Ingham County pays millions to secure farming future

Beth LeBlanc
Lansing State Journal
Mel Koelling, owner of Tannenbaum Farms, stands among his Christmas trees in Alaledon Township.

ALAIDEN TOWNSHIP, MI - Mel Koelling considers Sandhill Road a “red line” between sleek office space and weathered farm houses, between rows of parking spaces and rows of vegetation, between sprawl and serenity.

Koelling’s Tannenbaum Farms sits at the corner of Sandhill and Okemos roads in Alaiedon Township, directly south of the sprawling Jackson National Life headquarters at Interstate 96 and Okemos Road.

For people driving south on Okemos Road, Koelling’s land marks the end of commercial property and the beginning of farm country.

Koelling hopes it stays that way. Forever. And, legally, parts of it could.

The county has spent about $6.6 million on conservation easements that limit future development on nearly 5,500 acres of farmland scattered along Okemos Road and elsewhere in Ingham County.

The Farmland and Open Space Preservation program promises a future for agricultural lands that would otherwise be gobbled up by development, advocates say.

But the concept also raises questions about the future of those easements should the taxes supporting the program disappear and legal challenges arise.

“We have not in Ingham County encountered that yet,” said Stacy Byers, director of the program. “In my opinion, I think it’s just a matter of time.”

An investment in agriculture for the future

In the 40 years he’s owned the tree farm on Sandhill Road, Mel Koelling has gradually added to the property, building it up to the 180-acre Tannenbaum Farms.

His most recent purchase of 20 acres at the corner of Okemos and Sandhill roads was the first piece of property he put in the county’s preservation program. He eventually wants to put in the whole farm.

Koelling, a former professor in MSU’s department of forestry, bought the 20 acres with farmer Rick Fogle — who purchased and preserved an adjacent 80 acres — when the men heard a housing developer was interested in the land.

The more than $510,000 the county paid for development rights on the 100 acres helped the men to afford the land and develop another wall to developments like Jackson National Life and a growing commercial district on the north side of Interstate 96.

The easements prevent property owners from building commercial, residential or industrial developments on the land, or changing it significantly from the features outlined in the easement, Byers said. The easements can only be broken through eminent domain.

“We have in this country a culture that says land use is determined by its highest economic value,” Koelling said. “I think that’s wrong. I’m all for development, but let’s do it in the right spot.”

The county was able to purchase Koelling's development rights thanks to a .14-mill tax approved by voters in 2008. The tax, which brings in a little less than $1 million a year, sunsets in 2018.

Besides the $6.6 million already spent on conservation easements, officials expect to spend another $1.1 million on three purchases later this month, decisions made by the Farmland and Open Space Preservation Board.

The conservation easements the county has purchased so far have largely been located in Alaiedon Township, Aurelius Township between Mason and Holt, and Leslie.

Rick Fogle’s family has farmed land on Okemos Road, south of Sandhill Road, in Alaiedon Township since the 1920s. Fogle Farms includes a 110-cow dairy farm and a maple syrup supply company called Sugar Bush Supplies.

When Koelling approached Fogle about the property at the corner of Okemos and Sandhill roads, Fogle saw an opportunity to protect the land while using it to grow feed for his cows.

Fogle Farms owner Rick Fogle (left), and Dan Abbott, assistant herd manager, prepare to milk cows in the milking parlor at Fogle Farms.

But the cost of the land was steep, especially after the value climbed with the potential for development. The sale of the property’s development rights made the purchase manageable, Fogle said.

“It keeps it in farmland and I’ve got a nephew here that’s interested in the dairy farm,” Fogle said. “This is one way we can protect it so we can have the farmland to cultivate.”

When Wendy Villarreal sold the county development rights for 80 acres of her Onondaga Township farm in 2012, her property became the first entered into the open space program.

Villarreal bought the property — which includes about 2,000 feet of frontage along the Grand River — in 2008 as a first-time sheep farmer.

Byers said the property was attractive for its mixture of wooded and tillable acres. The county paid $59,000 for development rights on the land.

“I used the money for debt reduction, but it’s not the primary reason,” Villarreal said. “We’re preserving nature, yes. But we’re also preserving our food source.”

Securing the future of farmland

Though they plan to ask for a renewal in 2018, Ingham County officials are preparing for ongoing expenses should it fail.

They want to set up an endowment fund to pay for ongoing monitoring of the easements, Byers said. After it spends the $1.1 million later this month, officials plan to spend the same amount later this year, leaving about $1 million available before the millage expires in 2018.

A 6-year-old chicken roosts in her familiar location in an old barn at Fogle Farms.

Byers said she’s unsure how much will be set aside for an endowment fund but it will likely be much less than the $15 million Washtenaw plans to use.

The county plans to include money in the endowment fund that would pay for any future legal costs.

“Any program that’s ever been established, they have had to go to court to defend an easement,” Byers said. “Especially when we get into the second or third generation of easement holders.”

But Byers said she has faith in the legal strength of those easements.