Green yonder

By Neal McNamara

Ingham County’s farm preservation millage gets ready to buy land after a suggestion the money should be used elsewhere

Like a firewall preventing the spread of flames through a house, the Ingham County Agricultural Preservation Board is beginning to erect barriers to protect farms from being developed into suburban sprawl.

East of Haslett in Williamstown Township, near the intersection of Germany and Meridian
roads, a parcel of land is expected to be saved that is close to 1,000
contiguous acres. Just west and south of that intersection, sprawl is
creeping in.

And in the northwestern
corner of Aurelius Township along Columbia Road, south of developing
Delhi Township, preservation is set for another 1,000 acres spread
across three farms.

In 2008, voters
approved a levy of .14 mills that the county would use to purchase
development rights on farmland. The property tax millage is set to last
for 10 years. One mill is equivalent to one tax dollar for every $1,000
of a property’s taxable value. The county is not buying farmland, but
just taking away the ability for a developer to buy land from a farmer.

The millage should have
$2 million in the bank by spring. And the Farm Preservation Board, made
up of local farmers, public officials and real estate agents, is
applying for federal grants to match the funds already raised, which
would generate $3 for every $1 raised by the millage.

Stacey Byers,
administrator of the board, said that the program has received
applications to sell development rights from 32 farmland owners. The
goal of the millage is to buy farms that are close to expanding suburbs, but also considered is a farm’s size and its relation to other farms.

A January editorial in
the Lansing State Journal argued to cut in half the farm preservation
millage to allow for more money to pay for county services. The
editorial stated that the Ingham County commissioners could lower the
farm preservation millage to around .7 mills and ask voters to approve
.7 millage for general county operating costs — essentially, residents
would still be paying .14 mills, but half would go to farm
preservation, and half to the county.

The county is facing a $3 million deficit in its upcoming budget.

Steven Stoker, a lawyer
for the county commission, speaking in general about millages, said it
would be possible for the county commission to lessen the farm
preservation millage.

“I think we have to
honor what the public wanted,” Byers said. “It’s our responsibility to
get the biggest bang for every dollar we spend.”

Ingham County
Commissioner Mark Grebner, D-East Lansing, opposed the millage when it
came to a vote. He was against it because the most sprawl-prone areas
are in the northwestern corner of Ingham County and spill into other
counties where there is no farm preservation effort.

But now that we have
the millage, Grebner said, it would be a bad idea to tinker with it,
and the county should be taking advantage of the depressed economy and
a lull in development to buy on the cheap.

“Suddenly farming seems like a long-term plus and development seems like in the long term to be not so important,” Grebner said.

The price per acre for
development rights on farmland is decided by subtracting the
agricultural value from the development value. Byers says that since
agriculture is doing well now, and that low-balling a farmer on their
land could backfire: The farmer could just leave the offer.

“What we need to do is
offer the market value to farmers,” she said. County Commissioner Don
Vickers, R-Mason, who sits on the Farm Preservation Board, disagrees
with lowering the preservation millage in order to raise another
millage for the county. Further, he millage does not believe in
reducing any other millages — for the Capital Area Transportation
Authority or Potter Park Zoo, for example — either.

“I really think we need to live within our revenues,” he said.

As far as getting more
farmland for cheap, Vickers says there is already a system in place for
that. If a farmer who is eligible to have his preservation rights
bought agrees to donate some acreage back to the county, he receives a
more favorable score in being selected for preservation.

Byers said that the
county could buy development rights on the farms in Aurelius and
Williamstown townships right now, but it is waiting on the federal
matching funds before moving forward. Development rights can never be
severed, except if eminent domain is necessary. Even if a farm goes
sallow or is sold to someone else, it will always remain agricultural

“We’re excited to get
first couple of easements protected,” Byers said. “We’d love to tell
voters we’ve protected 1,500 acres with the millage they’ve entrusted
to us.”