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Dairy Farms or More Suburbia?

Lapeer’s farmland preservation drive unites many people

August 1, 2006 | By Julie Hay
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Supporters of farmland preservation in Lapeer County worked eight years to get the question on the ballot. The vote is Tuesday, Aug. 8

With an abundance of summertime rain putting his corn about two weeks ahead of schedule, this year’s growing season has been kind to Lapeer County dairy farmer Louis Martus. 

“All in all I can’t complain,” said Mr. Martus.

Yet, even with good weather, Mr. Martus is worried about something—the sprawling development encroaching on his county’s open land.

Mr. Martus, who uses the corn he grows on his 900-acre centennial farm to feed his dairy cattle, is part of Lapeer County’s $50 million per year dairy industry nestled among the hills, rivers, and lakes north of metro Detroit and east of Flint. Development heading toward Lapeer from those cities has many worried that bedroom communities will replace Lapeer’s most important economic activity.

That is why, on August 8, Mr. Martus and neighbors will vote on a unique ballot initiative—a 0.6 mil, eight-year property tax that would be the first of its kind in Michigan. It would preserve farmland by paying farmers cash for permanently surrendering their land’s development rights. The initiative, voted onto the ballot unanimously by the county’s one Democratic and six Republican commissioners, would also support county and township parks and recreation programs.

Even though Mr. Martus sold his own farm’s development rights to the state eight years ago and, along with six other farms, formed a 1,400-acre block of permanently preserved farmland, he’s chairing the Preserving Our Farmland and Parks committee that is pushing the initiative.

“We need to develop agricultural zones just like we would do with business zones,” said Mr. Martus. “I’ve seen where you have farmers with housing developments right beside them. It makes it hard to farm. It’s important for our next generation of farmers to have the townships and county back them.”

It is also important to the state’s economy, according to a recent study by Michigan State University’s Land Policy Program. Continued suburbanization, the study found, will permanently damage Michigan’s second-largest industry—farming. Other preservation advocates note that sprawling development drives up property taxes because it requires expensive new infrastructure. Still others add that the traffic congestion and pavement generated by suburban development boosts air and water pollution while lowering quality of life.

Such challenges to farm economies and the environment are occurring across Michigan and the country, sparking many elections like the one Lapeer holds next week. And, advocates say, the realization that a small tax increase now, spent on preserving farms, can prevent larger increases later, is helping them win many of those votes. 

A Way of Life, Threatened
Like other counties around the country that are considering or have passed farmland preservation initiatives, Lapeer’s growth is accelerating. Since 1985, suburban style residential development has flattened more than 40,000 acres of farmland and other open space there.

“That’s the size of two townships,” Mr. Martus points out.

Linda Stone, who has lived in Lapeer County for 39 years, is not happy with how the landscape around her is changing. This registered nurse and mother of three said she values the farmland, the gaming areas, and the public parks that make the county so beautiful and fears that overdevelopment threatens that beauty, and a way of life.

“Lapeer County has grown tremendously in the past 20 years,” she said. “There is a need to maintain what is left of the county's open spaces, farmland, the integrity of our air and water quality, and wildlife habitat. There has been a loss of rural character, overwhelming traffic congestion, and over-commercialization surrounding the central downtown area.”

Ms. Stone said she will vote for the millage and hopes that other residents will, too.

The initiative would finance the permanent protection of about 16,000 acres—or about five percent—of Lapeer County’s working farmland. The millage would also preserve the county’s many agricultural jobs, guide future development into existing communities, and protect the quality of life of Lapeer’s more than 93,000 residents.

But not everyone in Lapeer favors the proposal, according to Dyle Henning, a county commissioner and preservation committee member.

“There is an anti-tax party here in the county, but we haven’t heard from them,” Mr. Henning said. “In the past they have been involved in defeating school millages.”

Howard Shepherd, who is a member of the statewide US Taxpayers/Constitution Party, has lived in Lapeer for seven years, commutes daily to Auburn Hills, and keeps just “a few cows” on a relatively small plot of land. He said he does not object to the development that is happening in the county. He opposes the preservation initiative because he thinks it would be short-sighted for farmers to permanently, albeit voluntarily, sell their development rights, and would only benefit a few specific farmers.

“It’s a decision that last forever, beyond the land, like a covenant,” Mr. Shepherd said. “You have to take the growth with the loss [of the farmland].” 

Success Stories
But many Americans see those arguments as the short sighted ones. They point to studies indicating that suburban development costs current and future residents of a rural community a lot of tax dollars. One study, from Lancaster County, Penn., found that, on average, residential development costs between $1.25 and $1.50 in municipal services for every tax dollar it generates, while farmland costs between just 25 and 50 cents for every tax dollar it generates.

That realization, along with others about how suburbanization affects the economy, the ecology, and the quality of life, have triggered strong support for similar proposals elsewhere. The number of farmland preservation success stories across the country is growing; the most notable one may be in Lancaster County, where between 1994 and 2001 a local program preserved two acres of farmland for every one acre lost to development.

New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state, has invested $465 million since 1985 to purchase development rights. In Maryland, residents alarmed by the idea of being reduced to a traffic conduit between Washington, D.C., and New York City are working aggressively with farmers to preserve agricultural lands in six counties.   

At least 23 Michigan counties have already approved mechanisms for purchasing development rights within their borders, but so far none have actually funded such programs with local taxpayers’ dollars

But several townships and one city have done so. Old Mission Peninsula Township, which bisects Grand Traverse Bay, installed a preservation millage in 1994. Eight years later, voters there renewed and increased the millage in order to preserve still more working farms.  Across the bay, Acme Township installed a farmland preservation millage earlier this year.

And residents of Ann Arbor and several surrounding townships approved land preservation millages over the past two years; the communities are using the tax dollars to purchase the development rights for a “greenbelt” around that college town that directs development into the city.

Recent developments have made local support of a farmland preservation fund crucial to its success. While Mr. Martus’ preservation money came from federal, state, and foundation funds, that was years ago—the state’s farmland budget, now very tight, currently requires a minimum 25 percent match of local funds for any preservation it supports.  The same is now true of federal preservation dollars.

Local Motion, Statewide Interest
That realization has driven Mr. Martus and a small group of similarly committed Lapeer County residents to work for preservation for eight years. It started when Mr. Martus and two other concerned residents gathered at a kitchen table and decided they needed to do something to protect their farmland  They eventually realized that, besides needing money to preserve farmland, the county and its townships also needed funding to keep the parks and recreation programs around Lapeer healthy.

Commissioner Henning sees the combined millage as a natural.

“They are all related—open space, parks, and farmland,” he said. “They all add to quality of life.” 

Since the approval by the commissioners, Mr. Henning and three of his board colleagues have been promoting the proposal. That further widens the already eclectic group of supporters that comprise the Preserving Our Farmland and Parks Committee. It offers a rare instance of bipartisan, demographically diverse teamwork in politically polarized times: Republicans, Democrats, Independents, farmers, and retirees are working together on the issue.

Leo Dorr, one of the members of the committee, is not active in local politics and is not a member of either political party. He thinks the non-partisan nature of the issue is one of the keys to staging a successful campaign.

“We have been very careful to include a lot people in this,” he said.

The fact that farming so dominates the county’s economy may be one reason the committee has been able to attract so much support.

“Dairy is the number one industry in Lapeer County,” Mr. Dorr said. “We need to preserve this industry that has been strong and viable. When you factor in all of the other industries that work with farms, there is a seven-fold multiplier effect.”

Mr. Martus believes the farming community he has been a part of for 33 years is generally supportive of this proposal. He admitted that some farmers do not want to preserve their land, but they do want other farmers to have the opportunity to do so. The local farm bureau is supporting the campaign; so is the Michigan Milk Producers, a nonprofit industry group.

Such active involvement by farmers in a local issue, Mr.Martus concedes, is unusual.

“Farmers are independent people,” he said. “Traditionally we don’t get involved with politics along this line. Farmers are great conservers of land. This is just another way to help.”  

Other farmland preservation advocates around Michigan are working on similar projects. Leelanau County will have a preservation initiative on its November ballot. Officials in Ottawa County are writing a farmland preservation ordinance; Muskegon County commissioners will appoint a subcommittee to explore farmland protection. And a group in Emmet County, Citizens for Open Space, is working to raise public awareness about the threat of overdevelopment that their rural county faces.

So a good number of people may be gathering around kitchen tables in Michigan next Tuesday night, hoping to catch word on whether dairy farms or subdivisions will prevail in Lapeer County.



August 9, 2006
Farmland Conservation Turned Down

LAPEER --  Voters displayed no inclination at all yesterday to raising their taxes, turning aside a number of local proposals to increase property taxes for such things as conserving farmland and financing libraries. The farmland preservation and parks proposal, which called for raising property taxes by 0.6-mill to purchase development rights and preserve thousands of acres of farmland as well as finance local and county parks and open space, was defeated. The proposal went down 7,670 to 5,409, a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent.

Julie Hay is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Leelanau County policy specialist. Reach her at julie@mlui.org. Click here to read a special, in-depth series on the opportunities for, and economic impact of, farming and farmland in Michigan.

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