State agricultural officials in Michigan, instead of protecting valuable farmland, are protecting Wal-Mart. The Bay City Times reports today that the state’s Department of Agriculture has reversed its earlier position, and allowed a landowner in Portsmouth, Michigan to squirm out of an agricultural preseveration deal years in advance, in order to make millions off a sale of his land to Wal-Mart. This project has been bitterly opposed in Portsmouth for the past two and a half years. A citizen group narrowly lost a rezoning vote in May of 2005. Portsmouth voters approved a rezoning for a Wal-Mart supercenter, but the vote spread between the two sides of the issue was very small. The vote was 884 in favor, to 621 opposed, which means that if only 132 people had switched their vote to against, the measure would have been defeated. The project subsequently got stalled at the state level, because the land Wal-Mart wanted was under an Act 116 agreement, which gave the landowner a tax break for preserving farmland. But this week, Richard A. Harlow, the state’s program manager for farmland preservation, ruled that the 27-acre parcel of land along M-15 could be released from Public Act 116. Property owner Chris Ratajczak can now sell his property to Wal-Mart for development. The state will require Ratajczak to repay all tax credits he has received on the property for the last seven years, plus 6 percent interest, but he can simply deduct this from his multi-million sales price to Wal-Mart, and come out a very rich man. The state will also require that Ratajczak set aside a permanent conservation easement on 54.5 acres within the township. In 2005, state officials refused to release the property from P.A. 116, saying it could lead to urban sprawl and that there were more reasonable sites in the area for a Wal-Mart supercenter. The Portsmouth Township Board of Trustees in January gave support for Ratajczak’s application, something it didn’t do in 2005. Friends of Portsmouth Township told the newspaper it plans to file an administrative appeal against the decision. ”We’re obviously disappointed in the decision and quite puzzled since the state denied the exact same request a year ago and nothing’s changed since then,” said Scott Howard, attorney for Friends of Portsmouth Township. The site plan is currently in court, because the Friends of Portsmouth filed suit against the project in 2005. Bay County Circuit Judge William J. Caprathe has yet to issue a ruling.
This landowner voluntarily entered into a contract with the state to be paid to keep his agricultural land out of development. The state initially was firm on the subject of not releasing the property owner from that agreement, which he entered on his own. The state has an important public purpose in preserving the use of land for agricultural uses and preventing sprawl. Converting it for use as a supercenter makes no sense from a public need, since this area of Michigan is already saturated with big box stores. State officials were no doubt under pressure from Wal-Mart and the landowner to cave in, which they have now done. The fact remains that the landowner may be chasing the highest dollar, but that does not mean state officials have to follow. They have an obligation to the citizens of Michigan to run an agricultural preservation program that is not influenced by wealthy developers. It appears that Michigan is for sale to the highest bidder, when public officials reverse course and allow malls to occupy land that was under a preservation contract. Local residents have good reason to continue their legal battle, and to speak out about the way that Richard Harlow has undermined the credibility of his own preservation program. If P.A. 116 contracts can be cancelled by the landowners, then the documents are worthless in the first place. For earlier stories, search Newsflash by “Portsmouth.”