Opinion: Renewing PDR Will Save More Farmland and Scenic Views

 Opinion: Renewing PDR Will Save More Farmland and Scenic Views


Winery Hill Sunset, Chateau Grand Traverse on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo
Winery Hill Sunset, Chateau Grand Traverse on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo

(Editor’s Note: Joe Gorka says we still have more farmland and scenic views to protect, but however the PDR vote turns out on Tuesday, the residents and leaders of Peninsula Township who helped to launch the program in 1994 should be very proud. For more about the PDR program and how it works, click here. – jb)

Whatever the outcome of the vote on the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) question next Tuesday, if those who are malcontent with the program or its processes and wish to suspend it succeed, one thing is sure — the Old Mission Peninsula community can be pretty darn proud of what’s been accomplished here because of the PDR program since its inception in 1994.

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What’s happened here to satisfy the land conservation goals of a community, I haven’t seen elsewhere, and I’ve served in three Michigan Townships, along with a similarly-sized community in Arizona.

My specialty developed into community planning and land use. I’ve sat on both sides of the table in Planning Commission and Town Board meetings, as residents piled in to object to new subdivision developments proposed for zoning review.

In the communities I served, the land use goals were similar – low population density, limiting commercialization, conserving natural features, keeping at least a semi rural landscape, dark sky, protecting water, connected ecological pathways, connected greenbelts, air quality, protection against flooding, and keeping agriculture and horticulture as much as practical.

My friend Gordon Hayward (former Peninsula Township planner -jb) once reminded me that zoning is not a conservation tool. Zoning simply allows and regulates new land developments with conditions. So many of us come to Planning Commission and board meetings thinking developments can be stopped through zoning or by the board.

In 1994, the Old Mission Peninsula community pioneered the PDR program in Michigan. It gave farmers the opportunity to sell their land development rights to the community via conservation easements in perpetuity and still keep farming!

In 1996 when I was serving as the township supervisor in Saugatuck, we followed the approach we understood from talking with Rob (Manigold, former Peninsula Township Supervisor -jb) and Gordon and gave our voters a chance to initiate a PDR millage program similar to the Peninsula.

Saugatuck borrowed the videos and testimonies, we invited Gordon to present, and we had months of meetings. Some of us had a sense of urgency to pass PDR because the developers of new subdivisions were scouting their farmland looking for sellers.

In Saugatuck, we went through a public process of all stakeholders to identify lands to save from foreseen subdivision developments. We had a millage vote, and the PDR vote didn’t pass. Some of our leading residents asked why they should pay to conserve land that had been around forever for agriculture, views of Lake Michigan, or recreational land opportunities.

It seemed voters didn’t see what land development forces were coming. Within a few years after the failed vote, every one of those properties was sold by families who had owned them for generations. The developers came in with their plans, and our leading residents came into the planning and board meetings to stop the proposed new uses of private land which conformed to the land use and zoning regulations.

The community was forever changed. Farmland and scenic views were replaced with homes, boat slips, paved roads, poor drainage, neighborhood flooding and traffic. Ancient trees were removed, and natural steep slopes were excavated for new lots. Views once open to Lake Michigan were now blocked.

The meetings to prevent all these developments – which could have been in a PDR program a few years earlier – were charged with anger, regrets and lawsuits that produced little more than a nearly bankrupt township general fund and hard feelings which took years to mend.

My admiration is for the residents of the Old Mission Peninsula. Through the PDR program, the community of Peninsula Township is the first I’ve seen to put its money where its goals are over a sustained period of time.

A much deeper and equitable approach to conservation, PDR was introduced to pay land owners to preserve their agricultural lands, viewscapes and trees, and to limit the amount of agricultural lands that are sold to developers – land that grows more people in new subdivisions covering the ground rather than farmers growing crops on good soils.

The PDR solution goes directly to the economics of land use that respects property ownership versus paying nothing and showing up at meetings to try and stop new land owners from becoming subdivision developers.

By the time a land developer buys farmland, it’s too late.

Don and Millie Shea's barn with East Bay in the background, looking east from Wilson Road on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo
Don and Millie Shea’s barn with East Bay in the background, looking east from Wilson Road on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo

In Peninsula Township, because of the PDR program, more than 5000 acres of land will never see a subdivision. Put into perspective, that’s almost eight square miles.

Is that enough? Do we have enough farmland in the PDR program? Are there no more views we wish to protect? Are we ready for more and more subdivisions? Should we stop the PDR program now? Are we satisfied that we have completed the conservation of farmland and bay views?

Is more conservation possible via the PDR program, and are we willing to continue to pay for it? Or are we done?

If the vote passes on Tuesday, the Township has a list of agricultural lands in line for the PDR program. I’d urge anyone interested to learn more. (Editor’s Note: Read more about the PDR program here on the Gazette, or contact Peninsula Township. -jb) I’m surprised by friends who’ve lived here for years and haven’t heard of the PDR program or its accomplishments.

I sense more opportunity for conservation; protection of natural resources, water quality and scenic views; avoiding congestion; and possibly keeping crime levels low – crimes often associated with increased population density.

Whatever the outcome of the PDR vote on Tuesday, residents and leaders of Peninsula Township should feel proud of how we stepped up financially and helped to guard and keep a major portion of what makes this Peninsula what it is, in perpetuity.

-Joe Gorka, Peninsula Township Resident

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