WEST OLIVE — A price tag that was deemed far too costly doomed any further consideration of forming a purchase of development rights program in Ottawa County to preserve farmland.
Preserving just 5 percent of Ottawa County’s 170,000 remaining acres of productive farmland would cost upwards of $38 million, assuming an average price of $5,000 per acre, according to an analysis by the Ottawa County Planning and Grants Department.
At that steep of a cost, Ottawa County would not have the practical ability to acquire enough farmland to make a PDR program worthwhile, planner Mark Knudsen said.
“I don’t think there’s anybody out there who doesn’t want to preserve farmland. But at what price?” Knudsen said. “The bottom line is it would necessitate substantial taxpayer funds to create a program, and even with substantial dollars, it would have minimal impact on the number of acres purchased. You just cannot purchase enough acreage.”
Following that rationale, the Ottawa County Planning Commission voted 4-1 this month against supporting the creation of a PDR program, where farmers are paid for the development rights to their land, which would remain forever undeveloped. The vote essentially kills off any consideration of the issue in Ottawa County, the No. 1 agricultural producing county in Michigan as well as one of the fastest growing.
In the last Census of Agriculture conducted in 1997, Ottawa County’s farm production totaled $300 million, much of it from the nursery and horticulture industries.
Ottawa County has managed to remain the top farm-producing county in the state despite a population explosion of the past two decades that’s put intense pressure on growers and farmers across the county, particularly the rapidly developing pockets around Holland and Zeeland, Grand Haven and Spring Lake, and Jenison-Hudsonville.
The county’s population grew nearly 27 percent, or by more than 50,000 people, during the 1990s, from 187,546 in 1990 to 238,314 in 2002, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The county’s population further grew to an estimated 245,913 people as of July 2002, according to the Census Bureau.
As that growth occurred, agricultural acreage and farming operations decreased further. In a five-year period from 1992 to 1997, farmland in Ottawa County declined by more than 5,600 acres, from 176,305 to 170,627 acres, according to the agricultural census. The number of full-time farms fell from 724 in 1992 to 658 in 1997.
In seeking to negate the effects of urban sprawl and preserve both farmland and agriculture, the county is working on several fronts, Knudsen said. His department has published a guidebook for preserving rural character and farmlands, begun promotion of Smart Growth policies, supported financial assistance for agricultural processors, and initiated a pilot transfer of development rights program in Blendon Township.
Similar to a PDR, TDRs provide a developer a greater density of development within certain areas where development is occurring, provided they pay to acquire the development rights of land elsewhere in the community. The idea is to prevent a buildup of development pressures in rural and farming areas that ultimately leads to farmers selling their land.
One of the goals of a TDR and other methods is to maintain the viability of farming, Knudsen said. Farmers who are profitable and don’t have to deal with the problems that come with pressures of encroaching development tend not to sell off their land, he said.
One of the reasons Ottawa County planners opposed a PDR program is because they’re unconvinced it will go far in helping to preserve agriculture.
“You can spend all this money to preserve farmland and still not preserve farming,” he said.
Knudsen also believes the county and local communities can best preserve farmland and better control growing conflicts between agriculture and development through zoning standards and sound planning and land-use practices.
Though the Planning Commission opposed creation of a PDR program, Ottawa County is “definitely not” giving up on agriculture or the preservation of precious farmland, Knudsen said. Ottawa County, states the resolution the Planning Commission adopted, “is supportive of a wide variety of farmland preservations measures and is proactive in funding and/or implementing farmland preservation tools.”
In opposing a PDR program, Ottawa County is taking a different route than neighboring Kent County, where commissioners last year agreed to form an initiative.
But Kent County has not allocated any public funding for the program. Deputy Administrator and Controller Al Vanderberg is looking for federal dollars and other grants to fund the Kent PDR.
Kent County Board Chairman David Morren said the county provided an “enabling” ordinance so that if a township wanted to preserve land, the county “wouldn’t get in its way.”
— Staff writer David Czurak contributed to this story.