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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Suburban Sprawl Prevention Tax-A

Air Date: Week of

A rural township in northern Michigan is trying to avoid becoming divided into malls and housing subdivisions and to preserve its open spaces and walkable town centers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's J. Carl Ganter recently visited Old Mission Peninsula where he found a community that has taken the unusual step of taxing residents in order to preserve the landscape and lifestyle it holds dear.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Some of the most obvious costs of our car culture and related sprawl development are traffic and congestion, but these aren't the only drawbacks. In many parts of America, every time a new subdivision goes in, a key plot of farm land comes out of production permanently. According to some analysts, we are building on and paving over so much of our best crop land that the US may face a domestic food supply crunch in the next century. Recently the American Farm Land Trust identified 20 hot spots around the nation where rapid development is consuming crucial arable land. One of these hot spots is in northern Michigan. It includes a unique micro-climate that supports numerous fruit orchards and most of the tart cherry production in the US. One rural township in the orchard district is fighting sprawl with an unusual tax. From Old Mission Peninsula, J. Carl Ganter of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium has our report.


GANTER: Walter Johnson is showing me his cherry farm on the rolling hills overlooking Lake Michigan's bays. He's a fourth generation cherry farmer. His ancestors first settled on this scenic peninsula in 1858, but in the last 20 years he's seen many of his neighbors sell off their farms.

JOHNSON: This generation of farmers is about all who are left to really work these farms.

GANTER: Thousands of acres of cherry and apple trees have been uprooted to make way for upscale subdivisions, a sign of northern Michigan's rapid development. Wealthy retirees and professionals are moving here from midwest cities like Detroit, seeking refuge in the rolling countryside. In fact, Michigan has one of the fastest rates of sprawl and farm land loss in the nation. One of Walter Johnson's most productive orchards now overlooks a ridge line of expensive new homes.

JOHNSON: This development that you're looking at here was a farm, and the developer came in here, put a lot of money into it, and they leveled off the hilltops with a bulldozer. And now you're looking at homes here that range anywhere from half million to a million dollars each.

GANTER: The last decade has been bad for cherry farmers, and a drop in profits coincided with a rise in property values. Overnight, it seemed, farms along Peninsula Drive were dotted with real estate signs. When one of the largest farms in the peninsula was subdivided 5 years ago, residents got together to do something about this sell-off trend. After a long campaign that flew in the face of anti-tax sentiment, they narrowly won approval for an initiative that increased property taxes. The new funds pay for the preservation of farm land. About a third of the township's remaining acreage will be protected by the purchase of development rights. The so-called PDR program limits new construction on that land and costs the average taxpayer about $80 a year. Over the last 2 years the township has raised about 2 and a half million dollars. Gordon Hayward, Peninsula Township's planner, says the land protection program is a bargain.

HAYWARD: When you look at it, the amount of money that we're spending, we could build about a mile or maybe a mile and a half of sewer in the township. So although it's a major program, it's no more major than putting in sewer and water systems to serve the growth that's taking place.

GANTER: Mr. Hayward says sprawl itself can be expensive. Uncontrolled development puts pressure on local systems like sewer, water, and schools. In the long run, Gordon Hayward says the investment could lead to a decrease in taxes. But township trustee Al Gray isn't convinced that tax funded land programs will reduce the infrastructure costs, or save the most valuable land.

GRAY: The program is designed to be voluntary, and so consequently all of the farms you may like to see in the program may not be in the program.

GANTER: He would rather see specific projects funded by donations, rather than a general project funded by an ongoing tax.

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GANTER: Despite Al Gray's doubts, the program has protected 1,200 acres so far. One of the first farmers to benefit from the PDR program is Walter Johnson's son, Ward. He sold the township the development rights on 49 acres of prime orchard. The PDR program paid him $750,000 to keep it his farm land. Ward Johnson still owns the land, but neither he nor future owners can build on it.

JOHNSON: The high land prices that are out here, it's impossible to farm. Where the PDR program has helped me is help make the farm payments.

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GANTER: When Ward Johnson gave up his development rights, the resale value of his land dropped and so did his property taxes. This makes it easier to live off cherry sales. The effort to control growth here goes beyond the purchase of development rights. Peninsula Township is also debating how to make the growth that does occur different from typical sprawl. Township planners say the next step is to build a cohesive village center instead of scattered subdivisions.

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GANTER: The Mapleton Grocery is at the center of the tiny hamlet of Mapleton. At the heart of the peninsula, it sits among rolling hills and country crossroads.

CUTLER: To me, it's almost like a brand new community. You move into an area and everybody says hey, we're going to build the town here.

GANTER: Mike Cutler owns and runs the Mapleton Grocery. He looks forward to an old-time Main Street, which would incorporate shops and schools with small parks and tree-lined residential streets. He also looks forward to the community effort that it would involve.

CUTLER: And everybody, somewhat cooperatively, gets together and says this is how we're going to do it, this is how we're going to lay it out, this is how we're going to plan it. So hopefully, this will be a neat thing where everybody plans it ahead and it follows a pattern, it follows a game plan and stays that way.

GANTER: Supporters of the idea envision a place where people know one another and can easily get around on foot. Surrounding the town would be farm land, expansive orchards like Ward Johnson's permanently protected by the township's land program. But like any pilot project, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. It's still not clear if the community will embrace the village concept or if planning can deliver lower taxes and preserve the landscape. But supporters say at least the community is addressing the issue of growth instead of waiting for decisions to filter down from the state level. Presently, the Michigan legislature is sending mixed signals on growth management. Governor John Engler recently signed a bill making it easier for local governments to create PDR programs like the one in Peninsula Township. However, he also approved changes to the state's Subdivision Control Act, which many believe will encourage more sprawl by making it easier to subdivide land. One thing's for sure, however. Land protection has become a high-profile issue in Michigan. There were 50 land use bills proposed in the last session of the legislature, but it will be some time before lawmakers agree on how to balance development and preservation. Meanwhile, the people of Peninsula Township are moving to define their town and their future. On Old Mission Peninsula I'm J. Carl Ganter for Living on Earth.



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