County preservation board plans to push PDR in 2011

December 23, 2010
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A recent survey commissioned by Kent County and paid for by the Grand Rapids Community, Wege, and Frey foundations showed that county residents need more information about the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program in order for them to provide more backing to preserve farmland.

“The poll indicates that in order to grow support for this program, we need to be informing the public about the value of this program and the value of preserving farmland in Kent County,” said Sandi Frost Parrish, commission chairwoman and PDR program supporter.

A few of the findings from the survey conducted by EPIC-MRA, which reached 400 residents, revealed that 89 percent indicated that preserving open space is important to the county’s quality of life, and 76 percent agreed that a loss of farmland has a negative effect on the local economy.

When respondents were first asked if they backed the PDR program, only 51 percent said they did. But when the county’s program was explained to them in more detail, their support grew to 66 percent. Despite the increase in support, many were still uncertain about how the program operates, how it’s funded, and its general impact on the county.

Kent County Agricultural Preservation Board Chairman Gabe Hudson said the survey did not include a question about whether a millage should be put before voters to fund the program, as he said some believed. He also said that county funding for the program would continue to be an issue in 2011.

“Kent County has been less than forthcoming with bushels of money, and it’s an absolutely key issue. We’ve got some foundations that are very active and very pro-farmland preservation, but they would like to see a little bit of county help,” said Hudson, a retired Army pilot and Vietnam War veteran who now raises a few chickens in Gaines Township.

Commissioners who back the PDR program wanted next year’s funding to be $350,000, but the board appropriated $275,000 to the effort — $75,000 less than what was needed to collect the full matching grants from the GR Community and Frey foundations. The 2011 funding amount likely means the county won’t invest $1 million into the program over three years, as a PDR subcommittee hoped would happen.

“I’d like to say they promised us money last year, but they really didn’t promise it. That was a recommendation from a subcommittee, that they’d give us $1 million over three years. Yes, we would have liked to have gotten $350,000 this year. We got $275,000 instead. We will work with that and thank the Lord for people like Kendra Wills and our board. We’ll leverage that (county) money and probably triple it,” said Hudson.

In essence, the survey’s overreaching result calls for the public to be better educated about the county’s farmland preservation program in order to emphasize its importance across multiple levels. It’s likely the preservation board will step up that effort in 2011, which has been an ongoing project for the board the last several years.

“In the past, the ag board members have identified public-education activities. For example, they’ve staffed booths. Most recently, they were at the Wine and Food Festival. They were at John Ball Zoo for its Earth Day event. And the Grand Rapids Public Museum had an Earth Day event and they had a booth there,” said Kendra Wills, a land-use educator with the Kent/MSU Extension service and a consultant to the county agricultural preservation board.

“They haven’t done a big media campaign or anything like that. They’ve just done small projects as a way of increasing contact with the public about farmland preservation. One of the things they are looking at is to make better contact with township boards and planning commissions. They’ve indentified that as a goal for 2011,” added Wills.

A survey released in August by the MSU Land Policy Institute revealed that 97 percent of state residents felt that the agricultural industry and farmland were “very important” and “important” to Michigan’s economic recovery. The survey collected responses from 1,001 residents. In the 494- and 495- zip codes, however, those numbers were 72 percent and 61 percent, respectively. Wills felt the board would most likely include the economic benefits that could come from a stronger farming community in its push to educate local residents and officials about the preservation program.

“The ag board has always maintained that they see farmland preservation as economic development activity, in addition to quality-of-life kind of things. The economic development component has certainly grown in the past few years, and they’d like to build better partnerships with agribusinesses to better communicate that,” she said.

Wills pointed out that the growth in agribusiness here has been highlighted by The Right Place Inc. The economic development organization made the industry one of its business clusters.

The Right Place has noted that agribusiness in West Michigan produces about a third of the state’s total agricultural sales and offers more than 26,000 jobs and $579 million in wages annually. Farms in Kent County, of course, have helped to create those sales and salaries.

“That area was not there last year. They just added it,” said Wills of The Right Place.

One farm sold its development rights in June. Wills is in the process of closing on the rights of five farms, which prohibits those acres from being commercially developed. If Wills can close on all five, the preservation board would add another 786.5 acres to its total and have set aside 1,544.5 acres since the program began in 2003.

But whether any farmland will be preserved next year remains a question. Wills had options with five property owners for 500 acres for 2011 but the county didn’t appropriate its PDR funding in time to meet the USDA’s grant cycle, so those sale options remain on hold and could possibly be delayed for another year. County Commissioner Bill Hirsch recently said there were 35 farms on the PDR waiting list.

Another finding from the county survey was that 71 percent of the public indicated it was important to have the PDR program for farmland preservation, while 62 percent said PDR was vital for the county to maintain open space.

“I think the results of the survey are really going to help a little bit with some of the new, incoming commissioners that I think have pretty much said, ‘I want to vote against this thing, as I’m opposed to it.’ Now that the survey is out, maybe they’re going to take a look at their constituents and say, ‘Maybe, it’s not such a bad idea,’” said Hudson, who grew up on a farm.

“And if we can just get the new commissioners and some of the old commissioners to take another look at that thing, and to listen and to learn a little bit from out East, I think we can persuade them a bit from violently opposing the program to just opposing it.”

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