Frey Foundation backs farmland preservation

June 27, 2010
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The Frey Foundation has been a consistent supporter of the Kent County Purchase of Development Rights program, which keeps certain farmlands from being developed for commercial use.

“I think we’re one of several foundations that have had a strong interest in it,” said Milt Rohwer, president of the foundation.

Since the PDR program began in 2003 after county commissioners established it in late 2002, $3.8 million has been spent to preserve 758 acres; the Frey Foundation has contributed $207,500 to that effort. The only foundations that have given more dollars to the PDR program over that time are the Steelcase and Wege foundations at $400,000 and $882,000, respectively.

Why has the Frey Foundation been such a solid financial backer of the program?

“One of the overarching interests in the grant-making side for the board of trustees has been good land use and water quality, and that really informs a good bit of what we do in terms of land protection and downtown revitalization. So a part of the interest of the foundation over a long period of time has been expanding park programs and helping land conservancies to acquire large blocks of property,” said Rohwer, who added that the foundation recently awarded a $1.5 million grant to preserve land in Saugatuck along the Kalamazoo River.

“Part of that, too, has been the idea of farmland protection — not just any farmland but farmland that was relatively unique and valuable and irreplaceable,” he added, noting that the orchards in northern Kent County fit that description.

“All of this is related to an interest in the Great Lakes and water quality. If you have sort of unchecked urban sprawl, you are likely to have a high degree of impervious surface, which results in deterioration in water quality.”

The funds that the foundations have awarded to the PDR program have been vital as they have helped create the matching grants that the Agricultural Preservation Board has needed to collect federal money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program for the purchase of development rights. The U.S.D.A. grant will pay for up to half of that cost, but only if the county can provide the other half.

Those foundation dollars have become even more important to the local effort the last few years because one previously reliable revenue source has all but dried up. The Michigan Agricultural Preservation Fund contributed $511,000 in the first few years, but hasn’t done so recently.

“Since 2006, the state has not had enough funding in their pot to fund grants,” said Kendra Wills, a land-use educator with the Kent/MSU Extension Service and a consultant to the county’s PDR program.

So far, the acres that have been preserved in the county have been set aside without spending any county tax dollars. But that situation is about to change. Commissioners allocated up to $1 million over the next three years to the program late last year; $275,000 of that has been allotted for this year. “We were pleased with the county’s decision because we have been in favor of some farmland protection in West Michigan for, as you know, a considerable length of time,” said Rohwer.

County commissioners have another decision to make regarding funding for the program and it will be similar to one they made earlier this year when they accepted a grant agreement from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, which has already contributed $100,000 to the PDR effort. In that agreement, GRCF pledged to contribute $100,000 a year for each of the next three years. But the county will only get the full $300,000 if it commits $300,000 from the general fund to the program next year and again in 2012.

A few weeks ago, the Frey Foundation made a comparable offer by pledging $250,000 in grants to the program in equal amounts of $85,000 in 2011, 2012 and 2013. In return, the county has to invest $350,000 in the program each of those years to collect the Frey grants.

The county’s Finance Committee was to have made a recommendation to the commission on the offer two weeks ago, but temporarily pulled the agreement from its agenda to review the effect it would have on the general fund for the those years. The 2011 general fund has a projected operating deficit of $9.5 million. Rohwer said the foundation hopes the agreement returns to the committee’s agenda soon.

“We hope so, but I haven’t had any conversations with either elected officials or administrative officials from the county as yet. We recognize that the county, like other units of local government, has some major challenges right now, so they need to carefully examine what it is they’re going to do when,” he said.

Commissioners gave Wills the green light to apply for another USDA preservation grant last week. The board is considering protecting 500 more acres from development next year at a cost of $748,500. The Frey Foundation will commit $85,000 to that purchase price, if the county accepts its agreement.

“In the long term, we really expect that the federal farm bill may find ways to help achieve that objective of conserving farmland,” said Rohwer. “But in the short term, and perhaps in a longer term, as well, we see a role for local community support for open space and farmland preservation.”

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