Faster than wheat in a combine, farmland in Western New York's rural towns is being gobbled up by division and development.
But now, the towns -- which have looked the other way for years, in some cases -- are waking up. And getting mad.
The next step, rural officials say, is getting even.
To high praise from an area conservation group, rural towns are now taking the first small steps toward preserving their agricultural land. Following a Buffalo News story on incipient growth in the third-ring suburbs last week, Town of Newstead officials announced a counteroffensive to potential development among the area's rural towns.
In short: Newstead means to take a chunk out of the developers they claim are swallowing their farmland whole.
The plan? To find a way to force developers to hand over development rights on other equally sized, or bigger, parcels of town land. That would mean big, open spaces that would be forever preserved from any kind of development, officials said.
The Newstead idea is a first, said John Whitney, founder of the Sardinia-based Western New York Land Conservancy. He hopes it catches on.
"Towns watch each other," he said. "They look at each other all the time. . . . I expect they'll watch what Newstead is doing. This is one of the tools that should be used."
While area developers insist suburban sprawl will pretty much stop with second-ring towns like Clarence and Grand Island because the lack of sewers and water lines in the country will prohibit massive development, farmers and rural officials have a one-word reply:
Newstead, feeling the heat of growth from Clarence and Lancaster, will conduct a study with Cornell University's Department of Agriculture to find ways the town can force developers building major subdivisions (five or more lots) to hand over development rights on other prime farmland.
"There's a lot of land in the town right now that belongs to people who are just waiting to develop it," Newstead Supervisor Donald C. Holmes said. "If we're going to see any farmland left, we've got to make it economically feasible."
And that makes regional conservation experts, not to mention rural residents, happy.
Karen Baughan, a resident of Salt Road near the Clarence-Newstead border, said the preservation effort may prevent fields near her 5-acre property from becoming subdivisions.
"There are huge chunks of land for sale. . . . I think it's really sad. I don't want to end up like Amherst," she said. "A lot of the farmers can't afford the land."
Right now, a fallow, 173-acre field near Mrs. Baughan's home has a "for sale" sign posted.
"Developers are the only ones that can afford huge chunks of land like that," she said. "I don't like that at all. I love looking out my window and not seeing anybody."
But some developers are saying the era of suburban sprawl is over.
"I think Marilla can take down its barricades," joked Michael J. Giallanza, executive vice president of Forbes Homes and president of the Niagara Frontier Builders Association. "The popular opinion is that there is a ripple effect. But the idea that there is this force that's going to sweep Western New York is a myth."
Giallanza said the lack of sanitary sewer and water lines in the third-ring areas will inhibit growth.
"Are people looking to move en masse into Marilla, Newstead and Pendleton? I don't see those as communities in demand," Giallanza said.
But, he added, developers will always follow demand. And if demand exists for the outer limits in coming years, then so be it.
"We build where people want us to build," he said.
This possibility means the Newstead initiative could be the start of something big, area conservation authorities said.
If other third-ring towns embrace these tactics, they say, rural residents like Mrs. Baughan might get their wish for slower development.
The growing awareness about potential development may well signal a change in the approach to farmland, conservationists said.