Commissioners make trip to Pennsylvania

June 23, 2009
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(Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a series of stories regarding the Purchase of Development Rights program in Kent County.)

A second contingent of Kent County commissioners will fly to Pennsylvania this weekend to examine how local municipalities have preserved farmland in that state and to learn how agriculture has contributed to local economies.

Five county commissioners made a similar trip to Lancaster County, Penn., in April, an excursion that was organized by Commissioner Bill Hirsch. Commissioners visited farms where development rights had been purchased by Lancaster County. They also spoke in detail with Lancaster County commissioners and preservation board officials about their Purchase of Development Rights program.

Pennsylvania was chosen for the site visit because it leads the nation in protecting farmland with programs in 60 counties and more than 400,000 preserved acres statewide.

Lancaster County started preserving farmland in 1985 and has set aside nearly 80,000 acres on 1,000 farms. Hirsch has been studying PDR efforts in the northeastern portion of the country for the last seven years.

“The issue of protecting agricultural lands needs more attention now than ever before. Good land-use planning and policy saves money, or if ignored, costs us significantly more. Kent County is a prime example where the lack of good land-use planning is starting to catch up with us,” said Hirsch, who was joined on the trip by Commissioners Tom Antor, Stan Ponstein, Robert Synk and Jim Talen.

Hirsch, who represents Gaines and Caledonia townships on the county board, said the purpose of the trip was to bring back some new ideas as to how Kent County could recover from the current economic downturn and also inject new life into the county’s PDR program, which hasn’t produced the results commissioners hoped for when they approved the ordinance in late 2002.

“I encountered several concepts on this trip that helped me think about development and farmland preservation in new ways,” said Talen, who represents a southeast-side portion of Grand Rapids on the county commission.

Talen has been speaking with various groups about what he learned from the trip. He called his findings “aha moments,” and shared them with the Business Journal.

The first finding was that farmland and orchards in Pennsylvania are not thought of as being in some kind of pre-development holding pattern just waiting for a residential or commercial project to come along. That isn’t a widely held way of thinking here.

“It wasn’t the way that I really thought, either, and that was pretty new to me. I had to hear it a few times — and I did hear it a few times, which was a good thing. Everybody talks about that. When I talked to a few people about that out there, they all nodded their heads knowingly. They understand that,” said Talen.

“I’m guessing that agricultural people here probably recognize that too. It’s just, I think, an insensitivity perhaps, from, shall we say, urban folks like myself. That’s something that I talk about when I make my presentations, and a lot of them nod their heads affirmatively recognizing that. It’s maybe a mistake that we’ve made over the years,” he added.

The Lancaster trip also impressed Talen with how agriculture can be an economic engine, one that is supported by other industries such as farm machinery and soil products. With a decline in auto manufacturing and possibly tourism, Talen said agriculture could soon jump from the state’s third-largest industry to the top spot. A report issued late last year by the state Department of Agriculture added credence to his line of reasoning.

“Michigan’s agri-business sector is more than just cows, plows and overalls. It’s a cutting-edge growing industry generating nearly more than $38 billion in direct economic activity, $64 billion in total economic activity, and employs one million people,” said Don Koivisto, director of the state agriculture department.

“As a matter of fact, if Michigan’s agri-food sector appeared on the Fortune 500 list, it would rank 62nd, which speaks volumes on the importance of agriculture to Michigan’s economic health,” he said.

Agri-business got a bit bigger here when Roskam Baking Co. revealed last week that it will expand its Kentwood facility to the tune of $60.5 million. In addition, the Convention and Visitors Bureau has incorporated the northwest portion of the county — largely made up of farms and orchards — into its cluster marketing efforts. CVB Marketing Director Janet Korn said that quadrant was being promoted as rich in agricultural tourism that would attract groups here.

“The hotels were very interested in hooking up with the farms there,” she said.

Talen said the visit also opened his eyes to designating some areas to agriculture and others to development. He said Lancaster set aside selected areas as “urban growth” sites — properties that were already served by utilities and the infrastructure that residential and commercial projects need. That means governments there don’t have to build roads, storm sewers and schools to support new developments because they already exist, so taxpayer dollars can be spent on other items.

“That included some farmland, and it said here is where we can develop,” said Talen of the areas designated for urban growth.

Talen noted that government in Pennsylvania is distributed like it is here. Like Michigan, Pennsylvania has county governments and the equivalent of townships. And like Michigan, counties in Pennsylvania don’t have planning departments or zoning boards, as cities and townships perform those functions. But Lancaster sketched out its urban growth districts and then went to the cities and townships with an offer they hardly could refuse.

“The county said if you adopt these guidelines for your own in your township or your city, you will become eligible for PDR funding. In Lancaster, they said like 80 percent of the townships complied and adopted the county’s urban growth areas as their own,” said Talen.

“So you, in essence, have the county doing zoning by using the carrot approach and it’s worked quite well there.”

Next week: A look at what is likely to come soon to the Kent County Board of Commissioners regarding the PDR program.

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