|By KEVIN WALKER
LANSING, Mich. — The state is moving ahead with its newly restructured farmland preservation program, even as development pressures and real estate prices in some areas continue to make land preservation a real challenge.
The new program is one designed to give local units of government maximum authority and responsibility, which isn’t the way it used to be.
The state purchase of development rights (PDR) program is over, said Charamy Cleary, coordinator of the new Michigan Agricultural Preservation Fund. Money that used to be used for the state PDR program will go into the new program.
That money will come from PA 116, a state tax incentive program that gives farmers a tax credit for every year they keep their land from being developed. If and when a landowner opts out of this program, he must repay all of the tax credits, up to seven years’ worth.
The money from the repaid tax credits funds the Michigan Agricultural Preservation Fund.
In order for a local unit of government to get money under the new plan it must prequalify, even to put in an application.
These include an updated master plan that incorporates farmland preservation, an ordinance that gives the local unit of government the power to pass a conservation easement and other criteria.
“The job at the state level will be to make sure that each local unit of government has a solid plan,” Cleary said. “We’re not going to be interested in what parcels are chosen.”
“Local purchase of development rights programs will have a better sense of what properties should be preserved in their local area because they are closer to the issue,” said Richard Harlow, the farmland preservation office program manager.
“These local programs typically involve local farmers in the development of the selection process.”
Jan BenDor, deputy clerk for Pittsfield Township, is excited about the new program, but worries about the task ahead for local governments, especially those in areas where land is very expensive.
“Five thousand dollars an acre is the maximum amount local units of government will get to buy development rights, and that’s not enough in an urban area,” BenDor said.
“The governor has shown a lot of leadership on the issue,” BenDor continued. “It’s really sad, you’d think there’d be some bipartisan support, but there’s been nothing. They act like they don’t know agriculture is our second biggest industry.”
Gov. Granholm is a Democrat, while Republicans control the senate and assembly.
“Ken Sikkema (R-Kent County) isn’t showing any leadership at all on this issue,” BenDor added.
Sikkema is the senate majority leader, and chairman of the senate’s Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Ari Adler, Sikkema’s press secretary, disputed BenDor’s charges.
“Sen. Sikkema is concerned about the agriculture industry in Michigan,” Adler stated in an official written response.
“Recently he helped push through a program that will provide millions of dollars of additional funding for the industry. His leadership also led to a package of bills that will help farmers in Michigan attract young workers who can continue to maintain agriculture as one of the top three industries in Michigan.”
According to BenDor land in Pittsfield Township and surrounding areas can go for $43,000 an acre, or more. BenDor says that a viable land preservation program must be able to fill the gap between the dollars the state provides and the amount the land can be sold for on the open market.
It’s up to local governments to find money from whatever sources they can, including the federal government, local millages and private sources.
Five localities in Washtenaw County have applied for money from the new fund. These include Pittsfield, Dexter, Webster, Scio and York Townships. Twelve applications state-wide have been submitted to the farmland preservation office. Some of the applications are county-wide, and incorporate several communities in one application. Grants should be announced by the end of the year.
This Michigan farm news was published in the November 2, 2005 issue of Farm World.