All the board’s decisions, however, will have to be ratified by commissioners.
The ag preservation board became a viable entity last week after commissioners approved a Purchase of Development Rights ordinance, one that faced stiff opposition from Realtors, builders and a handful of commissioners.
But perhaps a tougher task for the county, even more difficult than beating back the PDR opponents could be finding funds for the preservation program.
Although commissioners didn’t appropriate any county money to it last week, the ordinance allows them to do so.
“I think it would be disingenuous to say that county commissioners will never be asked for funds,” said Assistant County Administrator Al Vanderberg.
But Vanderberg added that the county would look at other governmental sources, along with private and nonprofit foundations, for funds before any county money was allocated.
What money is found would be deposited in a preservation account and could only be used to make development-rights payments to landowners. The commission also has the option of temporarily investing those funds with any earned interest going into the account.
Vanderberg estimated that it would cost the county about $30,000 over the next three years to administer the program. Commissioners allocated that amount in July to the MSU Extension Service, as MSU staff member Kendra Wills is expected to play a major role in administrating the program.
Exactly how much the county will pay for development rights isn’t known yet. But Commissioner Jack Horton felt a fair price would be between $2,200 and $2,500 per acre. Whatever the price, Horton said that cost was completely under the commission’s control.
“We spend no more than we choose to spend,” he said. “The buck stops with us.”
The report from the Urban Sprawl Subcommittee, which recommended the PDR and five other strategies to curb sprawl, used $5,000 as the average per-acre difference between the farm value of a property and its development value. The subcommittee proposed that the county pick up 12.5 percent of the program’s price tag.
So if 46,000 acres were preserved, as suggested by the report, the subcommittee figured the total cost of the program would be $24 million a year. The county’s share of that amount would come to $3 million annually.
But the PDR ordinance may not be the only preservation tool at the county’s disposal in the near future. County commissioners may also consider a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program, also recommended as a way to reserve land by the subcommittee.
More complex than a PDR, a TDR would allow developers in an area of the county, known as a receiving zone, to buy development rights directly from a landowner in a declared “sending zone.” The rights would be permanently severed from the acres in the sending zone and attached to land in the receiving zone.
Whether the county acts on a TDR will depend on whether or not House Bill 4346 makes it through both chambers. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, would allow counties to create TDR markets. At last report, the bill was in the House Committee on Land Use and the Environment.
The urban sprawl group, created by County Chairman Steven Heacock nearly three years ago, suggested that 92,000 acres of farmland in the county be preserved through the PDR and TDR programs — with each program preserving 25,000 acres.
Heacock is leaving the county at the end of the month, and combating urban sprawl was one of the many objectives he brought to the commission in his three years as chair. Last week’s vote that approved the PDR was especially gratifying for him.
“Mainly because it was my initiative and I really want to clean up those things that aren’t yet resolved. I can’t get them all done,” said Heacock. “The 9-1-1 was one of my initiatives that I had in my State of the County address this year. That’s obviously not going to be done by the end of the year. The zoo project is not going to be done by the end of the year.
“But at least these are in the position of where I’m fairly handing them to the next leader of the board,” he added. “There is no reason to hand this one to the next leader of the board. It’s done.”