As the Line Blurs Between City and Countryside, Farmers Find New Allies and Solutions
Promise for Michigan agriculture
September 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
• Earlier this year Leelanau County's Kasson Township strengthened its zoning ordinance by directing that 70% of any parcel under development be preserved in open space and forest.
• Three other rural townships -- Elmwood in Leelanau, and Acme and Whitewater in Grand Traverse -- are considering new land use measures that would slow sprawl and protect farmland.
• The Grand Traverse region also is experimenting with programs to increase farm incomes. Last spring an alliance of growers, processors, and state agriculture officials launched "Project Greenfields" to promote and market the region's cherries, peaches, apples, maple syrup, wine, fruit pies, and jams much like Vermont has done to distinguish its maple syrup, ice cream and cheddar cheese.
Lew Coulter, administrator of the Grand Traverse Conservation District, said one goal is to provide farmers with more opportunities to sell directly to consumers, restaurants, and food stores. Another goal is to encourage the development of new food products sold by regional marketers.
"Falling incomes are the main reason that farmers are forced to sell their land for development," said Mr. Coulter, who also is a cherry farmer in Peninsula Township. "Ultimately, we hope to increase demand for what we sell here, and push prices up."
Other regions in Michigan also are embarking on innovative farmland preservation projects:
• Outside Petoskey, the local governing boards in Bear Creek and Resort townships are opposing a new $70 million highway bypass that would cut through hundreds of acres of prime crop land and pasture. Farmers in the region also established a Historic Agriculture Preservation District to protect themselves from major construction projects.
• The North Kent Townships Association is working on new farmland protection policies and coordinating the land use efforts for seven townships outside Grand Rapids.
• Since 1982, sprawl around Ann Arbor and other areas of Washtenaw County has consumed 44,000 acres of farmland. In 1996, the county board appointed a 28-member task force of local government leaders, developers, and conservationists to study the problem and recommend solutions.
Last year the panel proposed an array of actions to slow sprawl through public education, technical and financial assistance to townships for planning, and by establishing a tax- funded program to acquire development rights to farmland and to buy environmentally-sensitive land. The goal is to preserve 40,000 acres of crop land, pasture, and forests by 2020.
Advocates point out that increasing property taxes slightly now to pay for the program will prevent much higher property taxes in the future to pay for the roads, schools, and expensive services that come with sprawl.
"The plan will be embraced by the county board," said Barry Lonik, executive director of the Potawatomi Land Trust, who played a central role in devising it. "As far as increasing property taxes to pay for purchasing development rights, I think we have a great chance for that too. People here care about the place they live, and are disturbed by the changes they see in the landscape."
CONTACTS: Lew Coulter, 616-941-0960; Al Foster, 616-347-0592; Rich Harlow, 517-335-3466; Jack Laurie and Scott Everett, 517-323- 7000; Barry Lonik, 313-449-7229; Bill Rustem, 517-484-4954; David Skjaerlund, 517-335-4560; Sharon Steffen, 616-784- 1262.