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On Magnificent Peninsula, A Grassroots Tussle Over Preserving Farmland

In Leelanau, embracing the market vs. taxes and ‘interference’

October 24, 2006 | By Julie Hay
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Ed Collins
  Leelanau County residents will vote on a farmland preservation measure that would protect the beauty and the twin economies—agriculture and tourism—of one of Michigan’s prettiest peninsulas.

LEELANAU COUNTY— A long push to preserve working farmland in this scenic Michigan peninsula is sparking one of the most vigorous grassroots electoral contests over land use that the region has ever seen.

The contest climaxes on Nov. 7, when citizens here vote on a countywide ballot measure to permanently protect thousands of acres of Leelanau farmland from development. The measure, listed on the ballot as “Proposal to Preserve Leelanau County Farmland,” would be the first in Michigan that would operate throughout an entire county, rather than at the township or city level. It proposes a 15-year, half-mil property tax to raise more than $20 million to purchase the development rights, but not the land, of growers who volunteer for the program and who might otherwise sell those rights, along with their land, to residential or commercial developers.

Driving the campaign for preservation is the realization that developers have, since 1990, replaced more than 10,000 acres of the orchards, vineyards, and farmland at the core of Leelanau County’s economy with growing numbers of homes. The rapid pace of construction makes Leelanau the state’s seventh fastest growing county.

Opponents of the preservation program say that it raises taxes unnecessarily, interferes with free markets by involving government in business decisions, and will keep young families out of Leelanau by pushing up land prices.

Proponents, however, point to similar farmland preservation programs installed in the past few decades across America that they say are curbing sprawl, fortifying rural economies, and preserving tourist-friendly scenery. The programs have been particularly successful in rural areas of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland, where development pressures arrived long ago, spurring the invention of the market-based approach to land preservation that Leelanau is now considering.

With one exception, Michigan has only recently begun using such programs. That exception is on Old Mission Peninsula, directly across West Traverse Bay from here, where Peninsula Township voters approved a similar program 12 tears ago. Its initial success at controlling sprawl, preserving spectacular views, and keeping working farms in business led citizens there to vote for renewing and expanding the program by an even wider margin four years ago.

Campaigning for farmland preservation in Leelanau is Save Leelanau Farmland, a group of farmers, retirees, business owners, conservationists, and two local organizations—The Leelanau Conservancy and the Michigan Land Use Institute, a longtime proponent of farmland preservation programs. Opposing preservation is Leelanau Taxpayers United, which includes farmers, business owners, and The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a pro-free market, Midland-based think tank that began campaigning here against farmland preservation proposals almost three years ago. Both sides are raising money, dotting the county with yard signs, speaking at community forums and on local talk radio shows, and filling the local papers’ editorial pages with fiercely emotional letters.

The preservation proposal has attracted the support of several groups that generally frown on tax hikes, including the Leelanau County Chamber of Commerce, Suttons Bay Chamber of Commerce, and the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. All say they support the proposal because it will promote tourism, agriculture, and jobs in the area.

Tough on Young Families?
Tom Triebes, who chairs Leelanau Taxpayers United, worked for 25 years in the chemical industry before retiring in Leelanau County in 2000. Mr. Triebes now sits on the Leelanau County Farmland Preservation Board, the body that would administer the program he opposes, and owns and lives on 125 acres in Maple City.

Mr. Triebes thinks of himself as a farmer because he operates a timber business on his Leelanau property. These days, however, he’s thinking less about logging and more about the damage he claims the farmland preservation proposal would do to Leelanau’s more than 21,000 residents.

“It is simply going to make Leelanau more expensive to live in,” he claimed. “It will be tougher for young people starting out and rough on the schools. I like to live in a cosmopolitan area with all types of people. I don’t want to live with a bunch of rich people.”

Mr. Triebes added that places like Monterey County, Calif. prove his point. He said that a farmland preservation program there has made it impossible to buy land. He also pointed to “the fairness question,” maintaining that only a relatively small number of people—farmers who apply for and are admitted to the preservation program—will receive money and thus benefit from the program.

“I do not agree with taking from some for the common wellbeing of a few,” Mr. Triebes said. He predicts that few farmers in the county would ever apply for such a program and that it would prove to be a waste of time and money.

Good for Young Farmers?
But George Wellman, president of Save Leelanau Farmland, sees things very differently. That is because, he said, he and his wife Jill hail from Pennsylvania, where they saw the effects of one of America’s first farmland preservation programs, in adjacent Lancaster County.

“They have the most successful example of farmland preservation in the country,” Mr. Wellman said of Lancaster, which is famous nationally for both its status as a preservation pioneer and the program’s success in curbing sprawl and fostering a vigorous rural economy. “The whole way of life out there was very beautiful.”

Another Leelanau resident, Don Coe, managing partner at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, president of the Leelanau County Economic Development Corporation, and a state agriculture commissioner, disputed Mr. Triebes’ real estate predictions.

Mr. Coe pointed out that, because participating farmers will have already surrendered their development rights in exchange for cash from the preservation program, the price they get for the land itself when they eventually sell will reflect its value as a farm, not as a potential suburb.

“This proposal will attract young farm families to the county,” he asserted, “because number one, affordable farmland will be available and number two, it will ensure that taxes are kept low so that other families can afford to live here.”

Mr. Coe explained that farmland preservation keeps local taxes low because it curbs sprawling development, which is very expensive for municipalities: It requires the costly spreading out of services such as water, sewer, education, and public safety across very large areas, instead of confining them to much smaller locales.

A fact sheet published by Ohio State University confirms Mr. Coe’s point. It found that, on average, for every dollar collected in tax and non-tax revenue from typical, new suburban residential developments, between $1.15 and $1.50 must be returned in the way of service. By contrast, according to the study, farmland requires between just 30 and 50 cents.

Mr. Coe also rejects the argument that the preservation program will only benefit a few farmers at everyone else’s expense: “Preservation of our quality of life, the environment, and our agriculture and tourism economies benefit everyone.”

Affordability and Permanence
Ron Krummel, the housing coordinator for the Leelanau County Planning and Community Development Office, which works to bring affordable housing to the county, rejects Mr. Triebes’ worries about pricing out young, non-farming families.

Mr. Krummel, who is currently overseeing the construction of two affordable homes in the village of Empire and new townhouses in the village of Lake Leelanau, said that developments offering affordable housing are rarely built in the countryside.

“Typically our plan is to build into or adjacent to existing villages,” he said. “That’s not where the farmland is that will be preserved.” He added: “The amount of farmland to be preserved is small compared to all the land available. Traditionally the largest barriers to home ownership are credit and income.”

Mr. Wellman, the leader of the pro-preservation effort, added that the measure could help the income side of that equation as well.

“This proposal will invest in agriculture and tourism, and that brings jobs to the area,” he said. “We need jobs to bring families here.”

Other local affordable housing advocates largely agree that the farmland preservation proposal will have no effect on housing affordability in the area. They continue to point out that the biggest barriers to building housing that young working families can afford are tax policies and zoning laws that make less-expensive, high density development difficult to accomplish.

Preservation proponents also reject claims that Leelanau’s sprawl can be curbed with proper zoning. They point to the frequent inability of Michigan townships to successfully defend their zoning laws against determined developers with deep pockets and argue that attaching a permanent ban on development to a deed in exchange for money works best. Such voluntary, market-based agreements, they point out, can never be challenged in court.

Nervous, but Fun
As Election Day draws near, both sides appear nervous about the outcome. Both Mr. Triebes and Mr. Wellman see themselves as the underdog. Mr. Triebes says preservation proponents have a big fundraising advantage and are outspending his opposing organization by a 10-to-1 margin.

Mr. Wellman, on the other hand, thinks preservation opponents have an advantage because they can simply pump up a perennially popular message: taxes are bad.” He adds that many of the oppositional arguments are what he calls “what ifs”—negative scenarios meant to divert attention from what he regards as the real issue.

“It takes time to show people the value in this tax,” he said. “People understand the quality of life argument, but the economic benefit is harder to explain. It takes a little more thought to understand it.”

Gil Bogley, a Lake Leelanau retiree who has been walking door-to-door in the county to talk with fellow citizens about the proposal, which he supports, confirms that observation. 

“It’s actually kind of fun,” Mr. Bogley said of the canvassing. “People were always pleasant and interested. About 25 percent of the people did know about the issue. When you explain it, it dawns on them that it’s a good thing to do.”



November 17, 2006

Farmland Preservation Measure Defeated

 (Traverse City Record Eagle) — A majority of Leelanau County commissioners support scrapping a county-sponsored farmland preservation program after voters soundly rejected a new tax to fund it.
The county sought a 0.5-mill levy at the Nov. 7 election for the next 15 years to purchase willing farmers' property development rights. Voters turned down the new tax by a margin of 7,265 to 4,426.
Commissioners this week voted 5-2 at their executive committee meeting to rescind the county farmland preservation ordinance that dates to 2002. Mary Tonneberger and David Shiflett cast the opposing votes. A final decision is scheduled for the board's Nov. 21 meeting. Terminating the preservation ordinance would disband the county's farmland preservation board and end the program it administers. The county has not purchased any development rights from farmers because it lacks local funding. County Administrator David Gill said the move would free about $13,500 per year budgeted for the farmland preservation board. But he said that money wasn't the central concern he heard from commissioners. "I think the issue for them was the amount of the no votes,” he said. "They saw it as a mandate.”



November 23, 2006

Commissioners End Farmland Preservation Program

LELAND (Traverse City Record Eagle) — Commissioners voted 5-1 Tuesday to scrap Leelanau County's farmland preservation program, taking the disputed action before a packed and divided audience. "We've wrestled with this for years,” said Commissioner Mark Walter, who voted to repeal the ordinance and shut down a preservation board. Walter said that in the four years it existed, the preservation board was asked repeatedly to find funds other than county tax money. The 7,265-4,426 defeat of a 15-year, .5-mill request on Nov. 7 finally prompted backers to commit to look for other funding, Walter said. "Obviously, it took an action like this for them to stand up and say, 'OK, maybe this is what we should do,'” Walter said. "The voters stated 2 to 1 that it was unacceptable. We need to start from scratch.” Commissioner David Shiflett, the lone dissenting vote, said voters weren't asked whether they wanted to end the program. "There's no rush for us to rescind this; we have time,” Shiflett said.

Julie Hay is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Leelanau County policy specialist. You can reach her at julie@mlui.org. Click ­here to read a Great Lakes Bulletin News Service special online series about the importance of farming to Michigan’s economy.
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