Denver Post – Brighton safeguards farmland amid rapid growth
Amid the sea of homes and subdivisions washing over this city, Dave Loeffler maintains a plot of pasture land — "a perfect piece of property" — for his cows and hay-baling operation.
Not long ago, this 92-acre parcel on the north side of Bridge Street was slated for 300 to 400 new houses. But since Brighton purchased it several years ago, plans are to keep it as farmland with Loeffler running it as a productive agricultural operation.
The site is one of six parcels — totaling 211 acres — in and around Brighton that the city owns and leases out to local farmers. The leases are an effort to keep alive a real and vital link to the area’s agricultural heritage even as master- planned communities take root throughout this 17-square-mile city.
"Our goal is to develop a sustainable community, and part of that sustainability is keeping people close to where their food is grown and keeping that food production local," said Gary Wardle, Brighton’s director of parks and recreation.
Earlier this month, the Brighton City Council renewed the leases for the six agricultural properties for another five years. An additional 60 acres is expected to go under lease by spring as the city strives for a long-term goal of preserving 1,200 acres of farmland.
For Loeffler, a lifelong Brighton resident, it means a guaranteed five more years to work the land in the way he has for the past three decades.
"We wanted to see this go for open space so bad — never to be built on," he said. "It’s very important to preserve it for the future."
Brighton’s population has exploded from around 21,000 in 2000 to nearly 36,000 today, and with the growth, large tracts of vacant land have filled in with housing developments, shops and restaurants.
Leased public farmland is not unique to Brighton. Most of the counties in the metro area lease open space to farmers, with Boulder County — at 25,000 acres — the most aggressive.
Less common is a municipality getting into the agricultural leasing game, although Boulder leases more than 14,000 acres to farmers and Longmont and Aurora each lease out more than 1,000 acres. Brighton has paid around $8 million for the acreage.
Brighton’s approach differs from many other places because it doesn’t have conservation easements on all of its agricultural properties, which would prevent development on the land in perpetuity. Instead, it cites its possession of the land as the de facto assurance that nothing will be built on it.
"The city owns it — that’s what is protecting it," Wardle said.
Wardle said not officially dedicating the land as open space holds some advantages for the city.
"When it’s open space, you have to mow it, you have to maintain it, pick up trash," he said. "We don’t have the staff to do that."
Instead, Loeffler keeps watch over the land and pays the city an annual fee of $35 an acre. Three of the city’s parcels are leased to Brighton-based Petrocco Farms, which grows a wide variety of vegetables and crops.
Adams County, which has several thousand acres of its own land in leases, gave Brighton grant money to help with some of the land purchases. Most of the agricultural land the city owns is outside of its boundaries.
Kristan Pritz, director of open space and trails in neighboring Broomfield, lauded Brighton for being forward-thinking about preservation. Broomfield leases 359 acres to local farmers.
She said Brighton’s leasing program tracks the larger trend of residents turning to more locally sourced food while attempting to forge a deeper connection to the area’s agrarian history.
"A lot of our citizens like to see the crops and the cycle of the seasons," Pritz said.
John Aguilar: 303-954-1695, jaguilar or twitter.com/abuvthefold