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Ottawa County celebrates Hehl farm preservation Thursday

By Caleb Whitmer/The Holland Sentinel • Sep 28, 2016 at 7:58 PM

POLKTON TWP. — The Ottawa County government will celebrate its first preserved farm on Thursday.

The county has a program to purchase the development rights to local farmland, thereby preserving that land’s use for future farming. The first such agreement was approved earlier this year, nearly a decade since the county board began discussion about setting up the program.

“This is a first for Ottawa County,” said Cliff Meeuwsen, chairman of the county’s Agricultural Preservation Board. “This program preserves farmland and ‘green’ space for future generations, and we should remember that without timely rains and farmland, we could not exist.”

Ottawa County will mark the occasion of its first development rights purchase with a sign unveiling and picnic at the Hehl farm, 14468 88th Ave. near Coopersville, at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29.

Ottawa County official Paul Sachs said the county is in a unique situation that makes a farmland preservation program so important. In terms of population, the county is the fastest growing in Michigan. At the same time, it is one of the most bountiful agriculture producers in the state.

“With those two ingredients,” said Sachs, who is director of the county’s Planning and Performance Improvement Department, “it is important to promote economic development and simultaneously protect our agricultural land.”

The program’s first participants, Matt and Amy Hehl, sold the development rights, valued at about $45,000, to nearly 35 acres of their land. They use the plot as a hog and cattle farm.

All money for the program comes from private donations or grants, Sachs said. The Hehls also donated a quarter of the property’s value.

Once the county owns a property’s development rights, all future owners of the land must honor the agreement between the Hehls and Ottawa County.

The County Board of Commissioners started the program in 2008 when it commissioned the Agricultural Preservation Board. That board then developed the program for the next few years, finally selecting the Hehl farm for its inaugural preservation in 2014.

As much of the program’s delay was due to its newness, Sachs said he expects future farm preservation deals will move more quickly.

To be considered for the program, a property must meet a “fairly rigid” criteria, according to Sachs. More than half the land must be actively farmed, it must be “prime” or “unique” farmland, and the agreement must have the support of the local township, among other requirements.

Matt Hehl, a former county commissioner, pushed for the program’s conception a decade ago and was eager to be one of the first participants, Sachs said.

“Matt and Amy Hehl have been big advocates for farmland preservation for years,” Sachs said.

Sachs said the preservation board is working on another property in Chester Township. It hopes to purchase the development rights sometime next year.

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