Land Uses

All is not paradise these days in picturesque Leelanau County, where a cadre of activists is hell-bent upon increasing government control of the countryside. But the determination of residents to keep private land in private hands is an inspiration to citizens across Michigan.

Like a dozen or more county commissions across the state, Leelanau officials last year enacted an ordinance authorizing public acquisition of farmland development rights. Private conservation groups routinely purchase such development rights (PDRs) to limit residential and commercial construction. But the prospect of new funding from Lansing for county purchases has prompted a rush by commissions to establish public PDR programs.

A slim majority of county commissioners has so far refused to put the millage on the ballot, citing significant unanswered questions about its economic effects.

Ironically, the meager amount of funds made available by the Legislature can’t possibly fulfill the land-grab ambitions of groups such as the Leelanau Smart Growth Coalition, which is advocating county PDR purchases totaling at least $53 million and encompassing thousands of acres in Leelanau County.

Employing shameless hyperbole in pursuit of its goal, a Coalition brochure warns that “the county’s days of magnificence are numbered” unless the government amasses development rights countywide. In fact, a mere 7 percent of the county’s total land area (190,175 acres) has been developed, while 73 percent, or almost three-fourths, remains forest, wetlands or farmland. (The remaining 20 percent is characterized as “barren” or “unforested.”)

Already, an incredible 45 percent of farmland in Michigan — including most farms in Leelanau County — is enrolled in the state’s principal farmland preservation program.

No financing mechanism was written into Leelanau’s PDR ordinance, and some commissioners say their approval was based on a pledge by proponents not to seek new county taxes to bankroll the program. Within months of the vote, however, a local preservation task force began lobbying for a 15-year millage to generate at least $20 million for county PDR purchases.

The apparent double-cross has incensed many residents, including a good many farmers, who can ill-afford a substantial hike in their property taxes — $75 dollars per $100,000 of property value — in the name of saving farms. Tax advocates claim that a private benefactor has pledged to reimburse farmers to the tune of $41,000 to offset the first-year cost of the new levy. But that’s only if the farmers sign away their development rights.

A slim majority of county commissioners has so far refused to put the millage on the ballot, citing significant unanswered questions about its economic effects. Their concerns should be applied to publicly funded PDRs throughout Michigan. Among them:

  • What is the anticipated decline in property tax revenue that will result when land values decline following the sale of development rights?

  • Given that county revenues will decline, what services will the commission cut in order to offset the loss?

  • How will farmers and their heirs obtain bank loans for routine operations when the value of their property without development rights is too low to satisfy lenders?

  • Given that PDRs are held in perpetuity, how can the commission forecast what local needs will be far into the future, or determine what land should or shouldn’t be enrolled??

Tax proponents are scrambling to spin some answers. But few citizens are easily fooled. “Not every ‘want’ should masquerade as a ‘need,’” said Lowell Jackson, a member of the Leelanau Township Planning Commission.

Michigan residents already have invested $800 million in the state’s farmland preservation program. Direct federal payments to Michigan farmers, meanwhile, have totaled more than $1.9 billion since 1995 — including $3.9 million to Leelanau County.

Moreover, government already controls more than 28 percent of the property statewide, an inventory that ranks Michigan 7th nationwide.

Such facts and figures rarely are mentioned when public financing of PDRs is discussed. Citizens are far more likely to hear that bulldozers are revving up to flatten the landscape or that Michigan farmers will soon be extinct.

Most Leelanau residents see through the rhetoric. For all the seeming good intentions of anti-development activists, they and others like them know that expanded government land-use controls will not benefit Michigan.

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(Diane Katz is director of science, environment and technology policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliation are cited.)

Summary

Last year, Leelanau County approved a plan to preserve farmland by purchasing development rights, on the understanding that no new taxes would be raised for the plan. Now, local advocates are lobbying for a 15-year, $20 million millage, and residents sense a double-cross.

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