Farmland preservation program moves forward


Despite a concern about cost and a realization that the plan’s ambitious goal won’t be reached, the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program will not only survive this year, but it could very well grow.

Next year, though, may be another matter.

It wasn’t all that surprising that Kent County commissioners agreed last week to proceed with purchasing the development rights of 112 acres from two farms in Grattan and Sparta townships for $200,000, or $1,785 an acre.

What was surprising was how easily the resolution was approved. Commissioners took the next step by a decisive 13-4 margin, after a committee vote a week earlier nearly went the other way.

The action means the county will apply for a USDA Farmland Preservation Program grant that will have to cover at least half the purchase price. Reportedly, both farms meet the grant’s criteria. The county’s general fund will provide $50,000 toward the cost and the rest will come from area foundations.

Some commissioners argued the county’s money could be put toward a better use, such as the emergency fund for area veterans. But Commissioner Roger Morgan said the PDR dollars were allocated as part of the budgeting process last year and that’s how that money should be spent.

“If we didn’t want the $50,000 in there, we shouldn’t have approved the budget,” he said, adding that he looks forward to discussing more funds possibly being budgeted for veterans next year.

Commissioner Harold Voorhees took the opposite stance. He said he learned one of the farms that asked for preservation status received about $1.5 million from the federal government not to go into production.

“I do not agree with putting more money into a farm that receives money not to grow,” he said.

“I don’t understand how one affects the other,” said Commissioner Tom Antor, who added the federal money should be taken up with congressional representatives and not the commission. “I’m concerned about preserving prime farmland.”

When commissioners approved the Purchase of Development Rights ordinance in November 2002, the program had a 10-year goal of preventing 25,000 acres of farmland from being developed commercially. That decade has passed and the number of acres that has been preserved is about 90 percent short of the goal.

But the preservation process started slowly. From the program’s inception through 2008, only 758 acres on seven farms were preserved. Cost was the main reason behind the slow start. Farmland was going for more than $4,000 an acre then and, on occasion, for more than $5,000 an acre.

In addition, when commissioners gave the green light to the ordinance, they didn’t allocate any funding that could be used as matches to the grants Kendra Wills of the Kent/MSU Extension Service received from the USDA. The grants covered the bulk of the cost to preserve the acres.

After the Great Recession played out, however, the program’s activity picked up. In 2010, as the cost to preserve land fell dramatically, commissioners approved buying the development rights of 786.5 acres from six property owners. The price per acre that year was roughly $1,700. After those transactions were closed, the county’s PDR program had set aside 1,544.5 acres on 13 farms.

In 2011, commissioners approved one transaction when they secured the development rights to 73 acres of a Sparta Township farm for $1,504 per acre. The county recently closed on the rights for 300 acres on four farms in Grattan, Courtland and Sparta townships for $1,560 per acre. That action was approved last year. Those two transactions raised the program’s total preserved acres to 1,917.5 on 18 farms. If closings are completed on the latest transaction, 2,029.5 acres on 20 farms will have preservation status from the county program.

But the county program hasn’t been the only means of preserving farmland. Peter M. Wege used a conservation-easement donation to set aside 577 acres in Vergennes Township. The state program preserved 252 acres in Courtland and Tyrone townships. And Grattan Township protected 170 acres on three farms.

Adding those transactions to the county’s means 2,916.5 acres of farmland have been preserved in all of Kent County — with maybe another 112 acres heading to that total. Still, the number will be a far cry from the desired goal of 25,000 acres.

“I really question the sustainability of this program. In my mind, it’s going to take hundreds of millions to do that,” said Commission Vice Chairman Jim Saalfeld, who grew up on a farm and supported last week’s action.

“As we approach $1 million in our funding, I think we need to take a close look at what we’re doing. I think our veterans should come first,” said Commissioner Michael Wawee, who voted against the PDR resolution.

A majority of the recent matching funds for the Kent County program have come from the Grand Rapids Community and Frey foundations. Both made three-year funding commitments that required the county to also contribute to the preservation effort. GR Foundation awarded the program $300,000 over those three years, while the Frey Foundation gave it $250,000 for the same timeframe.

In return, the county allocated $275,000 for two consecutive years to put toward buying development rights and then cut that general fund amount back to $150,000 last year. Just $50,000 from the general fund has been budgeted for purchase rights this year and Saalfeld said there aren’t any PDR dollars in next year’s budget now.

Both the Grand Rapids Community and Frey foundations are reportedly in the program for this fiscal year. A few people close to the program, however, have told the Business Journal that next year may deliver a different scenario.

A county subcommittee spent 10 months looking at ways to fund the program and issued a report in early 2011 that offered seven options, none of which included a millage. One was to use revenue from the county’s real estate transfer tax to purchase rights; it was estimated as being worth $1.5 million annually. There hasn’t been much public discussion of those options since the report was released.

The subcommittee report also noted that nearly $4.3 million had been spent to preserve farmland in the county from 2003-2010. Thirty-eight percent of those dollars came from federal grants and 37 percent came from private grants. Up to that point, Kent County had funded 6 percent of the purchase rights.

Dennis Heffron, vice chairman of the county’s agricultural preservation board, told commissioners prior to their vote that, at one time, the county produced enough corn to export, but today it is an importer of corn. He also said soybeans once was an export crop here, but isn’t today. Heffron said one reason for those economic changes is there isn’t as much farmland now as there was then.

The county has 864 square miles, and the Kent/MSU Extension Service said farms and orchards cover 36 percent of that area. The 25,000 acres the county’s program wants to preserve represents 4.6 percent of the total land base in the county.

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