Open spaces are disappearing at a rapid pace across our state, according to a report released last week by the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. “From Rural to Suburban in Less Than a Century: Changes in Housing Density in North Carolina” uses maps produced by the University of Wisconsin-Madison to show housing density statewide each decade, from 1940 to the present; current growth trends are used to project what the state will look like by 2030. The picture is startling: Forests, farmland and recreation areas will be overtaken by suburban housing. Edgar Miller, the Conservation Trust’s government relations director, says we can turn the tide.

People tend to think of North Carolina as an agricultural state, but the report shows that farmland is disappearing.

North Carolina leads the nation in farm loss. Last year alone, we lost 1,000 farms, and since 2002, we’ve lost 6,000 individual farms and more than 300,000 acres of farmland. Despite that, agriculture and forestry combined are our No. 1 industry, accounting for $68 billion input to our economy annually. As we lose farmland and forest land, we’re going to lose the resource base on which that industry depends.

The No. 2 industry would be tourism, and we think the reason a lot of people come to North Carolina is because it is such a beautiful state, but we’re in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Unless we appropriate more money to acquire parkland or put conservation easements on land that can provide recreational opportunities, those places we have today will be overused, overrun, overcrowded and will not be able to meet the public demand.

The map for 2030 has just a little bit of green space in certain isolated places. It’s hard to picture what that landscape will look like.

There’s a fragmentation in forest and wildlife habitat. In the 1950s, for every 1,000 people who moved to North Carolina, 122 acres were developed to accommodate those 1,000 people. Now today, with the infrastructure that comes along with population growth, for every 1,000 people that come in to North Carolina, we’re consuming more than 350 acres, according to data from the 1990s. We need more roads, more shopping centers, more schools, more infrastructure in general.

You’re not talking about urban development, but suburban development. Can you talk about that distinction?

The areas on the map [Housing Density maps, 572KB PDF] that are purple, where you have less than one housing unit for every third of an acre or lessthat’s urban density. But the majority is orange and yellow, which essentially equates to one house per acre. The kinds of new subdivisions you’re seeing in North Raleigh or Durham is the kind of density you’ll see all across the state, except in areas that are protected as state, federal or local parks or can’t be developed due to water quality concerns or other limitations. Housing obviously is necessary, but it could be done in such as a way as to limit its impact on our natural landscape.

What can be done at this point?

Our top priority is to get the General Assembly to pass a $1 billion land and water conservation bond referendum that would allow the public to vote on dedicating resources to protect farms, forests, natural areas, watersheds, and to buy additional state and local parkland.

We’ve also proposed a new initiative called Landing Jobs, which would link conservation opportunities with community-based economic development. It could include jobs in ecotourism, downtown revitalization, historic preservation, sustainable agriculture and forestry, just a wide range of opportunities. We’re also working on conservation-based affordable housing.

What else are you lobbying for?

To help stem the loss of farmland in North Carolina, we are lobbying the General Assembly to support $6 million for the state’s Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, which has been woefully underfunded in the past. This would provide funding to buy not only development rights from farmers but also to support public and private enterprise programs that would improve the profitability and economic viability of farms in North Carolina. And we’ve also proposed different income and property tax incentives that would encourage people to voluntarily conserve their land and keep that land in private ownership and on the tax rolls.

How have things been going in the legislature?

We’ve been having a hard time moving the bond proposal forward. We’re kind of caught up in the big picture with the budget. We’re having a hard time keeping [the bond referendum] on the radar screen.

We’re obviously hopeful that the report will compel the General Assembly to act, to not necessarily limit development, but to protect places that are special to communities and the citizens of North Carolina before it’s too late.

We think the picture’s pretty clear. Our report shows that housing density is increasing on average 23 percent every decade. And we have seen land prices increase more than 300 percent in the past 10 yearsthat’s just in terms of what the state pays for land we’re acquiring for conservation. It’s only going to get more expensive, just like all of our infrastructure needs. That’s why we think a bond referendum approved by the vote of the people is the way to go to help us be able to buy land at today’s prices and finance that over time. Eventually development will catch up with us, and if we haven’t designated the resources to protect North Carolina’s special places, that will be irreversible.