Government and Real Estate

PDR may be at a crossroad

County will vote on preservation measure.

February 22, 2013
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When Kent County commissioners approved the Purchase of Development Rights ordinance in late 2002, the farmland preservation program had a goal of setting aside 25,000 acres in its first decade of operation.

Ten years later, however, that objective isn’t within reach: The program has preserved only about 1,500 acres.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that this policy is never going to work,” said Commissioner Dick Vander Molen last week at the county’s Finance Committee meeting.

“Personally, I think we should move away from the whole thing. I don’t think we should not just spend county money on this but anybody’s money,” he added.

“We are not in danger of running out of farmland. I think preserving this land now is short sighted,” said Commissioner Nate Vriesman.

Commissioners will take up the question of whether to continue the preservation effort on Thursday when they will be asked to begin the process of setting aside 112 acres on two farms.

The Finance Committee recommended last week the board do just that, but only by the slimmest of margins. Committee Chairman Harold Voorhees broke a 3-3 deadlock by casting the deciding vote. It was the first time in recent memory that a committee chairperson has voted on a resolution. County rules stipulate that committee chairpersons can only vote to break a tie. Voorhees only did so after he quietly consulted with County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio for a few dramatic moments.

Preserving the farms in Sparta and Grattan townships would cost $290,000, or $2,589 per acre. Both farms meet the criteria to qualify for a USDA Farmland Protection Program grant for that amount. The Kent County Agricultural Preservation Board would apply for the grant, and would pay for the appraisals and option fees with its dollars.

Vriesman pointed out, however, that $87,000 in the county’s general operating fund could be spent in the transaction. Commissioners allocated $50,000 for purchase rights and $37,000 for PDR administration in the 2013 budget that covers most of the county’s services.

“I believe this money could be better used to help our veterans,” he said.

Commissioners also will decide this week whether to refund a bond that helped construct DeVos Place.

“The county and the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority each issued $5 million bonds in 2003,” said Delabbio.

Interest rates have fallen since then and refinancing the remaining portion of the bond has been estimated at saving the county $46,000 annually over the next 10 years. The securities reach maturity in 2023. The DDA agreed to take the refunding route earlier this month. Each bond has an outstanding balance of $3.2 million.

The county also issued an $85 million bond in 2001 for the convention center’s construction, but that 30-year security can’t be refinanced. It has an outstanding balance of roughly $54 million.

All three convention center bonds were issued by the city/county building authority. The county has pledged its full faith and credit to those bonds and is using revenue from its lodging excise tax to pay bondholders.

“We’re the backstop on the bonds — all of them,” said Delabbio.

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