Bring Farmland Preservation To Light

November 15, 2002
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The Kent County Board of Commissioners formed the Urban Sprawl Subcommittee, a group which spent the past two years engaged in active and ongoing study and discussion of the issue, and which bore six recommendations. One of those recommendations may be buried in committee by a single vote, predictably because of its controversial nature. Board Chairman Steven Heacock, however, has suggested he may bring it back to the board for discussion and vote, a move the Grand Rapids Business Journal supports.

It is no secret that the greater Grand Rapids metropolitan area is statistically among the “worst sprawled” regions among national studies; it’s even been given a moniker, “L.A. on the Lake.” It is no secret that more than three separate entities have spent a great deal of time and energy helping individual communities understand the “ripple” effect of more than two decades of regional population growth, and how that demands planning now, rather than after the depletion of natural resources, human services, transportation choices — and housing affordability. The ramifications on costs to do business are all the more evident.

One of the first such research projects in recent times was the “Four Corners Study” by Steelcase, Meijer Inc., Foremost (now Farmer’s) and United Development. To date, the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council has moved through stages and into Metropolitan Development Blueprint II. The West Michigan Strategic Alliance began blowing the whistle along the lakeshore almost two years ago, assisting the more politically fragmented communities from Saugatuck to Muskegon. Excruciating study detail provides the evidence of what community members already know: that the three- to four-county area has already sprawled enough to make commuters cuss and that the natural region is already sprawling north past Muskegon to Traverse Bay, south to the southern edge of South Haven and over to Kalamazoo/Battle Creek, and east to this side of Lansing. The area encompasses some of the highest producing agricultural areas in the state of Michigan.

The issues related to sprawl have also been the source of continued debate in Lansing, as every politician denounces the effects but is as hamstrung as the Kent County subcommittee to discuss the threat to the economic base of the region.

Developers and real estate professionals are predictably caught in the middle, pushed by an ever-increasing demand by new and established residents for new housing development. Farmers are offered greater value for their land than can be realized in a lifetime of family agribusiness.

That’s where the county subcommittee is stuck. But ignoring the problems and potential solutions sticks it to the rest of us for the next several generations. One of the recommendations — the most controversial — is to determine Purchase of Development Rights (PDR), which seek to preserve some percentage of farmland in Kent County.

Heacock notes too many people put in too many hours contributing to the 13-page document to stop now. “Those people deserve a vote. Everybody who spoke to it deserves a vote … its opponents deserve a vote from the board, no matter the outcome,” he said.

Moreover, the ramifications of sprawl deserve the educated debate, concern and compromise of those elected to provide such leadership.           

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