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Up North, Voters Weigh Buying Farmers’ Development Rights

Successful five-township ballot could energize preservation programs statewide

October 10, 2004 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Residents of five northern Michigan townships vote next month on a 1-mill property tax increase that would be used to preserve 10,000 acres of scenic farmland.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Acme Township Trustee Chuck Walter vehemently opposes a ballot proposal that voters in his township and four others east of here will consider on November 2. Mr. Walter, whose trustee voting record suggests he favors the traditional suburban development model, thinks it is up to farmers, not their neighbors, to protect their land from sprawl. All they have to do, he says, is refuse to sell it to developers.

“Farmers who are so dedicated to preserving land should just put in their deed that it not be developed,” he said. “Why do they have to be paid if they’re that committed?”

The ballot proposal would pay farmers to permanently waive their often extremely valuable development rights. Farmers who support the ballot would likely respond to Mr. Walter’s blunt challenge with a similarly blunt answer: They are badly stretched by depressed agricultural commodity and land prices. They need more capital to fund either their retirement or retooling their operations into more profitable enterprises. They could still sell their farms as farms instead of as sites for more suburban dream homes.

Voters in the five townships must decide whether to tax themselves 1 mill for 10 years to purchase development rights from farmers who are willing to sell them in this highly attractive area of rolling hills and beautiful bays in Grand Traverse and Antrim Counties. The millage would fund a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program that would raise up to $10 million. Paired with money from land conservancies and federal grants, the revenue could purchase development rights to half of the 20,000 acres in the townships that are now farms.

The townships’ PDR proposal raises a fundamental question about how communities should grow. Moreover, the decision voters in Elk Rapids, Milton, Torch Lake, Whitewater, and Acme Townships will make could have state and national significance because it happens in a region that many are looking to for proof that the public is willing to pursue a different path to prosperity, one that eschews rapid suburbanization in favor of Smart Growth principles. There is strong support in this region for preserving farmland and open spaces, and growing awareness that emphasizing more compact land use enhances quality of life.

Wayne Kladder, who lives in Acme Township and chairs the Committee for Farmland and Open Space Preservation, which is campaigning to pass the PDR millage in the five townships, believes the millage and the program it would support are important ways for the public to express itself in the marketplace for farmland and open space.

“If each generation did what it could, this would always be a great place,” he said. “It’s our turn now, and we need to protect it.”

And, despite his opposition to the concept and the tax increase, Mr. Walter realizes that the civic tide may be turning against the long-prevailing views that suburban growth across farmland and forests is good for the economy and that private property rights trump public concerns about pollution, traffic congestion, and loss of community.

“I made the motion to put the millage on the ballot,” Mr. Walter said. “I did that because I feel it’s the public’s right to decide.”

In Northern Michigan, Smart Growth Rising
In fact, the upcoming PDR ballot is just one of many ways in which people in northwest Lower Michigan are making new kinds of decisions about land use. They are reacting to the disquieting prospect that very rapid population growth could quickly transform their scenic area into something that looks like any other strip of America consumed by convenience stores, neon signs, badly clogged traffic, and mall-sized office buildings and parking lots.

Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show Michigan losing farmland at a rate of 8 acres per hour. The state has lost nearly 1.5 million acres of farmland, or 13 percent of its agricultural land base, in slightly more than 20 years. The problem is particularly acute here in northern Lower Michigan, where the population is growing at more than 20 percent per decade — among the Midwest’s highest growth rates.

With its brilliant Lake Michigan shoreline, quiet rural towns, and diverse economy, the region is attracting many investors eager to cash in on that growth. Superstore proposals, massive indoor water parks, and everyday housing developments are testing the strength of the area’s support of Smart Growth alternatives to sprawl. Many local residents are responding by pushing their leaders toward new land use policies like PDR, voting to stop damaging development, and even opening their wallets to help their cause.

For example, in June, Traverse City won one of Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s coveted $100,000 “Cool Cities” grants for a project that will grow local jobs by using the talents and skills of people who are already here, particularly entrepreneurial farmers and creative artists. In mid-summer, faced with strong and growing citizen opposition, Wal-Mart  withdrew a proposal to build a big-box store on the outskirts of Charlevoix. And in August, the Grand Traverse County Road Commission suspended its push to build a disputed highway and bridge across the Boardman River valley. The county is now working with local leaders and groups toward a comprehensive land use and transportation study to identify the best, most environmentally wise transportation plan.

The demand for a new approach to development has surfaced at the ballot box as well. The August primary saw a number of township trustees in the region who favored traditional development models voted out of office. That was particularly true in Acme Township. There voters replaced the entire board of trustees after incumbents, including Mr. Walter, who did not seek re-election, continued to push for a plan to turn farm fields and orchards into one of the largest housing and commercial developments ever proposed for northern Lower Michigan.

Smart Investments
Supporters of the five-township PDR proposal view development rights purchases as investments that will pay significant dividends for generations. Open land requires about one-quarter of the taxpayer dollars that new residential areas need for emergency crews, road building and maintenance, and water, sewer, and other municipal services, says Mr. Kladder.

Many PDR proponents point out that a small property tax increase now could spare residents a number of larger ones in the future by minimizing governments’ costs through more compact development. PDR proponents also point to two bonuses: Quality-of-life enhancements such as environmental protection and serene open spaces, and new economic strength for rural communities and local agriculture.

Denny Hoxsie, a farmer from Acme Township who is seeking to expand the farm market side of his operation, supports his township’s PDR millage proposal. He believes it can both help to finance transitions like the one his operation is already making, and guarantee that, even when townships’ zoning ordinances are under expensive legal attack by deep-pocketed developers, progress on curbing sprawl can continue. 

“For me, as a farmer, it’s another tool for the township to control growth as much as we can,” he said of the PDR proposal. “We’ve got a big challenge in Acme Township, with our zoning ordinance continually being tested right to the most minute detail.”

Traverse City Leads

Some PDR supporters see next month’s vote in five townships as a possible turning point for the state. That is because, while PDR programs are in process or fully adopted in 23 of Michigan’s 83 counties, only three — in the city and township of Ann Arbor, and in Grand Traverse County’s Peninsula Township on Old Mission Peninsula — have millages that actually finance them. And those elections have at times been close.

In 2002, Peninsula Township voters renewed a millage to expand and extend the state’s first PDR program, which began in 1994. The renewal passed 58 to 42 percent. Not bad, but close enough for a township that had already demonstrated tremendous success over the program’s first eight years by protecting one-third of the farmland it targeted and stimulating renewed interest in agriculture. There is a waiting list for farmers who want to buy land from which development rights have already been purchased.

In Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor Township last fall, a ballot proposal to extend an expiring millage to purchase development rights and non-farm land in a patchy “greenbelt” around the city received strong voter approval at 67 percent and 77 percent respectively. The success came, however, only after a previous, resounding defeat in 1998 of a countywide PDR proposal that homebuilders groups opposed with a $400,000 war chest. That experience persuaded PDR organizers to limit last year’s proposal to the more supportive population of the city and township.

Acme campaign director Kladder and Scott Everett, a consultant to the effort and regional director for the nonprofit American Farmland Trust, a national organization that works for farmland preservation, believe communities across the state are watching the PDR vote here and will follow with their own millage proposals if it succeeds.

“Townships and counties downstate are looking at this,” said Mr. Kladder. “If this works here, it tells them it could work down there.”

“You can’t force this issue,” said Mr. Everett. “Farmers up here have really come to the table on this. They believe farming has a future up here, and they believe the farmland and open space preservation program is key to that future.”

Patty Cantrell, a journalist and economist, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute's Entrepreneurial Agriculture project. Reach her at patty@mlui.org.

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