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Great Lakes Article:

Lenawee eyes plan to preserve farmland
Owners could sell
development rights
By Erica Blake
Toledo Blade
03/05/04


Lenawee County officials have watched homes being built, one by one, on land where crops were grown and animals raised.

Now, they are among officials in about 18 counties across Michigan working on creating a way to ensure that quality farmland stays farmland forever.

County commissioners continue to digest a proposed ordinance that has been dividing communities across the country. If approved, the Lenawee County Farmland and Open Space Development Rights Ordinance would allow farmers to sell the development rights of their land. If this is done, the land can be used only for agricultural purposes, permanently.

Scott Everett, the director of the Central Great Lakes Region for the American Farmland Trust, said that ordinances like the one Lenawee County is considering are being enacted around the country. He acknowledged that although not popular among developers, the preservation ordinances are important in protecting the agricultural industry.

"Protecting farmland ainít easy. Itís very hard to do," Mr. Everett said, adding that the best programs in the country took time to get rolling after the program was adopted. "These are generational farms and deep down a farmer really doesnít want to crack that farm up, but the developmental value is so tempting."

Lenawee County is home to 336,468 acres of farmland, according to the 1997 agricultural census. That makes it the third-largest county in the state in terms of land dedicated to farming, Mr. Everett said.

But at the same time, it is sixth on the list of those counties that are losing farming acreage each year. Between 1982 and 1997, Lenawee County lost nearly 40,000 acres of farmland, Mr. Everett said.

Annually farms in Lenawee County generate about $102.8 million in total agricultural sales.

County Commissioner Larry Gould has farmed land in Lenawee County for decades. He stressed that the ordinance would be available to farmers who are interested in preserving their farmland and would not be forced on anyone.

But he acknowledged that there are still plenty of questions to be worked out. Attorneys are researching issues such as who would be eligible for purchasing the farmsí development rights. For example, would it be done by the townships and the county, or could other farmers or perhaps out-of-state organizations buy the rights. Mr. Gould said the county would have to come up with a way of funding the purchasing of property rights.

But the chairman of the county commission said he fully supports the concept. "Itís what we call smart growth," he said. "Weíll take the most productive land and keep it agricultural while the less productive land can be used for homes."

Mr. Everett said federal grants are available to counties that have farmland preservation ordinances in place. Currently, only eight of Michiganís 83 counties have ordinances on the books, he said.

Commissioner Rob Hall, who owns a business in Hudson, said he is interested in talking more about the proposed ordinance, which has yet to be discussed fully by the board or brought before a public hearing. He said in addition to having concerns about where the money comes from or how it will be administered, he has heard gripes about the fact that those farms that are preserved under this ordinance would be labeled farmland forever.

"I donít think anybodyís against preserving farmland. I think people are against this ordinance in the way it goes about doing that," he said. "The way it is written now, it doesnít give us anywhere to go with expansion. There is concern that this is forever with no ifs, ands, or buts about it."

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