Kent Moves On First PDR Purchase

    GRAND RAPIDS — Without appropriating a single dollar of taxpayers’ money, Kent County got started on its first purchase of farmland developmental rights last week.

    County commissioners tentatively agreed to buy those rights for 539 acres of land from five farms for $2.16 million. When, and if, the transactions are completed, those lands will become exempt from commercial development.

    But the next purchase of development rights just may involve county dollars.

    Assistant County Administrator Mary Swanson told the Business Journal that the county still needs a federal grant for half the purchase amount, and a federal sanction that the acres qualify for the protection program. Kent can’t close on the deals until both are received.

    Swanson said the county hopes to get both by the middle of June, and possibly by the end of May. Kent hopes to actually have the federal money in hand by early September.

    The county’s grant application for the federal funds is due on May 3. Kendra Wills, of the MSU Extension Service, is asking for money the U.S. Department of Agriculture has in its Farm & Ranch Land Protection Program.

    Local funding for the purchase is coming from four foundation grants and from a township. Wills said the Peter Wege Foundation gave $500,000 to the effort, the Steelcase Foundation gave $200,000, Grand Rapids Community Foundation contributed $100,000 and the Lowell Area Community Foundation donated $50,000. Grattan Township gave $4,400.

    “We’re only spending the grant funds that we have,” said Wills, who added that federal matching money was needed to complete the transactions.

    Three of the farms and 319 of the acres being exempted from commercial development are in Vergennes Township. Keeping those lands in agricultural production will cost almost $1.32 million, or $4,156 per acre.

    The cost to preserve one 64-acre farm in Lowell Township will run $153,600 or $2,400 an acre. And the tab for setting aside 156 acres on one Grattan Township farm is $655,200 or $4,200 for each acre.

    The average cost-per-acre for the 539 acres is $4,015.

    Swanson said that the cost to buy the development rights turned out to be higher than initially expected. At first it was thought the acres could be preserved for $1.18 million, rather than the $2.16 million it turned out to cost.

    When board members approved the Purchase of Development Rights ordinance in late 2002, a number of commissioners only agreed to do so if tax revenue wasn’t used to buy the rights. The ordinance does, however, allow for tax dollars to be used for that purpose.

    By a 13-to-6 vote last week, commissioners sent a request to the Finance and Physical Resources Committee that could allocate $500,000 of tax revenue to the purchase of development rights. The committee is not required to act on the request.

    “I think the finance committee ought to discuss it. I believe we need a public debate on whether we should fund it,” said Commissioner Jack Horton, who made the funding motion.

    Also when the ordinance passed, commissioners expressed a desire to preserve land along “The Ridge,” agricultural property that begins in Alpine Township and stretches northwest into Ottawa County. The area produces about 40 percent of the apples in the state.

    When asked why rights for land in The Ridge weren’t being purchased, Wills said there wasn’t enough money available to do that. But she added that she might approach the Frey Foundation for those funds.

    Wills said none of the property owners would contribute money to buying the rights. She also said the state normally provides up to a quarter of the funds used to buy rights through a PDR program, but added that Lansing doesn’t have the dollars to do so this year.

    The Kent County Agricultural Preservation Board received 44 applications to the PDR program, which represented 5,300 farmland acres. Board members decided that 27 of the applications met the federal criteria to be included in the program, which means the federal government can pay for up to half of the amount needed to buy the developmental rights from the landowners.

    Commissioners can preserve 25,000 acres of farmland under the county’s ordinance. But board members also have the authority to change the number of acres each year that they can restrict from being developed commercially.           

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