“I think we need to be disciplined and constrained,” said Commission Vice Chairman Roger Morgan, who chairs the committee.
Committee members acted on a recent request from Commissioner Jack Horton that the county commit $500,000 to buy development rights from farmers and fruit growers. He told committee members that Kent lost up to $800,000 in foundation funding and the ability to preserve about 300 acres in “The Ridge,” a major apple-growing sector in the county, because the county couldn’t match the foundation grant.
“We never said we would not fund it,” said Horton of language contained in the county’s PDR ordinance.
“(Funding) it would send a strong signal to the federal administrator that we are behind this program,” he added.
Commissioners Tom Postmus and Harold Mast also told the committee that the county should fund the program. Postmus, however, halved Horton’s request to $250,000 and Mast said foundations that have given to the program were expecting the county to chip in, too.
But fiscal reality won out over their appeals. The county is facing a deficit of nearly $6 million this fiscal year and County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio reported that the financial projection five years out wasn’t very rosy.
“We again anticipate using some of the unreserved-undesignated funds to balance the 2005 budget,” he wrote in the memo on funding the PDR program.
The committee was faced with three options: fund the program now; make it part of the annual budget; or not fund it now. Members chose the latter, meaning the funding request will not go to the full board anytime soon.
“We’re not slamming the door on funding forever. Now is not the right time,” said Commissioner Art Tanis.
“Any decision we make can be changed by a future commission,” said Commissioner Dick VanderMolen.
Last month, commissioners put the wheels in motion to buy the development rights of 539 farmland acres for $2.16 million with gifts from area foundations and a township. Kent needs matching federal monies for half that amount and federal approval of the acreage targeted for preservation before the transaction can close. Both the grant and approval are expected by the middle of next month. Taxpayer dollars are not involved in the purchase.
Commission Chairman David Morren asked the committee to reject the funding request, noting that Kent has millions tied up each year in preserving open space and in developing Millennium Park, the one-year-old, 1,500-acre park southwest of Grand Rapids.
At the same time, Morren acknowledged that land-use decisions, which include funding the PDR program, would come up again.
“This probably will become one of the most contentious issues that we will deal with in the coming years,” he said.
Kent initiated the PDR ordinance, which stops land from being commercially developed once a landowner sells that right, in November 2002. A number of commissioners voted for its passage because they thought tax dollars wouldn’t be used to buy the rights.
But the ordinance doesn’t prohibit tax revenue from being spent on a purchase and it allows the county to preserve up to 25,000 acres.