Michigan farmland and open spaces preservation programs expanding despite funding challenges

Mar 10, 2017

The proliferation of sub-divisions and multi-acre country homes in the 1980s and 1990s came at the expense of large tracts of rural farmland and open spaces property says Stacy Byers, program director of the Ingham County (MI) Farmland and Open Spaces Preservation Board (FOSP).

“These development trends became a major area of concern, first on the east and west coasts, but then the same sprawl unfolded in the Midwest,” she explains.  “Fortunately, there were a number of highly successful preservation programs established in the East, and many of us in Michigan were able to learn about those programs firsthand though tours, primarily to Pennsylvania and Maryland.”

Most of the Michigan farmland and open spaces preservation programs, which are technically purchase of development rights programs, are based on the Pennsylvania and Maryland models.

“Every property has a bundle of rights associated with it—like development rights and mineral rights,” Byers says.  “Those rights can be sold by the property owner even as the owner continues to use the land.”

Farmland and open spaces preservation programs specifically purchase the development rights from the property owner.  Once those development rights are sold, the land can only be used for farming and/or designated open spaces activities (e.g. hiking, fishing, bird watching) into perpetuity. 

Byers cites several  examples of successful programs across a wide geographic range—from Peninsula and Acme townships in northern Michigan to Kent and Ottawa counties in west Michigan to Washtenaw County and Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt Program. 

The operation of and funding for programs vary.  But whether a program is supported by philanthropic donations, federal grants or local taxes, the end goals are the same:  to protect and preserve properties that provide economic, social and aesthetic value to their associated communities. 

The greatest challenge for all programs, Byers explains, is always funding.  She is “very proud” that Ingham was the first county in Michigan to pass a millage to support preservation.  

But that millage expires in a couple years, and proponents of preservation will be hard at work on a renewal. 

“What undergirds all preservation programs,” Byers says, “is the compelling and on-going need in every municipality for wise land use planning and smart growth.”

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