Foundations Give PDR A Start

October 25, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — The financial landscape of the Purchase of Development Rights ordinance enacted by Kent County has been cultivated by area foundations.

Without the fiscal backing that came from these philanthropic organizations, Kent County wouldn’t have secured the federal matching money that let it buy development rights from five landowners last summer and, thereby, to preserve 539 acres of productive farmland.

The Wege, Steelcase, Frey, Grand Rapids Community, and Lowell Area Community foundations all pitched in to get the program off the ground and make the preservation effort a reality in its first round.

But setting aside farmland is an expensive proposition. In the first round, the average cost per acre was $4,015. The grand price tag for all the acres was $2.16 million. And foundations picked up just under half that tab, a purchase that involved no local tax revenues.

Despite the cost, the Steelcase and Frey foundations are on board for round two — which should result in more county farmland being protected from commercial development next spring. So why are both foundations involved with the program?

Years ago, the Frey Foundation Board of Trustees directed the organization to become active in a new field that most of today’s land planners call Smart Growth. Foundation staff followed through, and Frey is now active on two fronts.

“One is the downtown revitalization of older neighborhoods, to make these more attractive places for living and investment,” said Frey Foundation President Milt Rowher.

“The other is land protection and water quality, which tends to be sort of an outside focus.”

Rowher said his organization’s outside interest in preserving land and the environment has led the foundation to become active on diverse levels.

“Some of our funding goes to nature conservancies. Some aspect of that interest is recreational, as we’ve done a lot of grant making in regards to park expansion,” he said. “And another aspect and point of interest is protecting not just any farmland, but prime and unique farmland.”

For Steelcase, which also has an environmental initiative as part of its mission, the time was right to get involved with the program. The foundation funded environmental projects in the past, but this summer was the first time it got involved with funding a PDR.

Executive Director Susan Broman said the importance of the ag business to the county and the advancing age of the county farmer were reasons the foundation contributed to the preservation program.

“If you look at how much of our farmland has disappeared over the last 10 to 15 years, it makes sense that if we want to preserve agricultural farmland as part of our county makeup, this is the time we need to step forward and do this,” said Broman.

Kent County lost 24,570 farmland acres to commercial developments from 1997 to 2002, more total acres than were lost over that period in Allegan and Ottawa counties combined. That five-year loss amounted to 22 percent of all the farmland in Kent County, one of the state’s most productive farming counties with total sales topping $1.4 million two years ago.

“A lot of the farmers are being approached by developers who want to buy the land for development and so there has to be some way to try and counter that,” said Broman.

Frey has provided the county with challenge grants for its PDR purchases, meaning Kent has to come up with a preset amount before it can collect the foundation’s money.

Frey has set it up that way because the foundation doesn’t see philanthropy as a long-term answer to farmland protection and the purchase of development rights.

Rowher felt landowners and the public sector will eventually have to take fiscal responsibility for the program.

“In the shorter term, we see the potential to encourage local government and property owners to consider purchase of development rights as a means of protecting the most unique and best agricultural land,” said Rowher.

“Our expectation is, in the longer term, the amount of the investment in this by the federal government is likely to grow.”

Steelcase committed a two-year grant to the program, giving the county funds to buy development rights through the first two rounds.

 The foundation gave an outright grant worth $200,000 to the first round and another $200,000 in a challenge grant for purchases expected to be made next spring.

Broman said Steelcase made the outright grant in the first year so county officials could get the program rolling, gain some experience from having done that and have an ongoing project.

But Broman said Steelcase made the 2005 gift a challenge for much the same reason that Frey did.

“We’re interested in farmland being preserved. We’re also interested in making sure that there were some successes out there, so farmers could see that this was okay,” said Broman.

“But we’re also interested in doing a challenge and saying there are other entities and people in other organizations that we think should be helping in this.”

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