Ottawa seeks township support of farmland preservation

May 1, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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OTTAWA COUNTY — An ordinance is in place and a board has been named, but actual preservation of farmland in Ottawa County through purchase of development rights still has some hurdles to overcome, the first being: no public funding.

Another hurdle, which the Ottawa County Agricultural Preservation Board is taking on now, is to get the townships to “buy in” to the basic concept, according to Nate Lisenbee, a land use planning specialist in the county government.

Lisenbee said a township board would have to pass a resolution supporting the program, and then would have to agree later to each specific sale of development rights in that township before it can be a done deal.

The Ottawa County Purchase of Development Rights ordinance was passed in 2008, with the stipulation that “it is not the intent of this ordinance to provide or commit County General Funds for this program.” It will require voluntary contributions from individuals or organizations that believe in it.

The seven-person board named late last year to oversee the program recently announced the first two private donations of funds to the county for purchase of development rights. Both were $1,000 contributions and both came from members of the board itself.

One came from Cliff Meeuwsen, chairman of the Agricultural Preservation Board, on behalf of Zeeland Farm Services, the privately held food products company that he heads and that is totally dependent on productive farms to supply it with soybeans and other crops.

“If we didn’t have agriculture in Ottawa County, we’d have 50 percent unemployment,” said Meeuwsen. “Agriculture is a big part of the economic base of Ottawa County. We can’t afford to lose any more acres” of farmland to development.

ZFS is also going to contribute to the county PDR fund through sales of its Zoye low-saturated soybean oil, now available at all Meijer stores in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky, and at participating Spartan Stores. Meeuwsen said each bottle of Zoye sold will add another 2 cents to the farmland preservation fund in Ottawa County.

The other $1,000 contribution came from a seemingly unlikely source: a real estate agent. APB board member Greg DeJong of Allendale Township is a real estate agent with Rietberg Cos. in Grandville.

DeJong said the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors is not supporting the farmland preservation program in Kent County “because Kent County is doing it with taxpayers’ money. In Ottawa County, we kind of drew a line in the sand. We are going to try to do this with private funding — private donations from corporate sponsors and foundations.”

“I’m really passionate about doing this with private funds,” he said, so he decided to join Meeuwsen in making one of the first donations of seed money.

DeJong said he has developed a special niche in his real estate business: sale of farmland to other farmers. “I’m dealing directly with farmer-to-farmer. I think a great tool to preserve agricultural land is to sell agricultural land to another agricultural person.”

DeJong said that in the last three years, he sold more than 500 acres of land in Ottawa County “from one farmer to another farmer.”

“I found a real niche in working with the farm community,” said DeJong.

DeJong said one problem he has with using taxpayer dollars to fund the purchase of farmland development rights is “as a taxpayer, you can’t use that land. You can’t hunt on it; you can’t take your grandkids for a walk on it; you can’t have your neighborhood kids play on it. I just don’t want it done with taxpayer dollars.”

When asked if there is a lot of pressure by developers in Ottawa County trying to acquire farmland, he noted that most of his work in farmer-to-farmer deals is in Allendale Charter Township, which he believes is the fastest growing township in all of Ottawa County because of the growing student body at Grand Valley State University.

Among all Michigan counties, Ottawa County had the second largest percentage increase in population from 2000 to 2009, at 9.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Grand Traverse County had the highest, 11.2 percent, but its population is only 86,000, compared to Ottawa’s 262,000.

The PDR ordinance notes that “generally, farmland has a greater market value for future residential development than the market for farming. The features of good farmland, such as perkable soils and open-space views, are also the features desired for residential home sites. This fact encourages the speculative purchase of farmland at high prices for future residential development, regardless of the current zoning of such lands. Farmland which has a greater development potential and market value than its agricultural value does not attract sustained agricultural investment, and eventually is sold to non-farmers and removed from agricultural use.”

According to the Allendale Township planning/community development department, 24 building permits for new commercial projects were issued in 2007, but the average number issued per year going back to 2000 was between six and seven. Data was not available for 2008 or 2009.

A review of building permits issued in Allendale from 1997 to 2007 shows that almost all of the nearly 600 townhouses built there were built since 2005. All of those townhouses are actually student housing, according to an employee of the township planning office.

Lisenbee said the value of development rights on agricultural land is determined by a certified appraiser and is the difference between what a developer might pay versus the price paid by a buyer who intends to continue farming the property. Obviously, location plays a major role in a parcel’s attraction to developers.

Acquisition of development rights by the county requires an agricultural conservation easement held by the county on the property, to ensure the land shall “remain substantially undeveloped in order to remain viable for agricultural use.”

The owner retains the right to sell, mortgage, bequeath or donate the property, provided that the land remains subject to terms of the easement. The owner also retains the right to build one house on the land, provided it is for “an individual essential to the farm operation.”

Development rights are intended to be held by the county “in perpetuity,” although the development rights may be repurchased by the landowner if a court determines that use of those development rights “is necessary for a specific public interest, need or purpose.”

Farmland owners who are interested in selling their development rights to the county would have to apply, and may be expected to donate some of the value of the development rights to the county. USDA funding is available but requires a matching amount, which Ottawa intends to get from voluntary contributions. The property owner can only contribute up to half of the matching amount required by the USDA, according to Lisenbee.

“There’s not a lot of money out there right now for the PDR program,” said Lisenbee, adding that “the state doesn’t have any funding.”

Ottawa County has already developed a scoring system for deciding which parcels would qualify for the PDR program. Priority is placed on “prime productive farmland and/or farmland that has unique or locally significant growing characteristics,” states the scoring system document. Those can be verified by the Natural Resource Conservation Service or Michigan State University Extension.

Another priority is larger parcels “to help promote more economically viable agricultural production units.” Yet another priority is “proximity to permanently preserved land.”

Selection criteria points are also awarded to landowners who have already enrolled in the Michigan Farmland and Open Space Preservation Act (PA 116) to temporarily protect their farmland from development pressure.

Parcels that are adjacent to public roads will be given higher priority unless the parcel is adjacent to existing sewer and/or water lines. Existing utilities give that farmland a lower priority for preservation because the public has already made the investment that makes the land usable for higher density development, according to the scoring criteria document.

Besides Meeuwsen and DeJong, other members of the new Ottawa County Agricultural Preservation Board are Matt Hehl, Bill Miller, Anne Engvall, Mike Bronkema and Luke Meerman.

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