More farm acres may be saved

January 21, 2011
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The number of farmland acres that may be preserved through the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program could double by the end of this year. The number totaled 928 acres a year ago.

Kendra Wills, a land-use educator with the Kent/Michigan State University Extension and a consultant to the county on its PDR program, will close shortly with the last of five landowners who agreed last year to sell their development rights to the county. When Wills completes that transaction, which she felt would happen this month, the 616.5 acres will bring the total number of preserved acres to 1,544.5.

It will cost $1.08 million to protect those acres from commercial development, paid for with grants from the federal government and the Frey and Grand Rapids Community foundations, and with tax revenue from the county’s general operating fund. The per-acre price for the purchase is $1,756.

The landowners who are selling the rights also contributed $89,816 to the purchase price. County commissioners are expected to officially accept their contribution Thursday. Also on Thursday, commissioners will decide whether to offer purchase options to three more farms with 363 acres that are waiting to be preserved for $560,000 or $1,543 per acre.

Wills said most of that money will come from a USDA Farmland Protection Program grant worth $218,400. Her deadline to file for the grant is Feb. 16. Another $60,000 is expected to come from the property owners and $281,600 will come from the agricultural preservation fund, which receives its fiscal support from the county’s general operating fund. In the past two years, commissioners have allocated $550,000 from the general fund to farmland preservation. The Frey and GR Community foundations also are providing steady financial support for the program.

Commissioners must agree to the purchase option before Wills can apply for the federal grant. She did that last summer, but the USDA declined to approve the county’s application because the county hadn’t completed work on its 2011 general operating budget when the agency reviewed the grant request. The USDA requires that matching dollars be in place when a grant request is made.

“The funding had to be approved, but the board hadn’t passed the budget. The Fed encouraged us to file at the next opportunity,” said County Assistant Administrator Mary Swanson.

The matching dollars for purchases that will be made this year were allocated when the 2011 general operating budget was approved late last year. Commissioners gave $275,000 to the PDR program.

The three farms are located in Tyrone, Sparta and Nelson townships. The preservation board will foot the bills for the appraisals and closing costs. Wills hopes to close on the purchases this year. If that happens, the total number of development-rights acres the county has purchased since the program’s inception would jump to 1,907.5 acres.

Commissioners also will decide Thursday whether to accept a pro-rated grant for farmland preservation from the GR Community Foundation. The foundation originally awarded the county a $300,000 grant for three years at $100,000 each year. The county collected $100,000 from the foundation last year. But to get that same amount in 2011 and 2012, the county had to fund the program at $350,000 each year.

Since the county allocated $275,000, the foundation lowered its 2011 contribution to $77,000, a pro-rated amount based on its original grant. The county struck a similar deal last year with the Frey Foundation, which also pro-rated its three-year $250,000 grant to match the county’s funding amount.

Commissioner Jim Talen noted that the preservation board has become frustrated with the PDR process. He said the board gets the appraisals done and everything is in place to proceed, except for the county’s share of the program’s funding. He said appraisals sometimes have to be made again and paid for again when that is the case. Talen said not having a permanent funding mechanism in place hurts the preservation effort.

Commissioner Tom Antor, who serves on the preservation board, had high praise for Wills. “She has had to deal with that (frustrating situation) for the last couple of years,” he said.

The county’s Finance Committee recommended that the full board approve the purchase options and accept the GR Community grant.

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