Apr 7, 2007
Michigan Running Slow in the Race to Preserve Farmland

In 1974, Michigan and Pennsylvania bolted from the starting gate together, as they began efforts to protect farmland from conversion to non-farm use. That year, each state passed legislation providing property tax breaks to farmers who signed contracts of 10 or more years agreeing not to develop their land during the contract period.

For Pennsylvania, that was the first step on the road. Pennsylvania has built on that foundation with a purchase of development rights (PDR) program that has raised and spent more than half a billion dollars and protected more farmland than any other state. This year, the state will reach a milestone of 3,000 farms with PDR easements covering 300,000 acres.

Michigan, by contrast, has not built much. The state legislature approved a PDR program in the 1990s that funded the preservation of a handful of farms. In 2000, it revised the law and turned responsibility over to counties. The state dedicated some money for matching funds in the 20 counties (of 83) that have decided they want to preserve farmland, but only a couple townships in those counties have found ways to raise money that could be matched by the state or by a federal program that similarly provides matching funds.

Still, dedicated people are at work and entertaining bigger dreams.

One of them is Dennis Heffron, a farmer near Lowell in Kent County (surrounding Grand Rapids). He thinks his county could look like Lancaster County, Pa., the county that has become the national model for farmland protection.

Heffron is the chairman of the Kent County Agriculture Preservation Board and a spark plug behind an effort that could benefit growers on Fruit Ridge north of Grand Rapids, a famous fruit-producing region. They have been calling for protection from development as Grand Rapids sprawls their way. The county also contains an area of muck soils, on the southern outskirts of the city, where celery, onions, carrots and other vegetables are grown.

Heffron farms 3,500 acres devoted to crops for beef production. Because he only owns a fifth of it, he fears his land base will disappear if urban sprawl and development continues unabated. His father, Phil, and brother, Tom, are fruit growers on the farm where Dennis grew up, and they also are interested in farmland protection. Heffron’s aunt Mary owns the fruit farm that is working to become Kent County’s third PDR farm.

Kent County is politically conservative, and it’s not wise to suggest that farmers and developers shouldn’t be free to do whatever they want with their land. The realtors and homebuilders have a rock-solid grip on local politics.

Heffron isn’t attacking that idea. He thinks the Lancaster County model would work fine for everybody. Lancaster County has a plan that designates some areas for farmland preservation and some for growth and development. It is attached to a program that buys development rights from farmers. It is voluntary and does not “take” land value by zoning land to a lower-value use.

Developers there have plenty of land to work with and aren’t complaining that some land is preserved for farm use.

There are farmers in Kent County who are on a waiting list to sell their development rights if the county can find the money to get the ball rolling. But the list is short – about 40 – and only a few of them are fruit or vegetable growers. There is not much incentive to apply, given the dearth of money available.

Using money donated by foundations, Kent County has generated enough to qualify for matching state and federal funds. The county has preserved two farms and is working on a third. By comparison, Lancaster County signed PDRs with 60 farms last year alone and will add 70 more this year. Lancaster County has $18.3 million to spend this year, $9 million in local money and the rest in matching money from the state. The county has a staff of five people working on PDRs full-time and has signed up 67,000 acres so far.

Revenues in Pennsylvania were generated by a bond issue and from annual revenues that include a 2-cent tax on cigarettes and increased landfill tipping fees.

Heffron is aware how far behind Kent County and Michigan are. Two townships north of Traverse City, Peninsula Township and Acme Township, are the only ones in Michigan that voted for a tax to raise local revenue and used it to leverage more money to save tart cherry and vineyard land.

Winning Local Support

In early October, Heffron made an effort to win local support by taking two members of the Kent County Board of Commissioners on a tour of Lancaster County. He invited Gary Rolls, a commercial insurance agent and member of the county’s ag preserve board, and Harold Voorhees, a former legislator, and hooked them up in Pennsylvania with Scott Everett, the Michigan director of American Farmland Trust. Everett was conducting his 11th Ultimate Land Use Study Tour and hosting 50 visitors from Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s land preservation efforts are just starting.

The Michigan contingent rode the bus with them across Lancaster County. Those who have a “developed” image of the East were amazed to see rolling farmland relatively undisturbed by urban sprawl.

Everett has taken more than a thousand Michigan residents, many from the Michigan Farm Bureau, to Pennsylvania to show them what an area can look like when urban sprawl is discouraged, homebuilding and other development is channeled and farmers are free of development pressure and can concentrate on long-term investment in their farms.

It also helps to know that it’s not too late. Pennsylvania lies east, where development pressure is greater and urban sprawl is older than it is in the Midwest.

While Kent County’s effort is feeble compared to Lancaster County’s, Heffron is optimistic.

For one thing, Kent County has provided funding for Kendra Wills, Michigan’s only Extension educator devoted to and paid by a county land-preservation program.

Except for the two townships in northern Michigan, Kent County is “the furthest along” of any place in Michigan, she said.

“We are doing more than most counties,” she said. “But unless more funding is secured, our pace will be to preserve one or two farms a year.”

Kent County adopted a PDR ordinance in 2002, she said, and created the Agricultural Preservation Board in 2003, when she was hired. There have been three “application cycles” since then, each drawing 35 to 40 applications, usually the same applicants every year.

Following state law, the applications are scored and prioritized, but nothing happens without funding.

The two farms that have been preserved are in “the Parnell corridor,” an area near Lowell and Belding that has a unique feature: The Wege Foundation, which supports environmental causes, wants to preserve farmland in the area.

“The Grand Rapids area has a lot of well-endowed foundations,” Wills said. “But foundations won’t sustain our program over multiple years. They make one-time donations.”

Wills spends about half her time on the PDR program, searching for grants, taking applications from farmers and having them scored following the state rules, and arranging for appraisals to be done so the cost of development rights (market value minus farm value) can be determined.

The rest of the time, she’s a land-use educator working with grassroots citizens’ groups and organizations like United Growth for Kent County, a citizens’ committee working to fight urban sprawl. She also instructs board members and commissioners as part of Michigan State University’s citizen planner program.

Whatever happens in Kent County or elsewhere in Michigan, it will be from the grassroots up, she said.

“Top down doesn’t seem to be working.”

In Leelanau County, voters in the November election had the chance to pass a 15-year, half-mill property tax that would fund PDR programs in their county. It would make Leelanau the first county in the state with a PDR program covering its entirety.

Save Leelanau Farmland, a grassroots organization, convinced county commissioners to put it on the ballot, but the commissioners would not endorse a .75-mill rate. The half-mill levy would raise nearly a million dollars a year and could preserve about 3,000 acres of farmland over the next 15 years. The county lost 10,000 acres of farmland during the 1990s.

Interestingly, most of the PDR money available in Michigan comes from the failure of the Farmland and Open Spaces Preservation Act of 1974. Farmers who sign contracts not to sell their land for non-farm development receive rebates from the state on their local property taxes. But there is a penalty period during which the state can recover up to seven years of payments if the land is converted immediately after the contract period or if the contract is broken.

These “penalty funds” go into the PDR fund, Wills said. In fiscal year 2004-05, $1.3 million was added to the funds because of “PA 116 pullouts,” the highest level ever.

At the time PA 116 passed in 1974, it was primarily a tax break for farmers – the theory being that high property taxes were forcing them to sell their land for development. It provided more tax relief than it did farmland preservation.

With the passage of Proposal A in 1993, a state law that lowered property taxes on farmland and homesteads, the incentive to participate in PA 116 was greatly reduced, Wills said.

Scott Everett, with American Farmland Trust in Michigan, agreed.

“PA 116 really worked in its time,” he said. “It still plays a role, but it’s less effective as development pressure increases. We need to add more effective tools.”

State Support

His assessment of the situation in Michigan is that there is neither leadership nor funding coming from the state level, and the work of saving farmland has fallen on local communities. In Pennsylvania, by contrast, the effort began at the grass roots in 1980 and was picked up on the state level by 1988. A succession of legislators and governors virtually compete for space on the podiums where new land preservation milestones are reached. In Pennsylvania, Republican Gov. Tom Ridge supported it, and the current Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, supports it. In the election this fall, Rendell and his Republican challenger, Lynn Swann, consider the farmland preservation program one of the top five planks in their platforms.

The state-passed bond issues and dedicated tax revenues consistently provide up to $100 million a year, year after year. Michigan provides about 1 percent of that.

But it didn’t come easy in Pennsylvania. The roots go back to Amos Funk, a Lancaster County farmer who began speaking for soil and water conservation in 1939 and grew from conservation to preservation in the 1960s – and wouldn’t give up. Today, his “successor” is Gene Garber, a farmer from Elizabethtown.

If that name sounds familiar, you’re a baseball fan. In 1978, Pete Rose, who played for the Cincinnati Reds, had a 44-game hitting streak going. But in the ninth inning of the 45th game, he was struck out by Garber, a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. Neither men were rookies. Garber pitched for 24 years in the major leagues, from 1965 to 1988. Upon his retirement, the relief pitcher had made 931 career pitching appearances, ranking fifth in major league history. He signed 100 baseballs for the visitors on the Land Use Tour.

Today, Garber owns 200 acres and is chairman of the Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board. He is a missionary for the farmland preservation cause.

In Lancaster County, there are two parallel PDR programs. About a fourth of the farmers are Amish, with a tradition of not accepting money from the government. An organization called the Lancaster Farmland Trust works with them, buying development rights with funding from some 3,000 private donors.

So far this year, the trust has preserved 17 farms and 1,098 acres, bringing its record to 242 farms and 15,049 acres preserved since 1988. Between the two programs, more than 65,000 acres of Lancaster County are now dedicated farmland, unavailable for non-farm development – ever.

For Denny Heffron, that’s a record for Kent County to strive for. But only the first step has been taken on the journey.

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