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In Kent County, Stirring A Plan To Protect Farmland

Around a healthy city, room to grow — and debate

September 18, 2002 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Approximately 32 percent of Kent County’s 547,840 total acres is used for agriculture. If the proposed farmland protection plan proves successful it will preserve approximately 17 percent for crops and livestock.

Grand Rapids, MI — A plan to permanently protect 93,000 acres of agricultural land over the next decade, one of the most ambitious local farmland preservation programs in the nation, is gaining momentum here in Kent County as local leaders embrace a new approach to better manage urban development and keep farmers in business.

A working group of farm, business, political, and environmental leaders will publicly introduce aspects of the plan on September 19, 2002 in the Grand Rapids Township Hall

But even as the first phase of the ambitious land protection program steadily gains credibility in and around Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second largest metropolitan region, local homebuilders and realtors are preparing a vigorous opposition campaign, contending that the publicly-financed project would limit housing construction.

The debate demonstrates the growing public interest here and across Michigan for effective state and local policies to curb the negative effects of sprawling development. Both major party gubernatorial candidates also express concern about development that is moving ever farther into the countryside, making it more difficult to farm, and causing economic hardship for most of Michigan’s major cities.

Democrat Jennifer Granholm proposes a comprehensive response that includes investing in cities and farmland preservation, evaluating and ending taxpayer subsidies that cause sprawl, establishing a state land use commission, and other steps favored by planners, environmental organizations, and urban leaders. Republican Dick Posthumus, a farmer from southeastern Kent County, said he favors a constitutional amendment to lower farmland taxes, long-term regional plans to protect agriculture, as well as eliminating environmental regulations that he considers unnecessary for farmers.

Time is Ripe in Grand Rapids

The issue of how and where to plan for future development has come to a head in fast-growing Kent County, the state’s fifth largest farm producer, in part because the region’s highly fertile soils and stable climate still support a $121 million farm industry. The centerpiece is the scenic Fruit Ridge, just north of Grand Rapids, which remains one of the most productive fruit growing regions in the world.

But new housing, malls, roads, and other development has pushed steadily into the Fruit Ridge and other rural areas over the past two decades. As Kent County’s population grew to approximately 575,000, an 18 percent increase over the last 20 years, the area of urbanized land grew by 78 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kent County lost approximately 13 percent of its cropland from 1982 to 1997.

The transformation of the region’s landscape united a broad group of citizen, political, and business leaders who began several years ago to seriously discuss how to change the pattern of growth. Kent County commissioned a special task force that last year published Urban Sprawl Report on development trends and warned that unless decisive and immediate action was taken to manage growth, sprawling development will ultimately degrade the region’s future quality of life and economic competitiveness.

That report recommended coordinating countywide planning, adopting modern policies to protect both water quality and quantity, and working closely with United Growth for Kent County, a citizens group, to promote improved regional land use policies. The report also recommended acting over the next ten years to guarantee that 93,000 acres — half of the county’s existing farmland — remains in agricultural production.

The county initially proposed to protect half of that amount — approximately 47,000 acres of farmland — with a "purchase of development rights" program. Kent County is one of seven Michigan counties currently developing purchase of development rights programs (PDR) to save farmland. County officials said they want to protect the balance with a separate farmland preservation program.

Action on PDR in Lansing, Elsewhere

Michigan Governor John Engler and the state legislature specifically authorized and encouraged local PDR programs in 2000. The program allows land owners to voluntarily sell the development rights to their property at fair market value in return for a permanent conservation easement. The value of the "development right" equals the difference between the value of the land for development and the value as farmland or undeveloped open space. Such rights are typically worth $3,500 to $5,000 per acre.

Such PDR programs already are in place in northern Michigan’s Peninsula Township and southeast Michigan’s Washtenaw County. Establishing a statewide PDR program is an important environmental policy plank in Jennifer Granholm’s gubernatorial campaign. Dick Posthumus also supports PDR programs that are developed with local land development plans.

"This idea has been around for nearly 30 years," said Stacy Sheridan, a consultant with Rural Partners of Michigan, a statewide organization focused on preserving rural culture. "New programs typically start slowly. But PDR really becomes popular as communities recognize the economic value of preserving farmland and open space. In Pennsylvania, for example, there’s a waiting list of farmers who want to protect their land."

Approximately 32 percent of Kent County’s 547,840 total acres is used for agriculture. If the proposed 10-year farmland protection plan proves successful, it will preserve approximately 17 percent of all available land for crops and livestock.

"Kent County is the first county in Michigan to make a statement about how much agricultural land they’re willing to preserve," Ms. Sheridan added. "Their target goal is to protect half of all remaining farmland. This is exactly the kind of commitment it takes to develop successful farmland preservation programs in Michigan."

The 19-member Kent County Board of Commissioners indicated its intention to finance a countywide PDR in 2001. The Urban Sprawl Report estimated that the 10-year program could cost the county $30 million. Exactly how the money will be generated remains uncertain. But county officials said they would likely seek matching funds from the state as well as from local townships where preservation would occur. By creating a PDR program this fall, county leaders also said they hope to become eligible for a portion of the $100 million that Congress approved earlier this year to agricultural preservation over the next decade.

Influential Opponents

But how long Kent County elected leaders remain committed to the idea of a PDR program is uncertain. The November election will change the members of the Kent County Board of Commissioners. In addition, two important development organizations, the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors, and the Home and Building Association of Greater Grand Rapids, adamantly oppose the plan and are organizing to stop it.

"We are unanimously concerned about the prospect of putting 93,000 acres into a taxpayer funded farmland preservation program," said Judy Barnes, the executive vice president and CEO of the homebuilder organization. "That is a significant amount of acreage to take out of the pool of available land."

The homebuilder group asserted in a position paper issued last month that the proposed PDR program would have a devastating impact on the cost of land and increase the purchase price of new homes. They also argued that tax funds should not be used to acquire property that the general public can not use.

Among the influential opponents is Dan Hibma, a builder from Grand Rapids who is chairman of the Land Development and Utilities committee at the homebuilders association and a member of the Legislative Committee at the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors. Mr. Hibma also is married to Terri Lynn Land, the former Kent County Clerk and the Republican candidate for Secretary of State on Mr. Posthumus’ GOP ticket.

Supporters of the PDR program assert that the homebuilders are wrong in their critique. Protecting farmland, they say, will ensure the long-term health of the farm economy in Kent County, breathe new life into existing urban centers, and reduce municipal costs for new roads, sewers, schools, police, hospitals, and other publicly-financed infrastructure. They also assert that no sound economic evidence exists to confirm that protecting farmland drives up housing costs. New academic studies show home prices are determined in large measure by location and the quality of life in a community.

Points of agreement do exist between the opposing camps. Ms. Barnes of the home builders said she agrees that metropolitan Grand Rapids needs to improve regional growth patterns. She suggested that any county strategy should include improved zoning, more sensible street designs, and continued acquisition of parkland for recreation, all of which are popular measures in the region.

Support is Strong Despite Criticism

Supporters of PDR acknowledge that the proposed program is not a silver bullet for sprawl. They value the initiative primarily as a creative way to maintain prime farmland, protect rural character, and ensure agricultural production in the future.

"Farmland is extremely important to our local economy," said Rick Chapla, a redevelopment specialist with the Right Place Program, a nonprofit organization working to promote economic growth in greater Grand Rapids. "Agriculture is more than a major land use in Kent County. It employs a significant number of people, generates a lot of money, and makes safe, affordable, locally grown food readily available to our communities."

Mr. Chapla applauds Kent County officials for recognizing that alternatives to traditional growth patterns exist. He also suggested that a successful PDR program, if carefully administered, eventually could produce a more attractive quality of life for the region’s residents.

"There’s a connection between maintaining vibrant rural cultures and enhancing vitality in urban areas," Mr. Chapla said. "Folks like to leave the hustle and bustle of the city and visit the wide open countryside. Psychologically, green space and farmland are an important piece of the lifestyle that west Michigan has to offer."

Andy Guy, an environmental journalist, manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s regional office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org.

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