More area farmland preserved

August 22, 2010
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Another 616.5 acres of farmland will be officially preserved later this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded the Kent County Agricultural Preservation Board a grant worth $467,000 that will be used to buy the properties’ development rights from the five landowners.

The grant money, which comes from the USDA Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, will cover 43 percent of the $1.08 million cost to keep the properties from being commercially developed. Another $275,000 will come from Kent County, funds that commissioners set aside for the program late last year. This will be the first time in the program’s history, which dates back to late 2002, that county dollars will be spent to preserve agricultural land. The last portion of the purchase price, $338,000, will come from various sources, including the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.

When the transactions close, the preserved through the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program will total 1,544.5 — up from the 928 acres already preserved. But a number of mandatory things have to be done before the closings can be completed, such as a baseline report that documents the existing conditions of the properties so the county can monitor them in the future.

Kendra Wills, a land-use educator with the Kent/MSU Extension Service and a consultant to the county’s Agricultural Preservation Board, said the land will be inspected each year and the condition compared to the baseline. “When we are monitoring this easement, we want to make sure it’s in the same condition it is today. Not necessarily that the same crop is grown, but no buildings were built, no gravel lining or any kind of destruction to the agricultural capacity of the farm was done. And they — the property owners — can prove it, if they need to,” she said. “That’s an important step.”

Wills said an environmental consultant will examine the ecological status of the lands, as some of the farms have a history of contamination.

The landowners have to provide a survey of their properties. “It’s the one thing that they have to do,” said Wills. “We actually have the boundaries staked, and sometimes they get GPS points in case we ever have to stake the boundaries of the preserved area again.”

Wills said re-staking the boundaries might have to be done when an owner has a home and a barn on the property. Both are excluded from the preserved area. If an owner wants to sell the home or barn, he or she can do so, but then the farm’s boundary may have to be staked again. “Usually, it works out to be simpler to preserve open land that has no building,” she said.

“Then we just have a lot of confirmation paperwork between the USDA and us. There are a couple of other forms that are just asking the same questions over and over again, but using different formats because they go to different departments in the USDA.”

Wills estimated that the closing process would go at least into December. “Some will carry over into early 2011, as well. They’re all signed and ready to go,” she said of the property owners.

Four of the farms are in Vergennes Township. The fifth is in Courtland Township. The county’s cost to buy the development rights on a per-acre basis is $1,756, the lowest price the county has contracted for since commissioners adopted the PDR ordinance in November 2002.

Wills said she may learn the outcome of another preservation grant she filed in June with the USDA as early as next month. The grant is for about $300,000, but this time the funding would come through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative program. The effort would preserve another 500 acres on five farms next year at a total cost of $748,500, or $1,497 per acre. The county would contribute $206,585 to the purchase price, if the federal grant is awarded.

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