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Leelanau Group Eyes Different Way to Preserve Farms

‘Community trust’ would keep farms active, build affordable housing

June 14, 2007 | By Julie Hay
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Members of Spirit of Place want to keep Leelanau County’s land and housing prices low to for aspiring new farmers and working families.

EMPIRE—Most Sunday afternoons a small group of organic farmers, gardeners, and retirees meet in Mary Ann and Reuben Chapman’s living room to discuss a very big idea: making it easier for new farmers and young families to settle in Leelanau County, the gorgeous but increasingly pricey peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan’s northeastern coast.

The nine people, who call their group Spirit of Place, imbue the Chapman’s living room with an air of quiet determination and patience—exactly what they will need to advance their innovative project. The challenge they face is particularly tough in Leelanau, where most of them live, because the county’s beauty—and the tourism and agriculture that come with it—work against their efforts.

The more that people visit this land of cherry trees and vineyards, the more they want to build their dream homes here. This means that aspiring new farmers and young working families face soaring land and housing prices, and that the scenery faces a steady assault by bulldozers and suburban-style development. In fact, this peninsula—the one that forms "Michigan’s pinkie finger"—has lost more than 10,000 acres of farmland to development since 1990. Today Leelanau is the state’s seventh-fastest-growing county.

Yet Spirit of Place members are confident that they have found a land preservation tool—called a "community land trust"—that works for their ambitious goals. They prefer such a trust to the more typical way of saving farmland—privately funded "conservation easements" that exchange cash for a farm’s development rights—because easements do not necessarily keep the protected land in agricultural production. And keeping farms in business is crucial to Spirit of Place, as is growing the local food economy, fostering affordable intergenerational housing, and defending at least part of the county from sprawling development.

Common Problem, Uncommon Tactics
The Spirit of Place effort comes on the heels of last November’s attempt to pass a countywide purchase of development rights (PDR) ballot initiative in Leelanau. Though voters in nearby Grand Traverse County’s Old Mission and Acme Townships approved the public funding of conservation easements that are protecting some of their farmland--the Old Mission vote actually renewed a longstanding program that is indeed helping many vintners and orchardists there stay in business--Leelanau voters soundly rejected a similar initiative.

Alison Heins, who went door to door urging her neighbors to support the Leelanau proposal, is an active Spirit of Place member. The retired biologist said she hopes those who want to protect Leelanau from unwise development are not giving up on the county, despite the hostility of many of its residents toward using tax dollars to protect its beauty.

"I hope people realize that even though PDR failed, there are still people working hard to preserve farmland here," said Ms. Heins.

Spirit of Place, wary of the strongly anti-government sentiment that so many other county residents hold, is staying away from elections, however. Instead, the group is consulting with and learning from Equity Trust, a national, 16-year-old non-profit organization based in Turner Falls, Mass., that, according to its Web site, helps communities "gain ownership interests in their food, land, and housing."

Ellie Kastanopolous, executive director of Equity Trust, said Leelanau County’s story is quite familiar to her organization.

"Leelanau County has the age-old issue," said Ms. Kastanopolous. "It’s such an attractive place to be. It has a very rural feel and this creates a very attractive environment for a second home."

But, she said, traditional conservation easements can actually make it harder to keep farms in production and home prices affordable.

"There’s a growing market for lands that have conservation easements on them," Ms. Kastanopolous said. "There are people looking for retirement homes or second homes—and they like to buy land that can’t be developed. These types of buyers have been driving up the cost of easements so that they become totally unreachable to farmers."

She added that community land trusts are a way for communities to take ownership of their land, housing choices, and food supply. "Most communities would like a secure food source. Investing in small farms makes sense," she said.

Ms. Heins agrees.

"It is so wrong for me when I see food coming from so far away," Ms. Heins said. "Local food has become more and more important to me. The community land trust model really fits with my concern for food and community."

That, she said, is because the trust that Spirit of Place envisions would keep land within the financial reach of new farmers, young working families, and seniors.

Community Land Trust 101
Spirit of Place will offer conservation easements that erase a parcel’s development potential, but those easements will, unlike traditional arrangements, mandate that the land remains in active agriculture. The easements will also cap land values by placing actual ownership of the property in the hands of the not-for-profit trust.

The Spirit plan is very similar to one that affordable housing advocates use: A person buys a home, but a trust owns the land beneath it. Spirit of Place will allow residents and farmers to own their homes and the building they use for farming, like barns and greenhouses, as well as the equity from any additional investments they make in such structures. When residents or farmers sell, the trust will allow homeowners to recover their investments in the buildings, plus inflation. But they will not profit from the land’s rising value.

In fact, no one will profit from that rise, which will keep the overall price of moving into the farms or houses affordable—easing the way for the next generation of farmers and families.

"We want to encourage people of goodwill to invest their resources for the benefit of the whole," said Spirit member Gary Woodcock, who views much of the land pricing that goes on in his county as "predatory real estate."

Currently, Spirit of Place is mostly taking advice from Ms. Kastanopolous, and several members are taking community college classes about forming and operating non-profit organizations. Then the group will begin its fundraising and start looking for land for their project—which could turn out to be either one large piece of land or several smaller parcels. The project will combine active farms and affordable homes on land owned by the trust; members hope that they will be able to borrow money from Equity Trust’s revolving loan fund.

These days, with their county and their personal lives now buzzing with summer visitors and outdoor activities, the Spirit people are cutting down their meeting schedule. They have also moved their gatherings from the Chapmans’ snug living room to their breezy front porch. But although their tempo and setting have changed, the members remain confident that a community land trust will soon have a place in Leelanau County.

Julie Hay is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Leelanau County policy specialist. Reach her at julie@mlui.org

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