Kent PDR program takes a big step

December 21, 2009
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To emphasize how significant the vote was as to whether Kent County should allocate taxpayer dollars to preserve farmland, Commissioner Ted Vonk made a big effort to show up last week to make sure his position on the highly controversial issue was heard.

And he did so in a wheelchair and with his leg in a cast.

The commission meeting was Vonk’s first since he was seriously injured in August when an oncoming car turned in front of his motorcycle on Cannonsburg Road. Vonk suffered broken ribs and multiple breaks to a femur in the crash, along with a badly damaged knee. He has had multiple surgeries since the accident and has been recovering at home.

Vonk, who didn’t favor using tax dollars to buy development rights from farmers and growers when the county’s Purchase of Development Rights ordinance was ratified in 2002, hadn’t changed his position on the matter since then.

“This is something the public needs to vote on,” he said.

Vonk said there are many county landowners who are far better off financially than those who live in Plainfield Township, a governmental unit he represents on the county board.

“You’re doing the reverse of Robin Hood. You’re taking from the poor and giving to the rich,” he said of the use of public dollars for the program.

But only five other commissioners joined Vonk in voting against the funding request, while a baker’s dozen supported it — despite pleas to the contrary from residential builders and Realtors.

“This is, in the end, for the greater public good,” said County Vice Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish of the funding.

Parrish chaired a subcommittee that presented commissioners with a three-year, $1 million plan to fund preservation purchases with county dollars. The $275,000 approved last week, which will come from the county’s general fund, is the first installment of that plan.

Parrish said the money will be allocated next month to the Agricultural Preservation Board, which will use those dollars to leverage grants to buy development rights.

Board members will look at federal and state agencies and local foundations for further funding. Those organizations have contributed $3.8 million to the PDR program since 2003 — the first year land was preserved in the county.

Parrish also said local foundations will see the county’s financial commitment to the preservation effort as a good thing that may increase the involvement of the organizations in the program.

The Wege, Frey and Grand Rapids Community foundations all have supported the PDR effort in past years. The Wege Foundation has given $882,000 to it. The Frey and GR Community foundations have donated $207,500 and $100,000, respectively.

So far, the program has purchased development rights on 758 acres, well below the 25,000-acre goal the county established when the ordinance was created in late 2002.

“It is nothing more than seed money to jumpstart this program,” said Commissioner Tom Antor, also a member of the subcommittee, of the county funding.

“How much is this going to cost us? Not as much as it will if we do nothing,” he added.

Like most commissioners who approved the funding, Antor saw the issue as an economic development matter.

Commissioner Harold Voorhees tried to add a November 2010 millage date to the resolution as a way to determine whether county residents favored funding the program.

“This issue has had nearly a 20-year history,” he said. “Let’s bring it to the vote of the people.”

But the board defeated his motion by the same margin that approved the funding.

In addition to allocating preservation funding, commissioners also approved a new three-year agreement with the Convention and Visitors Bureau last week. The county will provide the bureau $625,000 in 2010 to help with the agency’s marketing efforts.

County funding to the bureau will increase slightly each year for the next two years. The CVB has a 2010 budget of roughly $4 million. Board members rejected a motion made by Commissioner Dick Bulkowski that would have reduced the contract’s term from three years to one year.

Commissioners also ratified a property transfer with the city of Grand Rapids last week. The county will give the city the building at 415 Franklin St. SE, the former Department of Human Services location, in return for five smaller parcels across the street from its new Human Services Complex at 121 Franklin St. SE. The county will convert those parcels into parking lots. City commissioners have already approved the swap.

County commissioners also entered into a 10-year tax-sharing agreement with Gaines and Byron townships for the Division Avenue Corridor Improvement District that runs along Division Avenue from 60th to 84th streets.

The county will share a portion of its property-tax revenue from the district with the townships to help pay for improvements along the corridor.

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