Aiding and Abetting Population and Business Decline?


Richard W. Crockett


How do small rural communities survive economically in the face of national trends toward urbanization and rural decline?  It is difficult, and one policy in this process is an ironic choice.  It is called the “forty acre” rule, a legal easement aimed at agricultural conservation. At one time, according to Marvin Hawk, Warren County Board member, the policy in the form of the forty-acre rule was encouraged and supported by the Farm Bureau Federation. Many counties situated adjacent to large metropolitan areas which are growing have, through the forty-acre rule, dug in their heels and resisted urban growth by making it difficult for residential housing to be constructed in agricultural areas.  Some counties have embraced the forty-acre rule policy to resist urban sprawl.  While this may serve some purpose for counties experiencing both population and economic growth, an irony is that many rural declining counties have adopted this policy, which is modeled on growing urban counties’ needs, but couched it in terms of “preserving agricultural land.”  Yet, on the face of it, these policies seem counterproductive. At least so thinks Warren county board member, Marvin Hawk of Roseville, who is a farmer and also in real estate sales.

Warren County adopted the forty-acre rule effective January 1, 2001, and when it did so, this preservation easement “passed almost unnoticed,” according to Hawk.  But in the rural communities in western Illinois the problem for little towns is not the unbridled effects of urban growth, but surviving the “farm consolidation issue.”  When represented as the preservation issue, it becomes a choice between preservation of agricultural land for large consolidating farm interests and preservation of the small communities that dot the countryside, which in the past were supported by persons living on the family farm. 

Hawk was the guest speaker of the Warren County Landlord’s Association on Thursday, April 10, 2008.  Armed with charts and tables, Hawk pressed his case for repealing or at least modifying the forty-acre rule in Warren County. The upshot of the rule is that it is difficult to build a non-farm home in the rural countryside without either a variance, a zoning change or a “parcel in excess of 35 acres.” Parcels of this size are “presumed to be a farm, if used for agricultural purposes,” and construction of a dwelling is permitted on a farm, according to the county ordinance.  At anywhere between $2,500 and $7,000 (some say $8,000) per acre for agricultural land in Warren County, this requirement makes the prospect of home construction on isolated parcels of land by persons who are not farming difficult. Zoning changes may be difficult or impossible because rural county zoning boards are frequently, exclusively dominated by agricultural interests.  Hawk states that officials in Warren County may tell you that they have never refused anyone a permit, but he notes that the process is so formidable, time consuming, costly, and difficult that projects are likely to be abandoned before they can be put in place.   The language of a deed in a transfer of property under the forty-acre rule is revealing and one such example reads as follows: the parties agree, “that the above described property shall be restricted from further residential development unless or until this covenant is terminated.  .  , pursuant to the terms of the Warren County Zoning Ordinance now in effect or as amended.”  Hawk contends that, “clarity and timeliness of securing a building permit is an issue for people who wish to locate in or near a community.”

There may be one avenue for escaping the mandate of the forty-acre rule, and this is in municipal laws affecting zoning. Agriculture areas typically have a zoning designation of A-1, whereas residential construction typically requires a zoning designation of “R,” usually R-1.  Municipalities have authority under state law to regulate zoning within one and one half miles of a municipal boundary. This may be helpful to persons wanting to build a home and who are willing to build close to an existing community, but it still may not serve the interests of persons who prefer not to live close to their neighbors.  This preference often exists among persons who have grown up on a farm. There has been some recent construction of new homes on North 14th Street near Monmouth, within the one and one-half mile limit, but outside the city limits, technically “in the county” rather than the city.

Hawk points out that between 2001 and 2006, the five-year period immediately following the adoption of the forty-acre rule in Warren County, there was a significant decline of building permits for homes issued by Warren County.  The number of issued permits for construction of new homes declined from 124 to 99, a total decline of 25 permits.  These numbers are exclusive of the City of Monmouth. Hawk attributes much of this to the existence of the forty-acre rule. The decline is about 20% of those permits issued for the prior five-year period.  Hawk also notes that Henderson County with less than half the population of Warren County is issuing more building permits than Warren County. Henderson County has not adopted the forty-acre rule, nor has any other county, which is adjacent to Warren.

Moreover, when comparing the “six southern townships of Warren County,” for the same period, the numbers reflect a decline from 26 to 15, a total of 11 permits.  This loss is 42% of permits issued in the prior five-year period. “These six townships surround Roseville, [and are] a significant loss in the potential support for the village business people,” according to Hawk.  Roseville, which is Hawk’s home community, is situated near the south end of Warren County and is near to, but bypassed by Route 67, which is a four-lane highway between Monmouth and Macomb. Hawk’s presentation includes a map of the southern part of Warren County, showing a circle with a five-mile radius with Roseville at its center.  On this map is 100 red “crosses” denoting a home that is gone, torn down in the last fifty years. In the face of the reduction in the numbers of rural homesteads, due to farm consolidation Hawk comments, “We need non-farmers to help support the Roseville merchants and retailers.”  He believes that the forty-acre rule, which complicates residential construction on potential rural building sites, interferes with that.

To illustrate the general rural decline, Hawk’s presentation shows a comparison of Roseville business today with fifty years ago.  Today there are ten businesses, representing nine categories of business, for example, gas station, bowling alley, skating rink, bank, grocery store, restaurant, etc.  Fifty years ago there were thirty-one businesses in seventeen different categories.

Hawk also includes census data for five counties in the area, including Warren, Mercer, Henderson, McDonough, and Knox. The three most rural counties experienced population decline in the last 106 years, while the more “urban” counties of Knox and McDonough experienced population increases in the same period.  Special factors may explain the growth in these two counties.  In Knox County it may correlate with industrial growth, and in the case of McDonough County it may correlate with the growth of Western Illinois University.  The latter two counties have also experienced population decline since their peak year of 1980.  Using Hawk’s calculations for the last 106 years, Warren County declined by 25%, Mercer by 20%, and Henderson by 28%.  In contrast, McDonough increased by 12% and Knox increased by 21%. In 1980 all of the counties experienced a “boomlet,” reaching their highest point in several years and then the trend began to reverse and once again go into a decline for all the counties. This 1980 national rural “boomlet” in the population literature is called “the rural renaissance,” discovered in 1975 by a Census Bureau Demographer.  Since 1980, McDonough has declined by 15% and Knox has declined by 14%, Henderson declined by14%, and Mercer declined by13%,. For Warren County, the only county of the five that has adopted the forty-acre rule, in that same period the population decline was 20%, the largest decline in the five counties.  These trends are similar to the trends experienced nationally for many rural areas, and while it may be difficult to reverse the pattern, it is probably not a good idea to aid and abet it. 

This issue probably even merits national concern because the depopulation of rural areas is driven by more fundamental factors than the forty-acre rule alone.  It has been described as a migration from the “frost belt” to the “sun belt,” leaving an industrial “rust belt.” These larger trends have not been limited to northern, de-industrializing cities but have included migration out of rural areas and smaller non-metropolitan communities as well. 

The repopulation of these rural areas could serve beneficial purposes for some small communities in decline, and some potentially even facing eventual extinction.  The benefits would occur to the county and to school districts among others.  Hawk identifies six areas of benefit from allowing construction of homes in agricultural areas for Warren County:  (1) New real estate taxes are created, funding for the county, township, fire departments, schools, colleges and other entities; (2) Jobs for tradesmen are created & materials are purchased; (3) additional school enrollments produce additional state aid and additional real estate taxes to support schools; (4) Salaries of the new homeowners support local retailers, merchants, and banks, (5) Additional people potentially lend support to churches, civic organizations, school functions, private clubs, little leagues, and other community activities, and all in all (6) it would create a healthier community to attract commercial or industrial enterprises. 

A question that remains unanswered for those who are skeptical of the wisdom of the rule in its present form is, “What is the good that is supposed to accrue to Warren County by the existence of this rule?   And, is there some valued purpose that citizens do not know about?” In answering these questions, it cannot rest upon an alleged scarcity of farmland.  There is little else in Warren County.  Does the forty-acre rule, especially in its present form, reflect an unwitting and unstudied commitment by the Warren County Board or is it merely malignant neglect accelerating the demise of small communities in their jurisdiction, ironically, all in the name of “preservation?”  Hawk hopes that they will reconsider.  For those who are weary of the whole debate, the question may be for both opponents and proponents of the rule, “What plan do you have in place to meet the housing needs and encourage development in the communities, with or without the forty acre rule?”


Richard W. Crockett resides in Monmouth and is retired from Western Illinois University where he directed the Graduate Program in Public Affairs and Administration.