Farmland preservation picking up steam

July 31, 2009
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When Kent County commissioners approved the Purchase of Development Rights ordinance in November 2002, they vowed never to spend taxpayer dollars to protect farms and orchards from being developed. Over the past six Novembers, they’ve renewed that pledge multiple times.

That promise may be broken, though, when next November rolls around.

In November, a final report is due from the Open Space and Agricultural Preservation Subcommittee, a group consisting of seven commissioners that have met regularly since April. Their report will formally ask the board to allocate $1 million over the next three years to the county’s PDR program.

“We’ve been working very hard. It’s a complex issue,” said County Vice Chairwoman Sandra Parrish, who chairs the subcommittee. “We certainly found out how complex the issue is.”

The funding request isn’t complex, however. In fact, it’s fairly open-ended right now.

Parrish said her group wants the commission to commit $275,000 to the Agricultural Preservation Fund in 2010, but didn’t detail how and when the remaining $725,000 should be allocated over the following two years.

Parrish did point out that a multi-year commitment to the program was necessary to leverage the maximum funds from other sources, especially federal grants that require a local match. Her group also noted that such a financial obligation needs to be evaluated each year when budgets are put together.

So far, $3.8 million has been invested in the program and every dollar has come from sources other than the county. (See related chart on page 1.)

Parrish’s subcommittee also will suggest that the county become partners with other groups to preserve land, including the Grand Valley Regional Biosolids Authority. The cities of Grand Rapids and Wyoming created GVRBA to manage wastewater biosolids on a regional basis. A partnership with the authority also would develop applications for biosolids.

Parrish said the November report would reveal plans that would establish priorities for preservation, implement the program and measure the results of such an effort. She added that a successful program would not only preserve land but also preserve jobs and improve the quality of life for county residents.

“Nice work, and we look forward to the next report,” said Roger Morgan, commission chairman.

Commissioners Dean Agee, Tom Antor, Brandon Dillon, Gary Rolls, Jim Talen and Richard Vander Molen are also on the subcommittee.

So why might the commission change its mind and fund the program?

First, the make-up of the board has changed since the no-fund pledge was made. Seven new commissioners took the oath in January, the most ever at one time in county history. Second, the interest in preserving land is higher. Two groups of commissioners made trips to Pennsylvania and Maryland to examine how counties in those states handled PDR programs. Third, the housing market doesn’t need any rural pastures right now like it did earlier in the decade.

And fourth, the goal in 2002 was to preserve 25,000 acres in the program’s first 10 years. Only 758 acres have been set aside and the clock is ticking. But playing catch-up will be costly. The subcommittee said 38 applications totaling 3,962 acres have been filed with the county’s preservation program this year. The estimated price tag to buy the development rights to each acre is $9.9 million.

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