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Ideological Groups Attack Farmland Preservation

Leelanau struggle a sign of things to come

January 18, 2004 | By Jim Lively
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Keith Burnham/ LelandReport.com
  Leelanau County, one of Michigan’s most beautiful areas, is the latest battleground between citizens who want to protect farmland and those who believe that such action is not the proper role of government.

A collection of far right think tanks, anti-tax extremists, and home builder organizations is mounting an orchestrated, statewide attack on a proven and increasingly popular method for saving farmland, known as Purchase of Development Rights (PDR). These groups are describing PDR as a pernicious plot even though such programs are completely voluntary. Administered by local government, PDRs help farmers who want to stay in agriculture by offering them sizeable cash payments in exchange for permanently surrendering their property’s development rights.

In recent months these groups have tried, and failed, to derail PDR proposals in Ann Arbor and Kent County. But as PDR catches on across the state, those often deep-pocketed groups are redoubling their efforts to convince people that saving open space through locally financed programs administered by local government is a bad idea. They insist that, somehow, doing nothing to control growth and simply allowing developers to design their own burgeoning communities around the folks that already live there is a sound idea. 

The latest battleground is Leelanau County and the lessons being learned by farmland conservation advocates is providing fair warning to all of Michigan about how the ideological groups operate.

Sprawl Is Spreading, People Are Organizing
Almost everything about northwest Michigan’s Leelanau County is unique. The little finger in Michigan’s mitt, it pokes out into Lake Michigan and boasts a perfect microclimate for growing cherries, apples, and grapes.

But people are now talking about PDR in Leelanau because trophy homes and condominium developments are rapidly sprouting amidst Leelanau’s orchards and vineyards. Between 1990 and 2000 the county’s population grew by 27 percent, to 21,119 — making Leelanau the seventh-fastest growing county in the state. Today, fully one-quarter of the county’s residents over five years old did not live there five years ago. Not surprisingly, most of the growth is occurring outside of established villages. Kasson and Suttons Bay townships, for example, grew by 38 percent over the same period.

And these figures do not even fully reflect just how much construction is occurring in Leelanau, because more than 4,000 of the county’s existing 13,000 living units are seasonal homes. So, their occupants do not even show up in the census. In other words, Leelanau County is rapidly developing a bad case of sprawl.

Starkly Different Reactions
This is sparking two starkly different reactions among local residents. One group of citizens is organizing to preserve their county’s farmland with a PDR program. Purchase of Development Rights programs pay farmers the difference between the value of their land for development, and the value for agricultural use. Residents of Peninsula Township, north of Traverse City, established the first PDR program in northern Michigan and one of the first in the Middle West. 

Voters in Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor Township in November established a $100 million program to conserve 8,000 acres in Washtenaw County. The PDR program there will pay farmers as much as $12,000 an acre to permanently preserve their land solely for agriculture. Development rights in Leelanau County are likely to be worth roughly a third of that amount.

But opponents to a PDR program for Leelanau County are joining up with an organized, statewide backlash against land preservation that is based on extremely ideological positions concerning taxes, free markets, property rights, and opposition to government. They are mounting attacks on the program’s supporters in an attempt to squelch debate, not foster it. Anti-PDR forces are noisily questioning motives, spreading misinformation, conjuring false concerns, and even opposing voting on the question.

The leaders of the statewide attack are the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Lansing-based Michigan Association of Home Builders. Both organizations have adopted positions opposing any public interference with policies that encourage or discourage sprawl, iincluding and especially local PDR millage campaigns.

Depending on who’s talking, the arguments such groups raise against PDR are based on highly inaccurate information, simplistic ideology, or both. Those who can afford to buy their own open space may see other people banding together to do the same thing through their local government as objectionable, but the rest of us simply see it as democracy in action. Democracy certainly worked well for PDR in Kent County last year, where citizens overcame home builder opposition and convinced county commissioners to approve a PDR ordinance.  

Four Reasons to Support PDR
Here are some reasons why PDR programs are proving to be such effective and popular ways to help control sprawl, keep farmers in agriculture, and preserve open spaces:

First, PDRs are nothing more, or less, than highly specialized economic development programs applied to rural areas. Usually, economic development means spending taxpayer money to build sewers and roads and underwrite tax write-offs that lure new businesses to areas designated by local governments for commercial or industrial development. PDR programs simply channel that tax money to established businesses — farms. PDR programs provide cash to help farmers make the daunting transition from commodity agriculture, which is destroying small and medium-sized farms across the country, to more capital-intensive, profitable forms of agriculture that can survive outside of the cutthroat global commodities market.

Second, PDRs apply all American, free market principles in a creative way. How much are voters willing to spend on such a program? How much are farmers willing to sell their development rights for? What’s the going price for developable land in the region? There’s plenty of choice here; the local government simply administers a plan that willing farmers and a majority of voters agree on.

Third, PDRs help slow the loss of family farms, which, thanks to state subsidies and poor land use policies that accelerate sprawl, are on the verge of extinction. The programs not only help farmers stay in business by infusing their operations with badly needed capital, they make it easier for the next generation of farmers to purchase the land because it holds down prices.

Finally, PDRs actually save people money. Sprawling development, while an apparent bargain when families first buy into a brand new subdivision, rapidly becomes no bargain at all. The cycle is utterly predictable: More people move in, requiring wider roads, more public safety personnel and equipment, and much longer runs for more sewers and water mains that must be extended out into the countryside. To pay for all of this, local taxes soar to rates well beyond those typical to PDR programs. Personal transportation costs go through the roof as two-car families mature into three- and four-car families so that everyone can get around in areas bereft of sidewalks, nearby stores, and public transportation.

Learning the Hard Way
PDR opponents shrug off these quite practical and factual arguments in favor of rigid ideologies about non-existent free markets. Worse, anti-PDR folks often mount personal attacks on the programs’ supporters and their motives. While such accusatory poison is all too common in the halls of government, it is intolerable when dumped on neighbors who are attempting to protect what they deeply value about their community. Such tactics hurt community cohesion by disparaging people who are trying to do what they think is right, play by the rules, pay the same tax as everyone else, and realize no personal benefit from a PDR millage.

In Leelanau County, long time local citizens are organizing to fight such zealotry; in fact the struggle is actually strengthening their resolve and helping them find more supporters. These are people who understand that local government is a good thing — democracy in action. These solid citizens believe that a community should control its own destiny.

They also offer a profound lesson to the rest of the state. We would all do well to learn from them and ready ourselves to counter the backlash coming from vested interests that fear that much-needed land use reform in Michigan somehow harms them. It’s up to those who still believe in democracy to be ready to fight back when that backlash arrives.

Jim Lively is the planner at the Michigan Land Use Institute and director of the Leelanau Smart Growth Coalition. You can reach him at jim@mlui.org.

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