Oct. 25 2018 12:03 AM

County officials bank on millage renewal


Voters will soon be asked to extend Ingham County’s Farmland and Open Space Preservation Initiative for another 10 years. The millage renewal will keep taxes flat and aims to shield certain lands from development. But it raises the question: Why should city folks give a damn about protecting farms and other natural landscapes?

The answer, as explained by several officials charged with oversight of the program, is a simple one.

“You like to breathe clean air. You like to drink clean water. Locally produced food is not only better for us physically but it helps to stabilize the local economy,” explained Preservation Board member Wendy Villarreal. “The water floats all ships, so to speak. We’re human. We’re of nature. We depend on nature for our survival.”

The land preservation millage — first approved by voters in 2008 — enables a 0.14-mill levy on property taxes to protect farmland and open spaces like waterways, wildlife habitats and other natural lands. The county, in turn, purchases development rights on certain properties, essentially preserving natural or agricultural land forever.

Since the program began, more than 5,900 acres have been inducted into a conservation easement to help create a buffer zone between the county’s more rural areas and increasing developmental pressures from urban population centers like Lansing and East Lansing. More than 80 percent of the funds were paid to local farmers.

“I think as urban sprawl keeps occurring, this is a way to stop land in perpetuity from being developed,” said Preservation Board member Laurie Koelling. “You might not be interested in this personally, but in the future I don’t think it’s in our best interests to have everything developed. This land will eventually be in short supply.”

The program is entirely voluntary for landowners and usually requires a philosophical commitment to land conservation. Officials suggested once the developmental rights have been sold, the property values invariably decrease but conservation easements ensure the land will remain free of development for generations to come.

Advocates listed a host of other benefits: Natural spaces obviously contribute to cleaner air, cleaner water and increased space for wildlife habitats and continued biodiversity. The undeveloped properties can also host outdoor activities like fishing and hunting. It also enhances food security by maintaining farmland in perpetuity.

Just about everyone can appreciate the scenic landscapes, officials said. And the program, by blocking development in more rural areas, saves taxpayer cash by promoting growth within local city centers. The concept: Infrastructure and other services become more affordable when urban development is concentrated.

“It means you don’t have to run all these service lines out to a development in the middle of nowhere,” explained Paul Kindel, Preservation Board chairman and president of the Mid-Michigan Land Conservancy. “If you’re running a sewer and water line out to a developed area like that, it’s going to cost more funds to develop it.”

Kindel said natural vegetation also naturally absorbs carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, curbing the ongoing and alarming effects of global climate change. And the aesthetics of natural spaces can’t be underestimated, he said.

“I think that’s one of the main reasons Lansing went for this back in 2008,” Kindel added. “People are realizing it’s a benefit for city people just as much as it is for the country people. It’s a benefit for everybody, particularly on the climate change issue. Everybody in the county can benefit from cleaner air and cleaner water.”

The millage, however, hasn’t generated unanimous support from the community. Journalists at the Lansing State Journal, for example, recently opined how Ingham County — already inundated with nearly a dozen special millages — needs to reel it back. And they’ve lined this millage into their editorial crosshairs.

“It’s a benefit for everybody, particularly on the climate change issue. Everybody in the county can benefit from cleaner air and cleaner water.”

- Paul Kindel Chairman, Ingham County Farmland and Open Space Agricultural Preservation Board

“While perhaps a worthy cause, Ingham County must prioritize its spending and stop asking voters to approve special tax millages,” the editorial reads. “If none are allowed to expire, the effective tax rate continues to climb.”

Stacy Byers, the director of the Farmland and Open Space Program, however, offered a rebuttal. She said most of the existing millages — like the recently passed justice millage to build a new jail — are just siphoning taxpayer dollars that were originally intended to come from the county’s general funds. This millage is different, she said.

“This doesn’t fall under any specific umbrella,” Byers added. “This is one of those things where taxpayers, if they want to protect these lands, need to pay some extra taxes. And if you look at the costs compared to some of these other millages, it’s a no-brainer. This provides so much more bang for your buck. It doesn’t even compare.”

The 0.14-mil levy would continue to cost residents with a home valued at about $200,000 a total of $14 per year, or about $1.17 per month. The justice millage, for context, collects about six times more with a 0.85-mill levy. And the upcoming vote on a 911 surcharge would drive up telephone surcharges to more than $21 annually.

Byers also said that unlike other millages, this ballot measure has a sunset. Once the board is able to preserve between 25 and 50 percent of the county’s agricultural lands in perpetuity, the program will eventually dissolve.

County Commissioner Mark Grebner — although he agrees with the program in theory — criticized its ability to function as intended in practice. He said most of the properties inducted into an easement are in the southern part of the county, but developers have been able to saturate the northern portions without a hitch.

Byers said land already under intense developmental pressures has driven property values sky high, giving officials the choice between protecting a lot of land in the south or picking only a handful of properties in the north. She added that the “greenbelt” near Lansing will still remain a priority if the millage is eventually renewed.

And landowners near urban hubs like Lansing will almost certainly be given preference over others, she said.

“It’s a choice. We’re spending less money and getting more acreage,” Byers added. “We’re charged to be stewards and preserve the land with this program. We’re hoping and we’re seeing trends that those northern, greenbelt landowners are interested in this program. I have a good feeling that the floodgates are about to open.”

For additional information about the ballot measure, visit fp.ingham.org.