Private Sector Pitching In For Farm System

January 30, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Kent County Agricultural Preservation Board is weeks away from closing its seventh farmland preservation deal.

The board is ready to purchase the development rights of 57 acres in Lowell from Joseph and Susan Merriman for $303,000, a price that includes closing costs, an appraisal, an option payment and a few other charges. Acquiring the development rights alone will cost $284,000, or $4,982 an acre.

The bulk of funds to buy the rights comes from the federal government through a grant worth $142,000, but local players have also stepped forward to make the transaction happen.

The Merrimans contributed $51,341 toward the purchase. The Steelcase Foundation, the Lowell Area Community Foundation, the Dyer-Ives Foundation, and an alliance of local governments called the Urban Cooperation Board have also contributed nearly $60,000.

But MSU Extension land-use educator Kendra Wills said it was a $50,000 grant from the Institute for Systemic Change at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation that sealed the deal. Cascade Engineering Chairman and CEO Fred Keller started ISC and has emerged as a supporter of farmland preservation — as has Peter Wege.

Wege recently decided to conserve 577 acres that he owns in Vergennes and Grattan townships, property known as the Parnell Avenue Corridor. He worked with the Land Conservancy of West Michigan and the preservation board to donate easements on nine properties that restrict the land to agricultural or natural uses.

“Donating conservation easements to protect my rural property from ever being developed is the most natural thing in the world for me to do,” said Wege in a release.

“I take great pleasure in the beauty of this natural, open, undeveloped land. Now I know it will be there for the community for generations to come. I hope others will consider preserving their land, as well,” he added.

When the board closes on the Merriman property, an action that is expected to occur in February, a total of 1,335 acres in the county will have been preserved and barred from being commercially developed. But that number is well below the 25,000 acres set as the program’s 10-year goal in 2002, when county commissioners approved the Purchase of Development Rights ordinance.

“We have preserved some, but probably not as much as the outlined goal,” said Wills, who serves as a consultant to the county on preservation matters.

A lack of interest from landowners isn’t the reason more acres haven’t been preserved. Wills said the program receives applications for about 40,000 acres each year.

Not all applicants meet the program’s criteria to qualify for a federal grant, though, which is a very competitive process. But that isn’t the only roadblock to preservation. Another difficulty the board faces is finding local dollars to match the federal grants, a necessary requirement to collect the award.

So far the board has used 15 grants from area foundations, three from the state and three from townships for its matches. County funds can’t be used because commissioners won’t spend taxpayer dollars to preserve farms and orchards.

Eight farms with 581 acres are on the preservation waiting list.

The PDR program came before commissioners last week as they approved the selection criteria and application cycle for this year, as the county’s Legislative Committee did the previous week. Some changes were made to the standards, and the application period is set to run from March 1 to April 30.

Commissioner Fritz Wahlfield was concerned that one change gives landowners two points for applying to the program this year, if they were rejected last year.

“If someone applied for 10 years, they’d probably get approved,” he said.

Commissioner Ted Vonk said the county’s fruit orchards should be given top priority in each application cycle, as these are the most commercially successful agricultural products in the county. But Commissioner Sandra Parrish, who has served on the preservation board, said there has to be some balance in the program. She said that means the county’s historic farms have to receive the same consideration as the more profitable ones.

Wills pointed out the orchards normally have the best soil rating, which is a key selection criterion, and that ranking would make it tough for other farmers to top the fruit growers in the selection process. She said apple growers are doing good business, and younger members of families that own orchards are more interested in staying with the business than selling the land’s development rights.

“Overall, applications from the apple ridge are very small,” said Wills.

Wills said that 134 acres in two Sparta Township apple orchards have been preserved and that apple growers only submit about 15 percent of all the applications to the program.

Commissioners created the PDR program in 2002 as a means to preserve rural property. The maximum number of points an applicant can score is 118 across 14 categories.

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