County looking at PDR program again

March 25, 2012
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Kent County has formed the third installment of a Purchase of Development Rights Subcommittee, and the panel has begun meeting.

One of the group’s major goals, if not its overarching objective, is to determine whether a sustainable and reliable funding source can be established so the county can purchase the commercial development rights from landowners who qualify for the PDR program, instead of using tax dollars as has been the case the past several years.

“There is trickle-down economics, and PDR is trickle, trickle, trickle-down economics,” said Commissioner Harold Voorhees, also chairman of the county’s Finance Committee, at a recent meeting of the county’s Executive Committee.

Voorhees went on to say he isn’t a big fan of the PDR program, an ordinance county commissioners approved in late 2002. They stipulated that tax dollars couldn’t be used to buy those rights, but that position changed a few years ago when the first PDR subcommittee recommended the county spend $1 million over three years to preserve farmland.

However, the most that has been allocated to the PDR effort in one year has been $275,000 — twice, in fact — which is short of the $333,000 annual goal the subcommittee felt should go into the program. Still, tax dollars made it into the program’s budget for the first time in 2010 and again in 2011, and $150,000 has been allocated to it this year.

A second PDR subcommittee sent a report to the commission last year that wasn’t officially “received and filed” by the board. There was a discussion, though, about the time the report was being submitted in late January 2011, and that conversation credited private dollars from local foundations as making up the “backbone” of the program.

Commissioner Jim Talen chaired that group, which found that private grants to the program from the Frey, Wege and Grand Rapids Community foundations, along with a few others, totaled nearly $1.6 million and accounted for 37 percent of all the dollars that have gone into the effort over the years.

Grants from the federal preservation program topped $1.6 million and represented 38 percent of all the PDR funding, which totaled $4.28 million last year. Kent County spent $271,200 on purchasing development rights through the same timeframe, and the Frey and GR Community foundations told the county that it would have to contribute more to the program if it wanted to see more grants from those organizations.

Talen said the subcommittee looked at funding options for the program and came up with seven, with the most sustainable source being a dedicated millage request similar to the one voters have passed for senior services. But the panel also felt the time wasn’t right to approach voters about a millage last year because it felt residents generally weren’t familiar enough with the PDR program to make an educated decision on a ballot.

“Our report was never received and was never filed,” said Commissioner Bill Hirsch, who served on the subcommittee and is a dairy farmer by trade. “So now (Commission Chairwoman) Sandi (Frost Parrish) has appointed another subcommittee to try to figure this out. So this is really kind of a continuation of the second one.”

Parrish and Hirsch are on the current subcommittee, as are commissioners Roger Morgan, Tom Antor and Talen. County Treasurer Kenneth Parrish is also on the panel. Commissioner Gary Rolls chairs the group, which held its second meeting last week. A contingent from the county will again travel to Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County in May to learn more about that preservation effort.

This year, the county is headed toward buying the development rights from four farms for $468,000, or an average of $1,560 per acre. The funding is coming from the USDA Farmland Protection Program via a $210,000 grant, and $258,000 from the county’s Agricultural Preservation Board. The county bought the rights from one farm last year and from five farms the previous year. So far, the PDR program has preserved 1,544 farmland acres from being commercially developed.

At the Executive Committee meeting, Voorhees suggested that the county look into other ways to help the agricultural business. Parrish said such an effort couldn’t be restricted to farms but would have to include the local food-processing industry, which she said employs about 14,000 workers here.

Commissioner Jim Saalfeld said the value of farmland is rising. In another part of the state, he said farm acreage was going for $3,200 an acre in 2008, and last year that per-acre price reached $10,000. “I’m wondering how that growth will affect the PDR program,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re growing at that rate here,” said Parrish.

Although the value of agricultural land has been the only property class that has risen the past three years, including a tiny gain of 0.77 percent last year, the per-acre cost for development rights hasn’t. The preservation price was more than $4,000 an acre in 2005, 2006 and 2007; it reached $5,000 an acre in 2008. Since then, the price has fallen dramatically and is $1,560 per acre this year.

When commissioners established the PDR ordinance almost a decade ago, the county’s goal was to preserve 25,000 acres of farmland. Last year’s subcommittee estimated it would cost about $55 million to do that.

“We can get to our goal of 25,000 acres in just about 20 years,” said Talen last year. “We can do this.”

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