Michiganders Halt Development

Peninsula dwellers vote narrowly to put esthetic values ahead of profit from condos

JUST off the main road that snakes up the middle of Old Mission Peninsula here, a bulldozer and half a dozen workers prepare a grove of cherry trees for clearance. A second crew lays down an asphalt road into a condo development known as Underwood Farms.

The development has chiseled away at one of American agriculture's most treasured microclimates - this 16-by-3-mile peninsula flanked and protected by two bays that extend the growing season for world-famous Michigan tart cherries. The 27 square miles of wetlands, pasture, spruce trees, and apple and cherry farms is also the major tourist attraction for this unspoiled part of the northern Midwest.

In a historic move that is being lauded by local, state, and national organizations alike, a grass-roots group stood up last week and said ``no'' to more development here.

The 5,000-population Peninsula Township has narrowly agreed to more taxes to fund a program intended to preserve farmland and scenic views as they are. The idea has major implications for every local community in the United States that is being buffeted by development pressures but is sitting on its hands, waiting for government to do something.

``I'm convinced it could well become a model for the rest of the Midwest and beyond,'' says Dennis Bidwell, director of land protection for the Washington-based American Farmland Trust. Similar ideas have been used in a half dozen states, mostly on the East or West coasts. But the Michigan vote is the first to come out of a grass-roots effort at the local level.

``We believe the Peninsula Township program will serve as an inspiration for communities across the country seeking new tools for protecting their threatened farmland,'' Mr. Bidwell says.

By a margin of 1,208 to 1,081, voters approved a tax increase of 1.2 mills to raise $2.6 million over 15 years. The money will be used to purchase the development rights to about 20 percent of the peninsula's best farmland with scenic views. The tax increase will cost about $62 per year for the owner of a home with a market value of $100,000.

The township will use the funds to buy the development rights from farmers to some 1,000 to 2,000 acres. The cost of development rights is the difference between the price a farmer could get by developing the land for residential use as opposed to its value for farming only. Gordon Hayward, a township planner, says that averages out to about $2,000 per acre, though some will be more and others less depending on views and agricultural values.

The development vs. farmland issue has been heating up here for about 10 years. Since 1984, some 53 new homes a year have been built on the peninsula, which is a centerpiece tourist attraction for the entire Grand Traverse Bay region. Each new property generated concern that the rustic nature of the area might be irreversibly altered.

Beginning about 18 months ago, a group of local citizens began to examine ways to take more control of the direction in which the area was headed. They examined so-called PDR (purchase of development rights) agreements in several parts of the country, notably Baltimore County, Md., where more than 98,000 acres of farmland have been protected, and Marin County, Calif., where 24,000 acres have been preserved.

``We tailored what we found in those measures to what we felt would work here,'' says John Wunsch, who headed the local committee. One key feature is that participation is voluntary. Farmers may still sell their land to developers, but now they have an option of not doing so.

Lifelong peninsula farmer Walter Johnson, whose family first owned land here in 1879, will get about $350,000. For tax reasons, he is trying to have the money paid in yearly installments, which he says will go to pay off old debts and the purchase of about $100,000 in new cherry-harvesting equipment.

Pointing to a 50-acre shoreline development he participated in, which includes manicured lawns, street-lighted roads, and man-made fountains, Johnson now says: ``I object to what I am seeing on aesthetic and ecological grounds.'' He says natural wetlands were filled in and streams diverted into a fake pond with color-lit fountains.

Farmer Ann Fouch opposed the proposal because she didn't feel much more land would be subdivided. She felt that the program was unfair to senior citizens and those with lots of taxable land. ``We just had a break in our taxes, and now they are going up,'' she says.

But most say the measure merely offers options that farmers previously did not have. ``Every town in the country that is wrestling with growth issues can take its cue from this,'' adds Glen Chown, director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.

``It has created a whole new playing field for growth management.''

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