In a special meeting Thursday, the Barry County Board of Commissioners in a 5-2 vote recommended approval of changes in the Agriculture Promotion and Open Space ordinances. The issue will go to the next regular board meeting for consideration.
Stacy Byers, consultant with Sheridan Land Consulting, gave a 35-minute presentation on the concept of the preserving agricultural land by an easement; owners selling the developmental rights to their farm land in exchange for insuring the land would be used for only agriculture in perpetuity.
Byers gave some history on the effort in other places, examples of where the idea has been successful, and possible funding sources. There are social, environmental and economic benefits to Ag land preservation; it makes it easier to stay in farming, it controls urban sprawl, protects nature, animal habitats and the environment, she said.
In the voluntary program, state certified assessors determine the value of Ag property when used for agricultural and the value of the property if sold for development. Property owners receive the difference between the values, and guarantee that the land would remain in agriculture forever.
Applicants for easements are scored and ranked by points in several criteria, with the top-scoring land owners given appraisals, insuring the best agriculture land is preserved. The owner keeps all personal property rights and can sell the land, but it would always have to stay in agriculture.
Various land preservation plans have been around since the 1970s; and ramped up during the development surge of the 1980s and 1990s. The major stumbling block for the present plan is the unavailability of funding to pay for the development rights. Byers said there are several possibilities to obtain funding for easements; the federal and state government, townships, landowners and the county.
“We should move on this,” Commissioner Ben Geiger said. “It’s low risk for the county.”
Commissioner Dan Parker encouraged the adoption of the amendments, saying he has served on county and village offices and school boards and in every case, county citizens said they valued and wanted to keep its rural flavor.
Commissioner David Jackson asked why it was needed when farmers have PA116, a state land preservation program. Byers said PA 116 agreements are for a specific number of years and offer tax credits, but not in perpetuity. Framers can opt out of PA116 by paying back the tax credits.
Commissioners Vivian Conner and Jon Smelker asked the most questions and were ultimately the two who voted against sending the matter to the full board for a decision.
In answers to questions, Byers told where the funding could come from, that her office would monitor compliance with the easements, mineral rights stay with the farm property, farmer’s property taxes could be lower by not by much and the county would be legally responsible to pay legal fees if disagreements arise.
When Conner said the seven member board is too heavily weighted with those with agriculture interests, Commissioner Heather Wing responded that farmers are the best judges of farmland, “not someone who doesn’t have a clue… farmers should pick out the best ones.” One member of the board would be a county commissioner without voting rights, something Smelker said he could never support.
The 15 to 20 people in the audience supported the plan with the exception of George Hubka who said they should not get involved with buying easements until they, “fixed the damn roads,” and cautioned that the county can levy special assessments without a vote of the people.
The open space ordinance didn’t get much debate; it mirrors the farm preservation component, with more emphasis on the environment, and is run by the same board. There is working and non-working land; any not working, not producing a product, is open space. “It needs to have environmental value. It has to warrant an easement,” Byers said.
The amendments would streamline the process and change the name of the board. Byers said the name change should, “say who we are...we purchase conservation easements.”