Kents PDR Plows Ahead

March 18, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Kent County commissioners will decide this week whether to apply for federal funds that would be used to purchase the development rights of seven parcels.

The Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program funds, offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would total $787,775 and would account for roughly half the monies the county needs to preserve 400 acres that the Kent County Agricultural Preservation Board felt it had local matching money available for and that met the federal preservation guidelines

The rest of the funds needed to buy the development rights from the five landowners are expected to come from the county’s Farmland Preservation Fund Budget, most of which is grants from local foundations.

So far the local fund has $708,667 in contributions from the area, a figure that includes $40,000 from Grattan Township and $25,000 from one of the qualified landowners.

Kendra Wills, of the MSU Extension Service and a consultant to the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program, said grant requests totaling $160,000 are still outstanding. If those funds were received, that money would go into the local preservation account and bring its total to $868,667.

The county needs about $1.47 million to buy the development rights of all the properties, meaning none of those parcels could be commercially developed if deals were struck. All the farms are on the east side of Kent County, and the money would pay property owners the difference between the agricultural and developmental values of their farms.

“The process, as slow as it has been, has started working,” said Commissioner Jack Horton, a farmer and former member of the county preservation board.

But the PDR program hasn’t been without its controversies. The county commission has refused to use tax dollars to fund the purchase of development rights, and foundations have said they won’t fund the program forever without the county’s participation. The Farm Bureau has called for county dollars to be part of the funding.

Commissioners, though, said no to doing that last year, and in December a subcommittee recommended that the program never be funded with tax dollars.

Horton, who favors the county funding the program, said last week that he was ousted from the board largely because of political wrangling, and that some board members were trying to discourage him from having any input into the process.

Five farms totaling 516 acres qualified in the program’s first round last year, but only one of those landowners has agreed to sell the rights to the county.

Seven farms with about 400 acres made it through this round. Vergennes and Bowne townships each have two parcels, while Grattan Township has three. David Bessey, Lloyd Flanagan, Clayton Heffron, Gay Nauta and John McCabe Jr. are the five property owners.

The preservation board received 34 applications from a dozen townships, down by 10 from the first round, and two dozen of those applications met the federal guidelines. But local matching dollars weren’t available for all corners of the county. So the location of a property played a big role in whether the board selected a parcel, as the foundation grants were for specific areas of the county.

The county finance committee agreed last week by a 6-2 vote to send the federal grant application on to the 19-member commission for its vote this week. The filing deadline for the USDA grant is April 5.        

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