The August 2 election is right around the corner, and you’ve probably seen the “Vote Yes on PDR” and “Vote No on PDR” signs popping up across the Old Mission Peninsula. PDR stands for “Purchase of Development Rights,” and if you’re unfamiliar with what it is and how it works, here’s your chance to get caught up before you cast your ballot. Read on…
History of the PDR Program
On August 2, 1994, Peninsula Township voters approved a property tax increase to fund a $6 million program to purchase development rights on farmland. The program had been developed over many years by township farmers, elected leaders and concerned citizens to support the local farming industry and better manage growth.
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My dad, Walter Johnson, was the first Peninsula Township farmer to commit to putting his land into the program if the voters passed it. Glen Chown, OMP resident and executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC), told me once that without Dad’s support of the program before it actually became a program, it would have been a much tougher sell to voters.
In Dad, Peninsula Township voters could see a lifelong farmer who was willing to sell his development rights for a variety of reasons: to preserve the farmland that had been in his family since the 1800s, to protect the scenic views and rural landscape for all Peninsula residents, and to allow his own family to continue farming that same land.
My brothers, Dean Johnson and Ward Johnson, continue to farm land that’s been in our family and other OMP families for generations. Both Dean and Ward have said they would not still be farming today without Dad’s vision and participation in the PDR program.
Below is a photo of my dad, standing, and his brother, Guy Johnson (fourth generation OMP farmers), with their Case DO tractor and sprayer in the 1940s on the “home farm” north of Mapleton. And below that is a photo of my brothers, Dean and Ward (fifth generation farmers), standing by the spray barn on that same land today.
Ward’s son, Nick, now works the farm, as well. He is the sixth generation farmer in the Johnson family, and also the resident pest control expert (see my interview with him here).
Check out all Johnson Farms stories here. They are one of the bigger farming operations on the Old Mission Peninsula, thanks, in part, to the PDR program.
Back in 1994, PDR programs had been active in nine states via grants, bonds and other programs, but Peninsula Township was the first community to actually tax itself to protect farmland by purchasing development rights. In essence, voters agreed to pay farmers to keep their land in agriculture, giving them an alternative to turning the land into housing developments.
I’ve talked with many township residents over the years who weren’t even aware of the PDR program, or knew little about its origins and how it works. But when Peninsula Township voters decided to make it a done deal in 1994, it was groundbreaking across the country, setting a precedent for other farming communities. Stories about it were published in the Associated Press, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune and many others. The CBS program, “This Morning,” even ran a story on it.
The press coverage created a demand for more information about the Township’s program, which spurred the American Farmland Trust, in cooperation with MSU’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, to produce a case study about the program. Read that case study here.
As Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust, said at the time, the interest in the program went far beyond Peninsula Township, encouraging other communities to explore similar programs to preserve their own farmland.
“The citizens of Peninsula Township remind us that a shared vision and hard work can reverse a scenario considered inevitable in so many other communities,” he said. “They show us we can protect our land resources and preserve the heritage that gives our communities their very identities.”
The PDR program in Peninsula Township was renewed in 2002 for 20 years, bringing us to 2022, where it once again will be up for a vote on the August 2 ballot.
“We’ve done a great job protecting a lot of farmland already, but in Peninsula Township, there’s probably one more big push that needs to happen,” he said. “It needs to be aggressive and with the understanding that if this farmland isn’t protected as we go through these generational transitions, we’ll probably lose our shot at preserving it.”
He added, “You only develop farmland once. Pavement is the last crop.”
PDR Renewal Planning Group Forms in 2019
In 2019, a PDR Planning Group met to discuss a potential renewal of the PDR millage in order to protect additional farmlands within the Agricultural Preserve Area. The group included the Township’s Supervisor and Planner and representatives from the Township Board, Planning Commission, the initial PDR Drafting Committee, the PDR Selection Committee and the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.
An “Evaluation of the Peninsula Township Farmland Preservation Program,” written by Tom Daniels, Ph.D. on behalf of the GTRLC in 2008, was reviewed and the Conservancy staff recommended that the PDR Ordinance be updated to better define the management processes for PDR.
A core group, known as the PDR Study Group, then took on the task of updating the PDR Ordinance. There have been substantial changes to processes since the original 1994 PDR Ordinance was adopted that needed to be reflected in the third amendment to the PDR Ordinance.
At a joint meeting on July 12, 2022, the Peninsula Township Board and Planning Commission voted unanimously to adopt the PDR Amendment #3 ordinance language and send it to the August 2 ballot for voters to decide whether to reinstate the program.
How the PDR Program Works
The PDR program is a voluntary farmland protection program which pays farmland owners to permanently restrict development on their land, offering cash to farmers who are often “land rich and cash poor.” Farmers who sell their development rights retain ownership and can continue to farm their land as they did before.
The legal mechanism used to permanently restrict the development rights on farmland is a conservation easement, a deed restriction recognized by federal law and the laws of every state. The PDR/conservation easements remain with the land in perpetuity, so the use restrictions remain in force for all future owners of the land. It is a one-time business transaction with a willing landowner based on appraised value.
If a farmer chooses to apply for the PDR program, their property is prioritized by a point system to identify the order in which lands can enter the program. An appraisal determines how much higher the value of the land would be for a developer than for a farmer. The land owner is paid the difference in those values to put a permanent deed restriction on the property so it cannot be developed for residential use. Other restrictions may be added to protect values such as public views and visual open space.
Impact of PDR on Farmers and Residents
Since its inception in 1994, the PDR program has preserved 3,291 acres in Peninsula Township, keeping those farms from development and instead allowing farms to pass to the next generation of farmers, as is the case with Isaiah Wunsch and my brothers, noted above.
The program also helped inspire and leverage another 1,890 acres of preservation by the state of Michigan, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, and the American Farmland Trust.
As a result, a total of 5,181 acres of the 9,861 acres in Peninsula Township’s farmland preservation zone are now under permanent preservation easements that prevent residential development.
How Much More Farmland Can Be Saved and What Will it Cost Voters?
According to RenewPDR.com, the website established by the PDR Study Group mentioned above, reinstating the program will preserve another 3,000 acres of farmland and continue to preserve Peninsula Township’s scenic views and rural agricultural heritage.
By voting yes for PDR, notes the website, the owner of a home with a taxable assessed value of $250,000 will pay $5.99 a month over last year’s PDR expense. Significant matching funds are available for farmland preservation, but without reinstating the PDR millage, those matching funds will be impossible to secure.
As noted in the 2019 survey, a majority of Peninsula Township residents appreciate the rural, quiet character of the Peninsula, scenic views, and air and water quality, among other things.
If you have questions about how much the PDR program will cost you individually, check with Peninsula Township and get specific info directly from them, based on your own home value.
Update: From John Wunsch, who worked on the original program, as well as the current renewal:
An actual example is great way to get a better understanding of taxable value, state equalized value (SEV), and market value: If you owned your home for some time, the taxable value is usually significantly less than the SEV, which theoretically, is half the market value. Using one actual example of a Peninsula property owner who has occupied his home for seven years, the SEV is $364,200 (approximate market value of $728,000), but the taxable value is only $231,716, or roughly 32 percent of the market value. The total 2 mill PDR tax on that nearly million-dollar property is $463 per year, or $39 per month. And of course, additionally, the Headlee Amendment will reduce the millage over time. – John Wunsch
Also, read Township Assessor Sally Murray’s story, which clarifies some misconceptions about the PDR program.
A Brief History of Farming on the Old Mission Peninsula
As noted in the American Farmland Trust case study, the Old Mission Peninsula has supported agriculture as long as people have inhabited it. When the first European settlers arrived in 1839, Native Americans were growing corn, squash and apples within an extensive forest. The lumber industry, which began harvesting timber on the Peninsula in 1847, accelerated the conversion of forest to farmland. Concurrently, treaties between the federal government and the native inhabitants opened land for homesteading.
Peninsula Township was incorporated on April 4, 1853. One year earlier, the Rev. Peter Dougherty, the region’s first European settler, had planted a cherry orchard in the village of Old Mission. Another early settler, John Garland, raised the first peach crop in 1859. By 1867, so much fruit was grown that a fruit center and exchange was established on the Peninsula to ship the produce to other ports on the Great Lakes.
The first commercial cherry orchard opened on the Peninsula in 1893. Many area farmers followed suit, converting potato fields to cherry orchards to take advantage of the lucrative cherry market, which grew when lake and overland rail transportation improved. The cherry conversion was so rapid that by 1905, red tart cherries had become the dominant crop in the area. Fruit was shipped to Chicago, Milwaukee, Toledo and Detroit via rail or lake schooner.
Here’s a schooner docked at Haserot Beach in the 1800s.
The Peninsula’s rolling terrain and unique microclimate offers perfect growing conditions for cherries and other fruits. Cold air settles in the valleys, creating warm pockets for planting atop hillsides. Lake Michigan plays a large role, too, as its waters keep the area cool in the spring, thus preventing early buds that could be destroyed by frost. In the fall, the lake warms the land mass long after summer has ended. As a result, the area has at least 50 more growing days per year than areas further inland at the same latitude.
Over the years, peaches, pears, apricots, plums and apples were planted, and more recently, vineyards have begun dotting the landscape for the Peninsula’s burgeoning winery industry. But the importance of cherries cannot be understated. In 1923, community leaders instituted the “Blessing of the Blossoms” ceremony, which continues to this day.
Leave your own thoughts on the PDR program in the comments section below.