Food Service & Agriculture, Government, and Real Estate

Farmland preservation to continue in 2014

April 11, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Applications will continue to be accepted for farmland preservation by Kent County this year under the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program, but without any county funding appropriated for the program. The commission approved the PDR program with just one dissenting vote, but three absent commissioners during the spring-break county meeting last week.

The commission approved the detailed criteria under which farmland development rights may be purchased from farm owners voluntarily selling it to the county. Commissioners also approved the April 15-July 15 timeframe for applications in 2014.

It was a procedural motion that must be approved each year to keep the controversial program going, although only $25,000 was approved for it in the county’s 2014 general fund budget. That is less than one-third of what was allocated for 2013 and not enough to be effective, according to farmland preservation proponents.

Commissioner Nate Vriesman of Byron Center was the only “no” vote on the procedural motion, commenting that farmland preservation is “not a very good idea for the county to be involved in.”

Responding in opposition to Vriesman, commissioner Tom Antor of Sparta said Kent County’s farmland preservation plan is modeled after a successful plan used by Lancaster County, Pa., and he noted that Lancaster County is growing faster than Kent County.

Commissioner Jim Saalfeld of Grand Rapids Township said when Kent County enacted it in 2002, the PDR program here was intended to be funded mainly by grants and the local municipalities that wanted its farmland preserved from commercial or industrial development. If the desire is to continue the program without Kent County taxpayer funding, he said, voting in favor of the procedural motion does just that.

Saalfeld noted at a commission meeting in November that since 2002, $5.5 million had been spent in Kent County on farmland preservation through Purchase of Development Rights, with $2 million of that coming from the federal government, $1.9 million from private sources — mainly foundation grants — and just $569,000 from the county.

The PDR process was established by Michigan law, which requires interested counties to adopt it by ordinance if they want to use it. Only about three counties have done so. When launched, Kent County’s PDR plan had a goal of preserving 25,000 acres of “prime and unique farmland in the county” by 2013, equal to about 15 percent of all farmland in the county (as of the 2007 census).

However, at this point, only 2,030 acres will be preserved under the PDR plan. There is an additional amount, slightly less than 1,000 acres, in Kent County that will be preserved under other programs.

Saalfeld told the Business Journal he is opposed to using county tax revenues for farmland preservation. He also said he does not believe the PDR program is the way to achieve it anyway, mentioning zoning as another potential way to preserve farmland from development.

“We only talk about this one program — PDR,” he said. “That’s the most expensive program that’s out there, to my knowledge. Why not explore some of these other tools that don’t cost the county anything?” he said.

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