables local governing bodies to create commissions to provide architectural control in these areas. The district must be designated by the State Legislature. Following designation, local governments have flexibility to create their own guidelines or review procedures, using a local review commission that suits their particular needs or objectives. Old Frontenac, an unincorporated village within Goodhue County, is an example of a state historic district in which a local preservation commission was established.

4. Agricultural zoning. Zoning regulations can be used to protect farmland, primarily by restricting the number of non-farm house lots that can be developed. In Goodhue County, for example, the Agricultural Preservation District sets a limit of four single-family houses per section (640 acres), or one per quarter-section (160 acres). Densities this low help to minimize conflicts between farm operations and nearby residents, and ensure that a "critical mass" of farmland is preserved. To be effective, densities should generally not exceed one unit per 40 acres. Higher densities encourage creation of "mini-estates" by non-farmers and consumption of large amounts of farmland for residential purposes.

5. Zoning to permit or encourage adaptive re-use of barns and agricultural buildings. Barns that may no longer be needed or usable for agricultural purposes are well-suited to re-use for a variety of purposes, such as workshops, studios or even housing. Local zoning ordinances can be revised to permit such adaptations, and to require or encourage appropriate exterior rehabilitation.

6. Overlay districts for sensitive natural resources. Resources such as floodplain and shorelands are generally protected by zoning regulations, which are considered as "overlays" because they follow the resource in questions across various "underlying" zoning districts. It may also be appropriate to develop ordinances that protect fragile resources such as steep slopes, erodible soils, and wooded areas. Generally these ordinances limit the degree of grading or clearing that can be done in these areas; some even prohibit any new construction.

7. Cluster or conservation subdivisions. Residential clustering, also known as conservation subdivision or open space design, keeps a large proportion of a tract in permanent open space, by "clustering" all the housing units that would be allowed under zoning on a small part of the tract. Instead of 8 five-acre lots on a 40-acre parcel, for example, one could develop 8 one-acre lots on about 10 acres (allowing for roads, etc.), keeping the remaining 30 in farmland or open space. A conservation easement is placed on open space areas, prohibiting further development. Because lots are smaller, community wastewater treatment facilities (i.e. common drainfields in the open space) are often needed. Sometimes this approach is mandatory; sometimes a "density bonus" of several additional lots is provided as an incentive.

Clustering is most appropriate in "urban fringe" areas where development pressure is intense and agricultural protection zoning may not be feasible. If new housing is properly sited, its visual impact can be minimized and some important landscape features can be maintained. Moreover, new developments can be designed with a more compact, village-like quality that many people find appealing, and with views of permanently protected open space.

8. Site planning guidelines. In areas with few available building sites, houses and driveways are sometimes located in the wrong places -- i.e. on steep slopes. Another threat is that houses with a contemporary design will be located in very visible locations, changing the quality and appearance of the landscape. Rather than trying to control house siting through zoning, guidelines can help to ensure that the visual impact of new structures does not diminish landscape character. For example, to minimize visual impact of new structures, site planning guidelines might specify that structures should not be placed in open fields or along ridgelines; that residences should be located on side slopes and adjacent to tree lines and wooded field edges; and that new agricultural structures should be placed where their visual impact can be concealed by existing structures or vegetation.

9. Use of alternative rural road standards. One common form of public improvement that can cause a loss of landscape character is the widening and straightening of rural roads to meet state standards. While some improvements may be necessary for reasons of safety or traffic management, it is possible to design them to minimize any effects on scenic or historic features. Mn/DOT's Natural Preservation Routes (NPR) program provides an alternative set of standards for County State Aid Highways that "possess unique scenic, environmental, or historical characteristics.... Examples may include roads along lakes, rivers, wetland, or through forests or rough terrain where designation permits design and construction with less environmentally intrusive standards." The NPR designation provides alternative standards for pavement width, clear zones, bridge width, design speed and other features. Three types exist, based on the character of the road and its surroundings, and on traffic volumes. State-aid funds are not affected. A County must nominate a proposed NPR route to Mn/DOT.

A county or township may also adopt alternative road standards for county roads that possess unique features such as historic bridges, scenic views or vegetation. Mn/DOT's State Aid for Local Transportation Division can assist in determining acceptable standards that do not compromise safety or operations.

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