Trying To Save The Grow Business

November 4, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Denny Heffron recently invited all 19 county commissioners to visit his Grattan Township farm. Not to do any season-ending chores, mind you, but to get a personal look at what he feels urban decay has done to his northeastern neck of the county.

Heffron, owner of Heffron Farms and a Grattan Township trustee, was one of 26 folks who took part in the Kent County Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) Workgroup, which spent months putting together a program that aims to save up to 92,000 acres of county farmland from development through installment purchase agreements.

The program claims to ensure a long-term business environment for the local agriculture industry, worth $120 million annually, by creating blocks of the most productive farmland in the county. Yet, at the same time, it tries to avoid areas that have been designated for development so as not to compete with those interests.

County commissioners will give the program a public hearing in their boardroom on Thursday evening, when resistance to the proposal from homebuilders and real estate agents could be heavy.

Before he offered commissioners a tour of the area surrounding his farm, Heffron told board members that he was disturbed by the comments made by homebuilders at the start of the discussion session. He remarked that he tried to get builders and Realtors involved in the creation of the PDR by asking some to accompany the workgroup on a free five-day trip to look at another county's program.

The response he got from his contact?

"He said, 'I guess they're not interested. Forget us,'" Heffron told commissioners.

Home and Building Association of Greater Grand Rapids President Judy Barnes told commissioners before Heffron spoke that she felt her group hadn't been given enough time to present their views on the PDR program. She added that real estate professionals in the area felt the same. So did County Commissioner Michael Sak.

Following a detailed explanation of the PDR by workgroup facilitator David Skjerlund of Rural Partners of Michigan, Sak suggested that program opponents be given equal time in front of the full board to air the concerns they have with the program. Commissioners Dean Agee and Ted Vonk agreed with Sak.

But it's unlikely that a special meeting will be held to hear the developers' side, so their comments and questions are likely to come at Thursday's hearing.

To make the program official it has to be adopted as a county ordinance. The Finance and Physical Resources Committee is scheduled to discuss it on Nov. 12. If it gets out of committee, it could go to commissioners on Nov. 26. But that's not the final step.

"Adopting an ordinance is not the same as allocating the money," said Commissioner Jack Horton, who is vice chairman of the county's Urban Sprawl Task Force.

Under the installment purchase agreement, the monetary pulse of the PDR, the county would arrive at an easement purchase price with a landowner. The landowner would get 10 percent of that at closing, with the remaining principal due in, say, 15 years. The owner then would promise to keep the property as farmland, and would receive a yearly tax-free interest payment until the agreement matures.

"Landowners really like this program," said Skjerlund, while adding that participation in the PDR was voluntary for a township and a grower.

For its part, Kent County would buy zero-coupon Treasury bonds to finance the program.

"We're assuming that there will be a proposal during the next budget process for some county funding to fund the program," said Assistant County Administrator Al Vanderberg. "However, if there was no county funding the program could still be viable."

Vanderberg explained that the federal government has set aside $100 million for this use by locals and seeing that USA Today rated the county as the sixth-worst sprawled-out area in the nation, Kent officials feel they have a pretty good shot at getting some of that money for their program.

"Also, there are some private foundations that have indicated an interest of jumping into the fray. So I think there will be some consideration for Kent County putting some funds toward this," he said. "But the commissioners will consider that in relation to all the other responsibilities and services the county offers at the budget time."

To reach the program's goal of preserving 92,000 acres of farmland — roughly half the total acreage dedicated to growing in the county — the program will need about $330 million.

"The assumption was made that a local match from the county — whether it's county money, private money, foundation money, federal money, however that might work — would have to be about $3 million a year in order to match other sources," said Vanderberg.

At one time, the state was planning to get involved in funding these programs. But with the downturn in the economy and the budget deficit facing Michigan lawmakers, county official aren't expecting much financial help coming from Lansing anytime soon.

Although it doesn't have money to contribute to the cause, either, The Right Place Program is giving PDR its moral support. The economic developer's redevelopment specialist, Rick Chapla, was part of the workgroup and noted that farmland was vital to the local economy.

"Agriculture is more than a major land use in Kent County," he said. "It employs a significant number of people, generates a lot of money, and makes safe, affordable locally grown food available to our communities."

Nancy Benner, a Grattan Township planning commissioner, would hardly argue with Chapla's assessment. She would just add to it.

"A yes vote on this issue," she emphasized to commissioners, "is important in preserving farmland in this county."           

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