Food Service & Agriculture, Government, and Real Estate

Farmland donation leads to a testy county debate

October 25, 2013
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At a time when the local food movement is becoming a more valued segment of the region’s economy, the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program continues to be a contentious issue for Kent County board members.

Commissioner Joel Freeman, who is in his first term, brought the divisiveness to light during the discussion last week of whether to accept a preservation donation from the Denny Heffron Trust.

Heffron, a local farmer and member of the county’s Agricultural Preservation Board, offered to donate the development rights to 83 farmland acres in Grattan Township, a gift that didn’t involve any county tax dollars.

After a lengthy and emotional discussion that rehashed the pros and cons of the PDR program, which was established by the board in 2002, all but two commissioners voted to accept the gift.

“I can’t remember the last time anyone said no to a free gift. It’s not logical. It’s not rational,” said County Commissioner Gary Rolls.

But Commissioner Nate Vriesman didn’t feel the program was good for the county and argued that accepting the donation would still require the board to allocate funds to administer it.

Commissioner Shana Shroll said there were more important priorities for the county to address, such as the economic hardships some residents are going through.

“I still don’t understand why this is such a big deal, when it’s such a small amount of money in the budget,” said Commissioner Chairman Dan Koorndyk, who was on the board when the program’s ordinance was adopted 11 years ago, but with a ban on spending tax dollars to purchase rights.

Only $25,000 has been allocated so far to buy development rights from property owners in next year’s general fund budget. That figure is half of the $50,000 in this year’s budget, and only 10 percent of the $250,000 the commission allocated for several years just a few budgets ago. The county is also spending $37,500 this year to administer the PDR program.

Commissioner Stan Ponstein pointed out that during the time funding for the PDR program has fallen, millions in general-fund dollars have been spent to subsidize the DeVos Place convention center in order to make the annual bond payments.

The dollar value of the Heffron gift is likely to be somewhere near $200,000. It’s unknown now because the property has to be appraised; the Heffron Trust will pay for an appraisal and a survey of the land, a cost estimated at $4,000.

The county’s preservation board will use a grant from the Peter M. Wege Foundation to pay for an environmental study of the donated land, a title search of the property and the closing costs — a tab that is expected to reach $4,300.

“We will not be issuing a check,” said Assistant County Administrator Mary Swanson. “The individual who makes the donation has to determine the value of the property.”

County Equalization Director Matt Woolford said the land will be assessed like all farmland acreage, as the status of a property’s development rights has no effect on a land’s taxable value.

Commissioner Tom Antor told board members of a recent Gallup study that listed the top 10 metro areas in the country and he said nine have active farmland preservation programs in place. At the top of the ranking was Lancaster County, Pa., an area that he has visited and that has served as a model for the county’s PDR program.

“They’re very conservative people. They don’t like to pay taxes, either,” said Antor. “I look at this (PDR program) as an economic tool.”

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