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Public money may keep sprawl in check

A farm with a red barn in Michigan.

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Kai Ryssdal: Given the current state of the American real-estate industry, suburban sprawl isn't really a phrase in wide circulation anymore. Gone, for now anyway, are the days of farmland being bulldozed to make way for shopping malls or housing complexes. Kent County, Mich., is in no mood to see those days come back. It is considering using public money to keep the sprawl in check. From Michigan Radio, Dustin Dwyer has more.


DUSTIN DWYER: Back in the boom days of the housing market, many farmers got used to regular visits from developers.

DENNIS HEFFRON: Oh yes, oh yes, absolutely. The developers were out there beating the bushes daily.

Dennis Heffron owns 700 acres in Kent County, Mich. Farming is a nearly $200 million industry here, but the county is also home to Michigan's second-largest city, Grand Rapids. More and more, the city's population of nearly 200,000 people has been trickling into the countryside. Heffron says he's turned down offers as high as $4.2 million for his land.

He says farming is his life. He now heads up Kent County's Agricultural Preservation Board. But many others apparently didn't have the same commitment to farming. From 1997 to 2007, the county lost more than 27,000 acres of farmland to development -- a loss of 14 percent.

HEFFRON: Agriculture cannot compete with development when it comes to price of land.

Well, at least that was the case when the county launched its farmland preservation program seven years ago. It set out to keep farms from becoming subdivisions and strip malls by paying farmers not to sell. The preservation program, in effect, buys the legal right to develop the property. For now, the money mostly comes from private foundations, with some matching state and federal dollars. But that money hasn't been enough. The county's goal was to preserve 25,000 acres. So far the total is just over 750, even though there's a waiting of list farmers to participate.

So now, Kent County's elected board of commissioners is looking at spending local taxpayer money for the first time to fund the program. But some are questioning the need, the housing boom's over.

HAROLD VOORHEES: I wish you could find some people who want to build houses. If there was a market for people to own new homes -- the pressure isn't there.

Commissioner Harold Voorhees opposes using taxpayer money for the farmland preservation program. He lives in a rural area himself, and he says he supports farmers. But, he says, it's not the right time to go to taxpayers for help.

Kent County, like most in Michigan, is facing a huge budget deficit. There are plans to lay off more than 140 county workers, about 8 percent of the workforce.

VOORHEES: How would you feel if you go home and tell your wife and your family you lost your job, but then you read that the farmer down the road who owns so many hundred acres is going to get so many dollars so that he'll not sell to somebody to build a house. Not good policy.

Still, despite the tough times in Kent County and many other parts of the country, farmland preservation remains popular.

Bob Wagner is with American Farmland Trust, a national farm preservation group. He says lots of farmers across the country want to sign up.

BOB WAGNER: Most of the statewide programs are seeing no downturn in the interest. There has been a backlog in every major program across the country.

That's even though the money offered has dropped in many areas, along with housing prices. The flip side of that, of course, is that it's cheaper than it used to be to preserve farmland.

Dennis Heffron says a recession may even be the best time to do it.

HEFFRON: It's really an opportunity now, because we're able to buy the development rights for much less money.

And even though the pressure from developers has pretty much disappeared, those involved in conservation say they've seen downturns before. And the push for new office parks, houses, and shopping centers always bounces back once the economy improves.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., I'm Dustin Dwyer for Marketplace.

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