As the Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission moves closer to making its first decisions about farm properties to include in its land preservation program, the county board of commissioners got an update on the process at its April 5 working session.
Susan Lackey, executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy – an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit that’s under contract to help manage the program – told commissioners that about $1.6 million is available to preserve farmland, using a portion of proceeds from the natural area preservation millage renewed by voters in November of 2010. That 10-year, 0.25-mill countywide tax also funds the acquisition of natural areas and land preserves.
Prior to 2010, the natural areas ordinance allowed for outright acquisition of land, but not for the purchase of development rights (PDR). PDR is a common mechanism for protecting farmland, letting landowners keep their property for farming but preventing – via a conservation easement – its development. In May of 2010, the county board approved an ordinance revision that incorporated farmland into the county’s natural areas preservation program and clarified the use of PDR for that purpose.
The county received 57 applications for its first round of potential deals, Lackey reported. That list has been narrowed down to seven parcels for final consideration, covering 1,100 acres. The locations of the parcels won’t be released until a final vote by the parks and rec commission. That vote will be taken when the deals are ready to close. That’s likely to happen later this year.
Yousef Rabhi was among the commissioners who praised the program, noting how it ties in with the food policy council that the county board recently created, as well as the food-related business incubator and job training program – called Seeds for Change – focused on the eastern part of the county. Rabhi serves on the Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee (ALPAC), which makes recommendations to the parks and rec commission about farmland deals.
The April 5 working session also included a briefing on the county’s community corrections unit. This report focuses just on the farmland preservation update.
County Farmland Preservation
By way of background, a countywide 10-year, 0.25-mill tax first was approved by voters in 2000 for natural areas preservation. The millage brings in about $3 million annually, and over the years the county has acquired more than 2,200 acres of land and established 17 new nature preserves, which are open to the public. However, millage proceeds could not be used for the purchase of development rights, a common way to protect farmland from being sold for development.
In May of 2010, a proposal was made to the county board – which commissioners ultimately approved – that changed the ordinance governing the county’s Natural Areas Preservation Program (NAPP), in preparation for a renewal millage later that year. The change reflected two broad strategic goals: (1) incorporating farmland into NAPP’s land preservation efforts, and (2) clarifying the county’s use of the purchase of development rights (PDR) to preserve land, in addition to outright acquisition. [The county has a separate ordinance, passed in 2007, for a PDR program aimed at securing grants from the Michigan Agricultural Preservation Fund. The Legacy Land Conservancy helps oversee that program too.]
At an April 2010 working session, Susan Lackey of the Legacy Land Conservancy had told commissioners that using PDR to preserve farmland had several advantages: (1) it allows the land to continue to be actively used as farmland, by the owner or others; (2) it keeps the property on the tax rolls; and (3) it enables the county to tap federal grants through the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Preservation Program (FRPP). The county is the most successful in the state at bringing in FRPP dollars for land preservation, through the Ann Arbor greenbelt and other programs.
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