Monroe County soon will follow the lead of other Michigan and Ohio counties that have set up land-preservation trusts, giving local farmers a profitable alternative to selling their land to developers.
The county board of commissioners recently passed a farmland preservation ordinance that is the first step in establishing a program to protect the county's "rural heritage."
It will allow farmers to sell their lands' development rights, which will then be held in a trust jointly managed by the state and the county.
"If somebody applied and wanted to sell their development rights, the property value would be appraised as developable land, and then appraised as farmland, and then the difference between the two would be the price of the development rights," explained Robert Peven, assistant director of the county's planning department.
So if an acre of developable land is worth $10,000, and an acre of farmland that cannot be developed is worth $2,000, the development rights would be worth $8,000 an acre.
"Monroe County is a desirable place to live, work, and visit in large part because of the availability of farmland stimulating the human spirit through scenic views that include wetlands, woods, agricultural fields, and wildlife habitat areas which are recognized as invaluable natural and aesthetic resources of Monroe County that should be protected," reads a sampling of the 20-page ordinance.
The ordinance states that "these lands provide unique aesthetic and economic benefits" and that it is important to protect them from the "substantial residential development due to [the county's proximity] to sur-rounding urbanized areas."
It states that the preservation program would lessen congestion on roads, prohibit overcrowding, reduce "scattered urban sprawl development," and maintain the "historic rural character" of the county.
William Sisk, the county board's chairman, will be the first member of the Land Preservation Board and he will appoint the other nine members to term-limited positions, according to the ordinance.
The new board is charged with representing agricultural, conservation, development, environmental, and general public interests.
In Ohio, funding was established for a similar program - the Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase Program - in 2001.
In Fulton County, the amount of farmland dropped from 218,000 acres in 1994 to 204,000 acres in 2004, according to figures from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The number of farms in the county during that period dropped from 960 to 780.
This year, five Fulton County farms and one in Seneca County are in line to receive a total of $765,000 in exchange for perpetual deed restrictions prohibiting development on the land.
Together, the six farm owners will receive about 25 percent of the $3.1 million that the Ohio Department of Agriculture will spend this year to buy development rights through the Clean Ohio Fund, which provides funding for the easement-purchase program.
All six farm owners have agreed to sell their development rights through the Black Swamp Conservancy, which is the Perrysburg group that has promised to watch their properties, guaranteeing that it will not allow buildings to be constructed on the land, said Rob Krain, environmental consultant for the agency.
In Michigan, the legislature approved the state Agricultural Preservation Fund in 2000, but Monroe County has just begun to move in that direction.
Monroe County lost 17,000 acres of farmland, while residential use grew by 10,000 acres, during the 1990s, according to planning department statistics.
During that decade, the county's population grew by 12,142 people, or more than 0.8 acres of residential land per person, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.
Since 2000, the county has grown by another 12,087 residents, according to August SEMCOG estimates, and by 2030 its population is expected to rise by 37,807 more, reaching close to 200,000.
"We travelled to every township in the county to get support for the program," Mr. Peven said. "A lot of people are concerned about the loss of farmland and the loss of the rural character of the community."
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