Is the farm preservation effort growing

September 13, 2010
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Even though the evidence is largely anecdotal, the numbers show that the Kent County Purchase of Development Rights program has picked up steam recently. Whether the momentum will last is another issue.

From the program’s inception in late 2002 through 2008, only 758 acres on seven farms were preserved. But another 1,286.5 acres on 11 farms could be set aside from being commercially developed in just two years: this year and in 2011. The additional acreage in line to be preserved comes at a time when set-aside prices have fallen from roughly $5,000 an acre in 2005 to less than $1,500 an acre this year.

A number of factors could account for the projected growth in preserved acres, but most likely the biggest factor is the decision made by the county commission last December to buy development rights with tax revenue — a first for a board whose previous members repeatedly vowed not to do that.

Under the leadership of then-Commission Vice Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish, who now chairs the board, commissioners agreed to dedicate $1 million of general-fund money over three years to match the federal and foundation grants made to the PDR program. For 2010, the board budgeted $275,000 for that purpose, but not all of it is expected to be spent this year. Next year’s amount will be determined this fall when commissioners shape and then adopt the 2011 general fund, which goes into effect Jan.1.

“The county’s appropriation opened up a window for the (Kent County Agricultural Preservation Board) to go back to the local foundations because they had been hearing for years that the local foundations would give us more grant money if the county would go in and match their funding,” said Kendra Wills, a land-use educator with the Kent/MSU Extension Service and consultant to the county’s PDR program.

“So we had another opportunity to go back to the foundations to leverage county funding with additional foundation money, and that made us able to request more money from USDA. Then USDA started last year to offer two grants (a year) instead of just one. Now there are two opportunities and we can potentially double our preservation effort,” she added.

“One, because we have more money to deal with because the county leveraged some foundation dollars, and the other is, there is more federal money to match. That’s why it seems like we’re going faster. We’re getting more federal funds because we have more local money to match it.”

Before Wills can file a grant application with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she has to have half of a purchase amount in place. The rules don’t allow her to request a grant and then raise a local match.

A purchase price is determined through property appraisals. Wills pointed out, though, that an appraisal is sometimes only good for a year. If an appraised property isn’t preserved during that timeframe, then another appraisal must be done, which raises the cost of an effort and depletes the money reserved for a match.

“These days the (purchase) prices have been dropping. That’s been good for us, but not for the property owner. So we probably we won’t see everybody go along with the prices,” said Wills.

But property owners may not be the only ones who might not go along with the program. Wills said the foundations, which have supported the PDR effort all along, might be at the end of their participation. Two foundations, the Frey and Grand Rapids Community, have made three-year funding commitments to the PDR program and both require that the county also contribute.

GR Community Foundation awarded the program $300,000 over three years, with the first installment of $100,000 targeted for this year with no strings attached. If the county wants to collect the next two $100,000 installments, it will have to commit $600,000 to the program: $300,000 in 2011 and in 2012.

The Frey Foundation has awarded the program $250,000 over three years. If the county wants to collect the annual gift of $85,000, it has to invest $350,000 in the program for each of those three years: 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The county’s 2011 general fund — where the matching dollars are likely to come from — currently has a deficit of $9.2 million.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, to be honest with you,” said Wills of the county’s next step, “unless they want to negotiate with the foundations to come down on that.”

A small group of commissioners have formed a subcommittee to look into ways the county could permanently fund the program, such as asking voters to approve a PDR millage. Their report is due this fall. Last week, the Lowell Area Community Fund, a Grand Rapids Community Foundation fund, gave $50,000 to the program to preserve farmland in Lowell and Vergennes Township.

The county program isn’t the only way to preserve local farmland. Peter M. Wege, with a conservation easement donation, set aside 577 acres in Vergennes Township three years ago. The state PDR program preserved 252 acres in Courtland and Tyrone townships several years ago. And Grattan Township officials permanently protected 170 acres on three farms.

Wills said she hopes to close this fall on a grant she filed with the USDA in July. That money would help preserve 500 acres on five farms next year at a cost of $748,500, or $1,497 per acre.

“The county has to decide whether they want to sign the USDA agreement because our proposal that we made in July was based on 2011 money and the county hasn’t decided on 2011 money yet,” she said. “They have to do that probably in November, is what we’re hearing.”

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