More farmland close to being preserved

June 18, 2010
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Kendra Wills, of the MSU/Kent Extension Service, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has verbally committed to giving the county’s Agricultural Preservation Board a grant to help preserve 616.5 acres of farmland this year across five farms in Kent County.

“We have received a verbal commitment that they will fund all five farms,” said Wills, a land-use educator at the extension and a consultant to the county. “I believe (the grant) is in the range of $700,000.”

If the USDA gives the county that amount through its Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, then the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program would receive $181,000 more than Kent anticipated it would receive.

Wills applied in February for a grant worth $519,000, to be applied to a purchase price of $1.08 million. The per-acre cost to secure the development rights is $1,756, the lowest price the county has contracted for since the PDR ordinance was approved in November 2002.

Wills wasn’t certain when the grant’s written notification would arrive. When it does and the deals close, it will mark the first time county dollars have been used to buy the rights. Commissioners allocated up to $275,000 from the general operating fund late last year as a portion of the matching money to this year‘s USDA grant. The federal agency requires that half of the purchase price has to come from local sources.

In addition, commissioners will have to decide Thursday whether to consider preserving more farmland. The county’s preservation board has recommended protecting 500 acres from commercial development in four townships next year at a cost of $748,500, or $1,497 per acre. Should they decide to proceed, Wills would apply to the USDA for a grant of $291,915. The county would contribute $206,585 from its general fund, if the federal grant is approved. The USDA deadline is July 1.

“We may only get two awards from the feds, not five. We just don’t know,” said Assistant County Administrator Mary Swanson of the next grant application. “The funds are already available from the fed. It’s not like it has to be appropriated.”

The property owners would contribute $60,000 to the purchase price and Grattan Township would give $5,000 toward it. Larger donations would come from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Frey Foundation — $100,000 and $85,000, respectively. But in order to collect those two gifts, the county would have to increase its contribution from $206,585 to $350,000, because both gifts are contingent on the county investing that higher amount.

That requirement comes from a $300,000 grant offer GRCF made to the county earlier this year for its PDR program. The foundation has offered to donate $100,000 each year to the preservation effort for three years. But for the county to be able to collect those dollars in 2011 and 2012, Kent has to fund the PDR program at $300,000 in each of those years. This year’s GRCF gift didn’t call for additional funds from the county.

The Frey Foundation has made a similar three-year funding offer to the county. The agreement has the foundation donating $250,000 to the program over three years, but the contract requires the county to spend $350,000 to preserve farmland in 2011 and in each of the following two years. The Frey contract was to have been reviewed by the county’s Finance Committee last week, but the agreement was pulled from the agenda.

Finance Committee Chairman Dean Agee said the grant offer was removed from the agenda after he spoke with Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish. He said they decided the board needs to take a longer look at how the Frey agreement would affect the county’s 2011 general operating budget, which currently has a $9.5 million deficit

Members of the committee recommended last week that the county commission review the latest PDR round. Commissioners will have to decide whether to offer purchase options to the landowners selected by the preservation board, to authorize Wills to apply for the USDA grant on behalf of the county, and to pledge to appropriate any funds the county receives from the grant for the purchase.

But most of all, commissioners need to decide how much county money they will put into the program next year. Late last year, they agreed to spend up to $1 million over three years.

The recommendation made by the Finance Committee last week for the next PDR round did not attach tax dollars to the price tag.

“The ‘yes’ vote is not a commitment to spend $206,000 county dollars,” said Commissioner Harold Voorhees.

Wills said the preservation board received 34 PDR applications this time for more than 3,900 acres from farms in 13 of the county’s 20 townships.

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