Bill Seeks To Help Balance Farming Development

June 5, 2002
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Making it easier for communities to craft an initiative that’s designed to better balance growth with the preservation of valuable farmland is the crux of legislation pending in Lansing.

State Rep. Patricia Birkholz’s Development Rights Marketing Act provides the enabling legislation needed for communities to create transfer of development rights programs, or TDRs. Under such programs, communities can steer development to designated zones as a way to keep growth away from agricultural lands.

The initiative is seen as a way to preserve farmland, as well as environmentally sensitive lands, by eliminating the financial incentive for farmers to sell their land, while providing developers a break on restrictions if they agree to build elsewhere. Under the voluntary program, a developer who wants to build a subdivision, for example, can acquire the development rights on a piece of agricultural land from a farmer, who maintains ownership but agrees to forever leave the land undeveloped.

In return, the developer agrees to build elsewhere in designated areas that allow for higher-density developments, presumably at a higher profit. The number of additional dwelling units allowed per acre depend on how many TDR “units” they acquire.

Key to the legislation is the compensation for farmers who often consider selling their property to a developer as they near retirement age or find it increasingly difficult to survive economically, Birkholz said. A TDR keeps the land in agricultural production while eliminating the financial issues for a farmer, Birkholz said.

“We’re losing a lot of ag land and our farmers are put in difficult situations,” she said. “All of their investment is in their property. It’s worth more growing houses than it’s worth growing crops, and yet they want to stay in farming and we want to encourage them to stay in farming.”

Birkholz represents Allegan County, the No. 3 agricultural producing county in the state, with an annual economic impact exceeding $200 million, that saw its population grow 16.7 percent, from 90,509 to 105,665, during last decade. She sees a TDR program as a “market-approach” to better balancing growth and what many see as the alarming rate at which farmland is disappearing in Michigan.

A trade association sees it much differently.

The Michigan Home Builders Association believes the law would unfairly make developers foot the bill for the public’s desire to preserve farmland.

“It’s a classic other people’s money scheme and we’re absolutely opposed to it,” said Lee Schwartz, the association’s vice president for policy and legislation. “There’s nothing free-market about this bill.”

The home builders prefer that farmland preservation efforts in the state focus more on the economic viability of agriculture and easing the financial burdens many farmers face today, Schwartz said.

“We’ve said all along that the best way to preserve farmland is to let the farmer make a profit,” he said. “They key isn’t locking away land. They key is making farming profitable.”

While the Home Builders Association stands staunchly opposed to Birkholz’s bill, the state’s largest and most influential business group in Lansing is less militant.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce views Birkholz’s bill view with skepticism, although it isn’t necessarily opposed to it and promises a careful review of the proposal.

“Our members are generally skeptical about artificially regulating the market as it comes to development,” said Kevin Korpi, the chamber’s director of environmental and regulatory affairs.

Birkholz’s proposal is similar to TDR programs in place in Maryland and Pennsylvania and represents a “win-win-win” scenario for agriculture, developers and local communities, said Jim Fuerstenau, executive director of the Michigan Farmland and Community Alliance, an affiliate of the Michigan Farm Bureau.

TDRs instill good land-use planning within communities that create them, as well as provide an alternative method for resolving conflicts that crop up in rapidly-growing areas trying to balance between growth and agriculture, Fuerstenau said.

“It’s all about options,” he said. “There’s a lot of demand for this tool.”

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