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Visionary Ingham County Land Protection Program Up for Renewal on November Ballot

Russ White
Stacy Byers, Kirk Heinze

Natural and farmlands are under increasing pressure from commercial, industrial, and residential development, but some Michigan municipalities have implemented wise, long-term land protection strategies, which are good for the environment, for agriculture, and for quality of life. Ingham County is one of those municipalities, having a decade ago passed an open space and farmland preservation millage that has protected over 5,000 acres and counting. 

That millage is up for renewal in November. Here to talk to us about the success of the Ingham County program is Stacy Byers. She is the director of the Farmland and Open Space Preservation program. Give us a global perspective on land use planning, the importance of it across the country.

Stacy:This issue isn't one that is new to the world. Environmental issues, water issues, land issues, the use of the land has always been on the forefront, I think, of many discussions. But what we're finding is better and improved ways of handling that land management. We're finding that it's more productive to be incentive-driven and to have the landowners having an active role in the permanent protection of those resources. It benefits them. But when we look long-term, we're finding that this is benefiting generations to come, and it helps us guide those principles in land use planning across the globe.

Kirk:The American Farmland Trust came out with a report not too long ago on the state of America's farmland. Thirty-one million acres of agricultural land were lost between 1992 and 2012, the size roughly of the state of Iowa. That's pretty compelling.

Stacy:It's extremely compelling, and I think it's something that many people should sit up and take a look at. Because, in this country, we have never had an epidemic where we've been hungry. We've never had a time when food and fiber and agricultural services were at such a deficit that we really felt the pain of that. But when you look to other countries like Europe and some of those that went through the potato famine in Ireland and some of those famines, they value agriculture, and they value the use of those lands. They monitor and regulate that as such because they have felt the effects of what the depletion of agriculture can have on a society and a culture. I think we need to start looking to them for models of how to do this. Because if we continue down this road and we don't implement things, it's not our generation that's really going to feel the effects of this, but our children and our grandchildren. So it's going to take some tenacious leadership, I think, to really help solve this crisis.

Kirk:Then constant or parallel to the agricultural lands, there's always been a conservation movement in America, well, at least since Teddy Roosevelt, on natural lands and spaces. America's been better, in some ways, at that through nature conservancies than they have preserving farmland.

Stacy:You're absolutely right, Kirk. The natural lands, and I think because of the water and the resources and the immanent resources that those provide, have also caused more attention. I think Senator Stabenow coined it the best, and she said, "The reason we haven't seen a Dust Bowl is because of some of the policies that the EPA and the rural development councils have implemented." So we've started down that road, but there's always more work to be done.

Kirk:Let's turn to Ingham County. A millage was passed ten years ago. Give us a snapshot of that and why this program is so unique.

Stacy:Ingham County is the only county in the state of Michigan that has been able to successfully pass a publicly funded ballot measure for farmland and natural land protection, so we're really, really proud of that. We're proud of the fact that this came to fruition because a small group of individuals who had a vision of what they wanted to see for Ingham County came forward, did their homework, and were able to convince a body of government, the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, to put it on the ballot. So, really, I think a tribute to that leadership and what they've been able to accomplish is also something that is very successful. The Ingham County program started in 2004 when the ordinance passed, and then we went to the commissioners and were able to get the ballot measure passed.

Kirk:You're being modest, but a lot of the success of that program was because of your leadership over the last ten years. I'm talking with Stacy Byers, director of the Farmland and Open Space Preservation program in Ingham County. So it's been ten years, Stacy, and now the millage is on the November ballot for renewal. Why should folks support it?
Stacy:It's so critically important, and it goes back, I think, to what I was speaking about earlier, is that we may not see the direct impact today, but we have to be able to have the vision to see what is going to occur in the future. That's why it's so critical that we work and act now so that we can maintain these natural features. Water and food and fiber are so, so critical to us that these programs are essential. When you look at what it's costing the residents of Ingham County to actually implement this program, it's one of the cheapest millages that the entire county has, 0.14. It's really cheap and very inexpensive, and we get a lot of bang for our buck with it.
Kirk:To put that in practical terms, correct me if I'm wrong, but if you've got a $100,000 house, it costs you about $7 a year.

Stacy:About $7, yes.
Kirk:If you've got a $200,000 house, it costs you $14 a year.

Stacy:Yes, so we're talking a trip to McDonald's a year.
Kirk:If that.

Stacy:We're getting thousands of acres protected permanently.

Kirk:Talk about some of the development pressures, in general, but also specific to Ingham County.

Stacy:Well, Ingham County is a bit unique because we have Lansing. That's really what makes these programs successful is the fact that we have a large, thriving metropolitan area. But the natural progression of a lot of those, unfortunately, is continually to move out, and so we see that donut effect. We don't have to look very far to find a really great example of that with Detroit. We haven't experienced that kind of pressure here in Lansing, but we do have pressure, nonetheless. When we saw the downturn occurring in 2008, it gave us an opportunity to start to plan where those critical areas are and how we want to be proactive in terms of our preservation, instead of reactive. However, since that downturn, we're climbing out of that, as a country and as a state. I think we're starting to see those pressures emerge again. We're starting to see the subdivisions being brought to planning commissions and debated on local levels in terms of their land uses. That debate is coming back much more strong than it even was, I believe, in 2008. Now more than ever is the time to start getting ahead of that.

The other side of this is we can talk a lot about the importance of natural resource and preservation of agriculture and the economics of it, but the flip side is we have an urban core, that we have the resources and the infrastructure to support these populations. This program helps I divert those resources back into the urban areas, back into where the people are and the concentration of the people, and the ones who really need it. We have found ourselves in a very unique position, in a partnership, where agriculture and now these urban areas are allies, because we all have one goal, and that's to maintain our urban cores.

Kirk:I think to underscore your point, there's some misconception that these programs somehow prevent development from occurring. That is not the case, and you said it. It ensures that the development is done wisely and with a lot of forethought.

Stacy:Most definitely. One of the main themes of this program that we talk about a lot in our presentations is the fact that this is not competing with development. The goal of this program was never to compete with development. It was simply to work in cooperation with development to find those areas that are most appropriate because we want to work in cooperation with development.

Kirk:Another point as we conclude here, but to underscore the point, this is a voluntary program. Landowners keep the property. They just give up one of those sticks. You always refer to this bundle of sticks. But one of their property rights is the development rights, but otherwise they keep the land. They can farm the land. It can still be used for natural hiking and all that sort of a thing. The families are only selling one aspect of that property right.

Stacy:You're absolutely right. It's a really great way for landowners to do some estate planning. Because if they know they want to stay in agriculture, then this is pretty much a no-brainer for them, and it really helps that transition into the next generation. Hopefully, we're helping to spur another generation of farmers and agriculture. But, yes, it is voluntary. Landowners can do pretty much anything they want with the property other than build homes. If a landowner knows that agriculture is what they want to continue doing and that's going to be the main thrust of their operation, then taking away the right to develop really isn't going to have a ton of impact on their operation.

Kirk:Absolutely. Well, the millage is coming up in November. It is the Farmland and Open Space Preservation program in Ingham County. I've been talking with Stacy Byers. She's the director of the program. Stacy, congratulations on the ten-year success of the program.


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