PDR Gets New Grant

August 29, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS—County Commissioners accepted an unrestricted grant from the M.E. Davenport Foundation last week for a program that has reportedly caused a few sitting board members to lose their seats in the August primary election.

The M.E. Davenport Foundation awarded the Kent/MSU Cooperative Extension a five-year, $100,000 grant for the Purchase of Development Rights program, a county ordinance commissioners approved in late 2002.

A portion of the grant will be used to leverage federal and state preservation dollars to buy property rights from landowners in the county. These monies are necessary because the county’s policy does not allow local taxpayer’s dollars to be spent on such purchases.

But another portion of the grant will likely be used to create an endowment to cover the costs of appraisals and closings, two actions not covered by federal and state preservation dollars. Commissioners Gary Rolls, chairman of the Agriculture Preservation Board, and Sandra Parrish said establishing the endowment was a good use of the grant money. But that use raised a yellow flag for one commissioner.

Commissioner Harold Voorhees said an endowment could “tie” board members’ hands to the program, one he thought was “questionable” and was approved by a “lame duck” board.

“The PDR program is a questionable one and we’re not sure where it’s going,” he said.

Kendra Wills, of the Kent/MSU Cooperative Extension and a consultant to the county on PDR matters, said how the grant money would be allocated hasn’t been determined.

“The ag board hasn’t decided what method they’re going to use yet,” she said.

The M.E. Davenport Foundation is named after Michael Edward Davenport, the founder of the Davenport Institute, now Davenport University. Robert W. and Margaret Davenport Sneden began the foundation in 1986, and it is not affiliated with the university or its foundation.

The county’s PDR program has bought the development rights from seven farms since 2003. Buying the rights of a property bans a commercial development from being built on that land. But using county tax dollars in those transactions has been prohibited since the program began.

“Preserved farmland stays in private hands and on the public tax rolls,” said Rolls.

The program set out to preserve 25,000 farming and fruit-growing acres by 2013, 10 years after the ordinance was approved. So far, five years into the effort, 758 acres have been preserved.

“By my calculation, we’re on pace to reach that in 96 to 100 years,” said Commissioner Brandon Dillon of hitting the 25,000-acre mark.

The commission’s refusal to use tax dollars to buy development rights reportedly led to election losses for incumbent Commissioners Fritz Wahlfield and David Morren. Wahlfield has represented Algoma, Alpine and Sparta townships for 32 years. Morren has represented Gaines and Caledonia townships and is a past commission chairman and vice chairman.

A few commissioners have talked about possibly putting a millage to preserve farmland before voters in coming years. Commission Chairman Roger Morgan said he is considering assembling a group to study potential ways to fund the PDR program.

“There should be some form of dedicated funding for this,” said Dennis Heffron, a farmer and co-chairman of the preservation board. “I think it should be a partnership. I think that everyone who benefits should be at the table.”

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