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Farmland preservers hope effort bears fruit

Payments slow to turn tide of development

ACME TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- Fruit-laden pear trees grow amid undulating fields and a wooded valley awash in crimson and gold, making Rick Sayler's 134-acre orchard a haven for leaf-peeping tourists.

"If we can keep the developers out, we can keep this place in farming and beautiful," said the fifth-generation agriculturist, whose ancestral roots in the area reach back nearly 150 years.

The rolling landscape and proximity to Lake Michigan that make the region ideal for growing apples, cherries, grapes, and pears also attract builders. Many orchards have been plowed under for subdivisions, strip malls, and golf courses in recent years, as soaring real estate values are tempting some landowners to sell out.

Preservation activists think a partial solution is to buy development rights from willing farmers -- pay them to keep their property agricultural. It is an increasingly popular strategy nationwide in areas where urban sprawl is gobbling up farmland.

In Middleway, W.Va., Terry Dunn, 50, dreads selling his 122 acres. But after decades of grueling chores and the departure of four grown children, he is open to offers from the highest-paying developer.

Following the lead of other states, West Virginia passed a law in 2000 that lets counties set up farmland protection boards to buy development rights from willing owners -- where they can be found.

"But most farmers aren't interested," Dunn said. "To them, it's 'the most I can get for my land.' And why not? . . . If someone were to offer what I'd get from a developer, yeah, I probably would consider it. But I don't think that's going to happen."

In Michigan, proposals to boost property taxes to preserve farmland were on eight local ballots during the Nov. 2 election. Two were approved, including a measure in a township near Ann Arbor in the southeastern part of the state.

Five referendums were held in adjacent townships in fruit-growing northwestern Michigan. The only one approved was in Acme Township, about 250 miles northwest of Detroit.

"Mixed success -- it's a good first step," said Jim Firstenau, executive director of the Michigan Farmland and Community Alliance. "We need to do a better job of educating the voters."

When development rights are purchased, landowners are paid the difference between the agricultural value of the property and what it would be worth if sold for development. In return, they agree never to convert it to other uses.

Critics say that preserving farmland is a laudable goal, but that buying development rights is a giveaway to wealthy farmers.

"It's using public money for private enterprise," said Chuck Walter, an Acme trustee. "If these farmers are truly dedicated to land preservation, why can't they just deed their property to agriculture in perpetuity?"

The ballot initiative in Acme Township will raise an estimated $255,000 in its first year, although officials hope to fatten the fund by securing federal and private grants. A board will evaluate applications and devise a scoring system to determine which parcels are most worthy of preservation.

"This isn't the sole answer, but it's another tool to support the farmer so he doesn't have to chop up his land to stay in business," said Paul Hubbell, an apple and cherry grower.

West Virginia's Berkeley County, one of the first to act on the 2000 state law, has saved 649 acres by collecting an extra $2.20 on every $1,000 worth of real estate. That generates about $1.2 million a year, but Jim Moore, chairman of the Berkeley protection board, said it is not nearly enough.

This year, eight farms have applied for the program, but Moore said the county probably will be able to afford only four.

Since 1994, West Virginia has lost more than 100,000 acres of farmland statewide. Dunn has watched as one Eastern Panhandle farm after another has been transformed into a high-end subdivision.

"Who can predict what's going to be in store for us 10, 15, 20 years down the road?" he said. "Nobody likes to see what comes with growth -- the traffic, the noise, the loss of scenery. But how do you stop it?"

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