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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Among the hottest farm issues of the past few years has been the impact of government regulations on private property. A new study indicates the often heated rhetoric may not reflect most landowners' views.

The American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit land conservation advocacy group, found in the recent broad-based survey of farmers, ranchers and landowners that 71 percent reported no loss of value traced to government regulations such as zoning, erosion control or wetlands protection. In addition, two-thirds said they are willing to shoulder some costs of environmental protection as long as they are shared with the general public.

The survey comes as Congress considers nine bills, most introduced by Republicans, that are intended to require government compensation if regulations result in a ``taking'' that reduces value or restricts value of private property. Twenty-four state legislatures have recently passed similar private property rights laws.

Trust President Ralph Grossi, whose family runs a cattle ranch near San Francisco, said the poll shows most landowners favor commonsense approaches to protecting the environment and don't want government to be forced to choose between regulation and paying landowners.

``A combination of reasonable regulation and compensatory financial incentives to landowners is the best way to save farmland and encourage good environmental stewardship,'' Grossi said. `Often, this debate seems ill-informed.''

The telephone survey of 1,729 farmers, ranchers and others owning at least five acres in 42 states was conducted in June-November 1997 by J. Dixon Esseks, professor of public administration at Northern Illinois University. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Most of those surveyed own more than 25 acres, and three-quarters raise crops. Eighty percent of respondents live on the farm, and a third earn more than $50,000 in annual gross farm income.

``It is clear that agricultural landowners do not fit the stereotypes ascribed to them,'' American Farmland Trust vice president Edward Thompson said in the report. ``Most are neither poor, unfortunate victims of environmental regulation run amok, nor are they greedy libertarians who don't care if they plunder the planet.''

Some of the survey's major findings:

--More than two-thirds say they suffered no loss of property value from government regulations. Only 8.3 percent reported a large loss. On a regional basis, westerners were more than twice as likely to report large losses.

--Fifty-eight percent said they favored mandatory regulations rather than voluntary incentives to protect farms from residential development. The rest either had no opinion, favored incentives or wanted no policy at all.

--Landowners were split between regulations to protect wetlands, with 45 percent favoring voluntary incentives and almost 40 percent supporting regulations. But to protect endangered species, four times as many landowners favored public or private incentives as supported regulations.

-- Between 70 percent and 95 percent, depending on the issue, favor some government role in conservation of natural resources instead of leaving it to the free market.

--Sixty percent said the public and private landowners should share the costs of regulation, and a third favored public compensation entirely. Yet only 3 percent said private landowners should bear the burden alone.

The trust's report recommends that Congress and state lawmakers work toward policies that share responsibility for protecting the environment and slowing urban sprawl. In addition, more money should be made available for incentive programs that encourage landowners to take conservation steps on their own.

 

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