No word yet on county PDR grant


    Back in February, Kent County applied for a federal grant to help it buy the development rights from five farms. Three months later, the grant’s progress remains a question mark.

    However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture may have indicated that it will only help defray the purchase price for the rights of two of the farms, not the five listed on the application.

    Kendra Wills, of the MSU/Kent Extension Service and a consultant to the county for its Purchase of Development Rights program, filed the county’s application with the USDA Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program in February. In it, she asked for $519,000 to help preserve the five farms’ 616.5 total acres from commercial development.

    The county’s cost to buy those rights is $1.08 million, or $1,756 per acre. An approved USDA grant would cover about half of that, and the five landowners have agreed to sale options.

    Wills told the Business Journal that she hasn’t received any information from the USDA about the grant’s status. But she did say that two representatives from the department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service paid a somewhat surprise visit here last month. One came from the NRCS office in Lansing and one was from the Grand Rapids office on Eagle Park Drive NE.

    “This is a new thing that they’re doing. Usually, they do a site visit before we close — like within 30 days of closing,” she said.

    But closing is months away without the grant funds, so the NRCS was looking into the county’s request well before the final sales documents were drawn. Wills said they asked about 50 questions while they were here. Most focused on the farms’ histories and potential for environmental contaminants. The agents wanted to know where the pesticides and herbicides were stored and how the manure has been handled.

    “I thought it was a good idea that they do that really early in the game. Before they even commit money, they’re doing site visits now,” said Wills.

    The real surprise portion of their visit came when they decided to look at just two of the farms in the application. In the past, visits have been made to all the farms being considered for funding. “They only picked two of the five. So I asked him, ‘Does that mean that you only are funding two?’ and he said, ‘Not necessarily.’ So I said, ‘Is that all you’re going to tell me?’ and he said, ‘That’s all I’m going to tell you,’” said Wills.

    One agent did say they are required to visit every farm that receives grant funding. “I picked up that they possibly have additional funds coming. But out of the first round, I think we’re going to get two (funded) — the two they went on site visits. But he said don’t say that because I could possibly get more funds coming and we would go for other ones,” said Wills.

    That could be why Wills hasn’t learned of the grant’s fate yet, but she said she had no idea where any additional dollars would come from. She checked with officials in Washtenaw County, and they told her they haven’t heard from the USDA about their grant either. She also asked one of the NCRS representatives when she would hear, and he told her, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

    When Wills does get news of the grant’s fate, she doesn’t have to appear before county commissioners again unless the terms of the grant agreement differ from those the commission already approved. Should the USDA provide some funding for the development rights, the transactions would move into the closing stage. Wills said that process takes a minimum of six months, and she hopes to complete all the transactions in December, regardless of how many there are.

    In addition to the commission ratifying the grant application, commissioners also authorized that up to $275,000 in county money be spent this round to buy development rights. If county money is used in the transaction, it will be the first time tax dollars are spent to preserve farmland since the county established the PDR ordinance in late 2002.

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