In June, I participated in a panel discussion on Lancaster Farmland Trust’s new report titled, “The State of Farmland Preservation.” As a health care administrator, nurse and chair of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, I understand the connection between the health of our community’s landscape and its people.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize how much a person’s health and well-being are influenced by what happens outside the walls of a hospital.

My extensive experience as a health care professional has provided me the opportunity to see the connection between our community landscapes — where we live — and our personal health. We can educate people about how to live a healthier life, but the environment in which they live matters.

For example, abundant access to farm-fresh fruits and vegetables can allow for a more nutritious diet and contribute to a healthier overall body weight, reducing an individual’s risk for heart disease, cancer and stroke. Further, the Lancaster Farmland Trust supports a healthy environment by assisting farmers with using conservation practices that help protect land, water quality and wildlife.

Many people in Lancaster County value our farmland and natural landscape, and enjoy being able to access those spaces. However, they may not recognize that they can play a part in preserving those places. By supporting more compact development in our urban and suburban areas and villages, everyone can help prevent sprawling growth from taking over viable farmland.

Often, the opportunity to preserve farmland happens locally; municipalities play a significant role in planning and preserving farms. The decisions made at local municipal meetings matter.

Lancaster County’s current comprehensive plan — Places 2040 — published by the Lancaster County Planning Commission, offers sound guidance and tools. Still, the real substance of the work has to be done at the municipal level. Lancaster County’s 60 municipalities may create independent zoning ordinances and planning goals — but protecting Lancaster County’s farmland and open spaces will take teamwork.

We can do many things to break down silos across municipal lines and work collaboratively in regards to zoning and in-fill of urban and village areas. Transferable development rights are a good example of a practical tool available to all municipalities. During my time on the West Hempfield Township Planning Commission, there were several times when a farmer would sell their transferable development rights and we were able to use those to develop in an area more suitable for denser development. Through the sale of transferable development rights, the farm became protected, yet the township didn’t lose the ability to accommodate new residential or commercial growth.

I often refer to my fellow Lancaster County Planning Commission members and other municipal leaders as health care workers — that is how important I believe zoning and planning are to community health.

How we build our communities matters. It matters to those in our urban centers and to those in our most rural places. Our farmland benefits all Lancaster County residents, so use your voice, attend your local municipal meetings and let your elected officials know why you cherish our farmland. Encourage them to act now so future generations can also reap its benefits.

Alice Yoder, MSN, RN, is chair of the Lancaster County Planning Commission.

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