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The Town of Amherst, the very embodiment of booming suburban housing and business growth, is poised to pay out almost $750,000 in state and town money to preserve 215 acres of farmland in its northern section along Tonawanda Creek Road.

The town will buy development rights, meaning that present and future owners will not be able to build houses, retail malls, industrial parks or other such features of an urbanized landscape. The land will have to be used by its owners for farming or left open.

There is controversy over one of the prices Amherst is paying, but the basic idea is a good one if Amherst wants to retain any hint of its rural past. Farmland takes on tempting high values as suburban sprawl gets closer and closer. Selling the "back 40" (and the "front 40" too) becomes an enriching deal hard to resist.

Amherst is the first Erie County town to start buying development rights, but the event should start officials and residents of outlying towns examining anew their wishes for the future of their communities. Is there a rural, farming character to be preserved? Do we, too, want to be swamped by franchise restaurants, big-box stores and numerous subdivisions? Will we be?

With limited state funds available, buying development rights seems something of a last-gasp gesture for towns, financially available only to those with tax bases grown large with development -- and probably justifiable in many taxpayers' minds only when there is little open land left.

If a small town, farther from the center, wishes to restrict development and thwart the onset of sprawl, zoning and land-use regulations appear to be the best bet at the moment. Some will point out that land can be quickly rezoned for development, mitigating restrictions. But if a community decides it wants to stay rural, it can be tough about zoning changes.

Consider the Town of Marilla (1990 population: 5,250) at Erie County's east-central border. The Marilla agricultural district includes more than 15,000 acres and more than 40 farms. Marilla has earned praise for its measures to encourage continued farming and to protect farmers' rights. Houses can be built on agriculturally zoned land, but only at a rate of two every five years. That effectively shuts out subdivisions.

In August, Marilla became the only town in Erie County to have a Right to Farm Law. It says that agricultural practices cannot be found in court to be a public or private nuisance as long as they are conducted in a standard manner. The law's preamble says Marilla has officially determined that agriculture is "vital" to the town and that preservation and encouragement of farming requires such protection.

Realtors are given copies of the law with the intent that they distribute them to new residents. The message: A farmer can spread manure, and his non-farming neighbors will have to live with the fact that it will smell for awhile. Welcome to true country living.

Marilla's supervisor John Foss says: "We're going to continue to look for ways to protect our farmers and protect our farmland. We want to keep from having suburban sprawl in Marilla."

Marilla had 17 new houses built this year. Foss says the town hopes its actions will result in only 15 to 25 a year in the future. Marilla's wish to limit development will have to come through zoning and other regulations. Using town funds for buying developments rights cannot happen there.

After all, Marilla's general fund budget is one-one hundredth of Amherst's.