The 2017 Census of Agriculture was released this past spring, and to no surprise, results show an across-the-board drop in the number of farms, farmers and farmland in the United States.
The state of Michigan is not immune to this. Between 2012 and 2017, Michigan lost 184,474 acres of farmland, or the equivalent of over 100 acres a day. Because of the significant loss of farmland and open space, figuring out how to preserve the land that remains is a priority for many communities.
Throughout the country, planners, elected officials, land trusts and others have created a number of tools to combat this loss, one of which is a purchase of development rights (PDR) program.
Most PDR programs involve a county, township or other municipality purchasing and extinguishing the development rights of landowners within the municipality. As with other rights tied to a piece of land (mineral rights, timber rights, etc.), the right to develop has a monetary value that can be purchased by a third party. In PDR programs, municipalities purchase those development rights and leave the remaining rights alone.
When the development rights on a piece of land are permanently extinguished, the community can be ensured it will remain as open space or in farming for perpetuity. These programs are funded through a variety of means, sometimes with a millage that must be approved by the electorate.
In Grand Traverse County, both Peninsula and Acme townships have successful PDR programs that were approved by voters and then renewed by voters for an additional term after initial successes. Peninsula Township’s program, the first township-level PDR program in the country, has protected 3,347 acres of globally unique farmland. It was passed in 1994 and renewed for 20 years in 2002.
Following in Peninsula Township footsteps, voters in Acme Township passed a millage in 2004 and renewed the program for 10 years in 2014. It has protected 810 acres.
Thousands of additional acres are currently in application in both programs. Both programs have also received substantial matching dollars from state and federal sources.
PDR programs are becoming increasingly popular (there are now nearly 100 local PDR programs in 20 states) because they offer substantial benefits to both communities and landowners. Landowners are able to unlock capital tied up in the land, without having to sell the land, so they can reinvest in their operations, purchase additional acreage or pass down the farm to the next generation.
For communities, PDR programs preserve open space and scenic views, maintain rural character and quality of life, and protect water quality and wildlife habitat. Preserving farmland anchors the farm economy by creating jobs and promoting agritourism, which channel dollars into the local community. PDR programs also help manage growth, preserving rural areas and focusing expansion to towns and villages, which results in a lower property tax rate over time. Although agricultural land generates less tax revenue per acre than residential, commercial or industrial property, it requires fewer public services such as schooling, road maintenance, and policing.
According to studies by the American Farmland Trust, agricultural lands on average receive only $0.37 in public services for every dollar they contribute, compared to $1.16 for housing developments.
On Aug. 6, voters in Antrim County’s Elk Rapids and Milton Townships will vote on PDR programs of their own, potentially continuing a local legacy of farmland protection. While significant effort is often required to establish a PDR program, the long-term benefits to the community can be substantial.