It doesn’t appear that the Kent County Agricultural Preservation Board will receive a federal grant this year to preserve 500 farmland acres next year. At least that’s how it looks right now, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which offers preservation grants through its Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program.
“The Fed did not want to wait until the county budget was approved to move forward with the grant agreement. The Fed did want to give us enough for at least three farms, and they thought they’d probably end up giving us money for the whole bunch,” said Kendra Wills, a land-use educator with the Kent/MSU Extension Service and a consultant to the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program.
“But because the proposal was using 2011 money that the county hadn’t officially approved yet, the county could not sign the grant agreement. So the Fed said they would hold on to the application until the next cycle.”
The USDA, though, hasn’t been able to tell Wills when the next cycle will begin. It was supposed to begin in November but may not get started until next year.
Wills, who fills out the grant applications on the county’s behalf, sent the last one to the agency in July and asked for roughly half of the $748,500 the county’s preservation board needs next year to buy the development rights from the five farms that total 500 acres.
The county’s preliminary general fund budget includes $275,000 for the 2011 PRD program, the same amount that was allocated to it this year. But the entire spending plan hasn’t been finalized yet and won’t be for a least a few more weeks. Because the county hasn’t officially assigned any funds to the program — even though it likely intends to do so — it can’t participate in the grant program now.
And the federal agency won’t award a grant to an applicant unless the necessary matching dollars from local sources are in place. “The Fed sent the county a grant agreement, and the county said it couldn’t legally sign it because it doesn’t have a 2011 approved budget,” said Wills.
Wills is in the process of closing on the development rights for 616.5 acres with five property owners who signed sale options earlier this year. She hopes to close on most of those deals by the end of this year and finish any that are left by early next year.
The preservation board is buying those rights for $1.08 million, with $467,000 of that amount coming from a USDA grant, $338,000 from various sources including the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, and $275,000 from the county’s general fund — marking the first time the county will spend tax dollars on the program it created in late 2002.
When the five transactions close, the county’s program will have purchased the development rights for 1,544.5 acres from 13 farms since its inception.
Wills said the five landowners interested in selling their development rights next year may still be interested in going through with the transactions if the USDA doesn’t take too long to begin its next grant cycle. She said if the agency opens the application process within the next few months, then the transactions have a better chance of going forward because the current property appraisals would still apply, as the assessments normally have a one-year shelf life.
“But if it’s more like February or March or April, we might have to get new (appraisals),” said Wills. “So then there is a new round of the property owners deciding if they want to go forward with that price or not.”