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Grand Rapids Homebuilders Aim Torpedo At Farmland Protection

Gambit divides industry, prompts backlash

November 10, 2002 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

 
MLUI/Patty Cantrell
 

A program to allow farmers to voluntarily sell the right to develop their land is intended by its proponents to eventually protect up to 93,000 acres of west Michigan's best farmland.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Even as new housing, roads, and other developments inundate Kent County’s fertile ground and the $121 million agricultural industry that it supports, the board of this region’s influential home builders organization is mounting a politically risky campaign to kill a popular initiative that would permanently conserve half of the county’s existing farmland.

“Some people want to discount our concerns as a group just looking to put money in their pockets,” said Judy Barnes, vice president and chief executive office of the Home and Building Association of Greater Grand Rapids. “We are a special interest group. But our special interest is providing housing for our citizens. We have been in this community for 57 years and during that time we have received countless awards for our community effort and spirit.”

High Profile Campaign Invites Criticism
But by staking out such an aggressive position without polling the association’s 1,300 members, the 15-member board of directors has divided the region’s home building industry and opposed nearly every other influential civic organization in the region, which support the farmland protection program. Proponents of the measure include the Kent County Farm Bureau, the City of Grand Rapids, Grand Valley Metro Council, a nonprofit agency that coordinates regional community planning, and United Growth, a regional coalition of farmers, businesses, and local governments.  

“It’s frustrating,” said Terry Sanford, the director of planning and design at Nederveld and Associates, a civil engineering firm, and a member of the Home and Building Association who supports the farmland conservation measure. “The biggest opponents of this initiative essentially are coming in after the process has been completed to offer ideas and criticisms that they could have brought to the table in the very beginning.”

“The homebuilders risk making themselves irrelevant in county politics,” added Jack Horton, a former four-term state representative and a Kent County commissioner who represents the growing suburbs of Lowell and Caledonia.

Purchase Right to Develop
At issue is whether Kent County should establish a so-called “purchase of development rights” program to protect as much as 47,000 acres — approximately nine percent of the county’s land. The program would allow farmers to voluntarily sell the right to develop their land to the community to be placed in public trust. It would be the first phase of a 10-year farmland conservation program that is intended by its proponents to eventually protect up to 93,000 acres of land and be one of the largest such programs in the Middle West.

A nine-member subcommittee of the Kent County Board of Commissioners will decide on Tuesday, November 12, 2002, whether to recommend the plan to the full commission. 

Executives of the Home and Building Association of Greater Grand Rapids, which represents businesses and some 30,000 workers in the construction industry, oppose the measure and are mounting a direct attack. The association’s leaders say the farmland protection measure could increase the cost of new homes, encourage poor community planning, and have the unwitting effect of facilitating sprawl.

Stakes Are Real
The stakes for all sides could not be higher. Supporters contend the preservation plan, if implemented properly, is instrumental to guiding future growth in a way that ensures the permanent protection for large swaths of prime farmland, keeps farmers in business, and encourages the community to think creatively about how to develop — or redevelop — vibrant urban centers.

Opponents, however, suggest it threatens to limit housing construction and drive up land prices, a view that supporters say is undocumented opinion.

The front line in the dispute is the Kent County Commission, a 19-member board that includes contractors, teachers, and social workers and is lauded by many as an important new player in the region’s blossoming movement to manage growth.

The commission’s recent achievements include launching a program to reclaim an old industrial site and create Millennium Park, which will become one of the nation’s largest urban parks. The commission also developed a model stormwater ordinance, which will help to direct future development in a way that reduces the potential for pollution and erosion in local streams.

Protecting prime farmland is another of the commission’s initiatives. (See: In Kent County, Stirring A Plan Protect Farmland)

Homebuilders Make Political Investment
The Grand Rapids homebuilders group, though, is a formidable opponent with considerable experience in beating such measures. In 1998 Grand Rapids homebuilders contributed $10,000 to help defeat a similar purchase of development rights program in southeast Michigan’s Washtenaw County.

“We’ve been accused of formulating a delay tactic by voicing our concerns,” Ms. Barnes said. “We believe in protecting viable farmland, utilizing smart growth principles, and working together to find good land use solutions. But these are very complicated issues. That is why we are asking that time be spent to ensure the program and its implications are really thought out.”

The organization’s attempt to halt Kent County’s farmland protection plan, according to association members, is led by a few dominant builders, among them Dan Hibma, a wealthy developer, major contributor to Michigan’s Republican Party, and the husband of Terry Lynn Land, who was just elected Michigan’s Secretary of State.

The homebuilder association’s strategy for defeating the Kent County proposal includes a mix of public and behind the scenes tactics. The association recently published a position paper that outlines the group’s concerns and has made its top executives available for public testimony. In private, the association is calling elected officials to personally voice its opposition.  And it is making timely political contributions.

Two commissioners who have expressed a desire to delay the process were the only two to be endorsed by the homebuilders, according to several other commissioners who support the farmland protection program.

Commissioner Dean Agee, a Republican, recently received $200 from the homebuilders political action committee fund. Mr. Agee was reelected in November 2002 to represent Grand Rapids Township and the city of East Grand Rapids. He said he would not be influenced by the political donation. 

Commissioner Michael Sak, a Democrat recently elected to the state House of Representatives, received $300. Mr. Sak is a member of the committee that will consider the PDR program on Tuesday. He opposed the adoption of the county’s 2001 Urban Sprawl report, which made a series of recommendations including the development of an agricultural preservation program.

Commissioner-elect Richard Vander Molen, a Republican, also received $200 from the homebuilders. He will represent Kentwood in the term ending 2004 and opposed the purchase of development rights program in interviews published before election day.

Supporters Say They Will Win
Proponents of the PDR program say they are worried about the homebuilders campaign but believe they will prevail because the association’s executives may be out of step with their membership. In Kalamazoo County, for instance, the homebuilders organization is working with local citizens to create a similar farmland preservation program.

The proposed farmland preservation program was developed by a 25-member task force during five months of regular meetings. Members of the task force included farmers, local officials, business owners, and developers. Those involved said the plan has two clear goals. It calls for establishing a long-term business environment for agriculture by preserving productive parcels of farmland. And it seeks to avoid conserving farmland in areas already designated for future growth.

“Farmland preservation has become a very important issue here in Kent County,” said Denny Heffron, a third generation farmer and a local township official who helped establish the program. “I believe implementation of this program is pretty much going to decide if our farm, and others like it, will be around in the next 10 years.”

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WHAT HAPPENED

GRAND RAPIDS, MI. Nov. 12 -- A nine-member subcommittee of the Kent County Board of Commissioners tonight turned down, 5-4, a proposal to permanently protect farmland in the region. The close vote indicated a strong interest in the measure, but not enough to overcome the concerns of homebuilders and other opponents. Proponents said they would regroup and consider other strategies to develop more political comfort for protecting farmland. The vote, said proponents, was a setback for growth management advocates who until tonight had been making significant progress on a variety of measures to curb Kent County sprawl and redevelop downtown Grand Rapids.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI, Nov. 26 -- The 19-member Kent County Board of Commissioners today reversed a subcommittee and approved an ordinance to permanently protect prime agricultural lands in the region. The vote, 14-5, makes Kent one of four Michigan counties to approve a farmland protection ordinance. The others are Lapeer, Leelanau, and Clinton counties. The Kent County ordinance attracted significant public support in the region including an editorial in favor of the measure published by the Grand Rapids Press. In taking such a strong position, the Board of Commissioners repudiated a campaign by the regional homebuilders and realtor associations, which had tried to block the measure. The program is intended to protect 25,000 acres of farmland. 

Andy Guy, who is chronicling the rise of Grand Rapids as a center of Smart Growth innovation in the Midwest, is a journalist and organizer in the Institute’s Grand Rapids field office. Reach him at andy@mlui.org, or 616-308-6250.

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