County looks for preservation dollars


    (Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a series of stories regarding the Purchase of Development Rights program in Kent County.)

    While the equalized values of commercial and residential properties in the county have fallen recently, the value of the county’s agricultural land has risen in recent years.

    The Kent County equalization report pegged farms and orchards with a combined value of nearly $312.3 million in 2009, up from $310.3 million in 2008 and $305.8 million in 2007.

    With a projected decline in the growth of property-tax revenue from commercial and residential buildings for the county this year, and an economy that may take years to right itself, some feel farmland and agri-business are likely to play key roles in a recovery.

    To that end, Kent County commissioners have taken two trips to Pennsylvania over three months to learn how that state has preserved farmland through its purchase of development rights program and how the program has contributed to the state’s economy — also hit hard by a loss of manufacturing jobs.

    “As we go through this time of economic turmoil, agriculture is a stabilizing industry; the economic activity of agricultural production doesn’t stray very far from home,” said Scott Everett, a Lansing resident who helped coordinate the trips that commissioners took with the Agricultural Preserve Board of Michigan.

    Pennsylvania leads the nation in preserving land. The state has programs in about 60 counties and has protected more than 400,000 acres. Lancaster County was selected as the key county in the state to examine: Officials there have been setting aside farmland since 1985 and have preserved nearly 80,000 acres on 1,000 farms since the program began.

    In contrast, Michigan has had a preservation program in place since 1974, but waited 20 years to make its first acquisition in 1994. The state has protected slightly more than 20,000 acres, or a quarter of the acreage Lancaster County has set aside.

    Kent County started its PDR program in 2003. The local effort has preserved 758 acres on seven farms.

    Although the two counties are roughly the same physical size, farmland makes up nearly 70 percent of Lancaster County and about a third of the total landmass in Kent County.

    Stirring the pot in the preservation debate is a report from the American Farmland Trust that has been disputed by the development community. In a cost of community services study, the trust said it costs governments more to provide services to low-density housing developments than the units receive in tax revenue, while farms have the opposite effect.

    The AFT reported that governments provide $1.30 worth of services to outlying residential developments for every $1 in tax revenue the units collect, while public officials spend 30 cents for services they provide to farms for every $1 that comes back to them in tax revenue.

    “I used to think that development is good because it brings in revenue to the local unit. Well, that’s apparently not the case when you really look at the numbers,” said County Commissioner Jim Talen, who made the trip to Pennsylvania in April.

    When county commissioners approved the PDR ordinance in November 2002, the Kent County Agricultural Preservation Board hoped to protect 25,000 acres in the first 10 years. That goal, though, will not be met at the program’s current pace, mainly because there aren’t enough funds available to purchase the rights from landowners to prevent that many acres from being developed.

    Most of the local cash that has been spent on the program has come from the Frey, Wege, Steelcase, M.E. Davenport and Grand Rapids Community foundations and the Michigan Agricultural Preservation Fund. No county money, though, has gone into the preservation effort as commissioners banned the use of taxpayer dollars to preserve acres.

    But Talen said a county subcommittee, of which he is a member, has been looking into the money issue. The group has been conducting interviews and examining data, and plans to bring the matter to the county’s Finance Committee fairly soon, possibly in July.

    “Where will that go? We’re trying to look at the big picture of both park space and open-space farmland. I think we’ve done a really good job with parkland preservation. When I was on the board before, (former Commission Chairman) Steve Heacock put together a group that recognized that if we didn’t start doing something now we’d lose parkland forever, and the same is true right now with farmland,” he said.

    Under Heacock’s leadership, the county set aside funds and worked with other groups in the nonprofit and private sectors to buy properties for parks. “We need to do something similar, I think,” said Talen of farmland.

    One option the subcommittee has been considering is asking voters to approve a millage that would provide operating revenue for the park system and buy the development rights of farms. Talen said other Michigan counties have millages that combine both.

    “So that is something I think we need to look seriously at,” he said.

    Another alternative is to borrow the money by going to the bond market. Doing that, Talen said, would speed up the rights acquisition process.

    “I think there are some good arguments to be made for that, especially given the dire financial situation of local government right now. The rationale that convinced me it was a legitimate thing to look at was, number one, if you don’t do it now, it’s gone forever; and number two, you’re really doing it for future generations as much as for us now,” he said.

    “I think it makes more sense to delay some of the cost to those that are going to reap the benefit of it.”

    The subcommittee may also recommend that the county establish urban growth districts as Lancaster County has done. These areas already have infrastructure and utility service and are designated for commercial and residential developments. Although Kent County doesn’t have a planning department, the Grand Valley Metro Council does and could be contracted to outline the districts for the county.

    County dollars were not spent on the trips commissioners made to Pennsylvania. Grants from the Frey and Grand Rapids Community foundations, along with a donation from an unidentified individual, paid for the travel.

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