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Officials Seek to Preserve Cherry Farm Tradition : Agriculture: Leaders in Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula propose a tax increase to buy up development rights and stem the flow of subdivisions into their 20-mile-long slice of land.

August 02, 1994|JOHN FLESHER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

OLD MISSION, Mich. — For almost a century, orchards have flourished amid the rolling hills, well-drained soils and Lake Michigan breezes of the Old Mission Peninsula, where fruit farming is a way of life and the cherry is a cultural icon.

But the breathtaking vistas afforded by this 20-mile-long spit of land are also drawing developers of subdivisions and country estates, who offer farmers more money than some can turn their backs on.

Amid warnings that they risk losing their treasured open spaces, which draw sightseers from across the Midwest, voters will decide today whether to boost property taxes. The increase would raise $2.6 million over 15 years to buy development rights to thousands of acres, in effect paying willing farmers to keep farming instead of selling out.

The owner of a house worth $100,000 on Old Mission Peninsula now pays $1,150 a year in property taxes. The proposed increase would hike that by $62.

"This is a fabulous opportunity to protect precious farmland and . . . some of the most spectacular views you can find," said Glen Chowan, director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.

Opponents say taxes are high enough and express irritation at newcomers who want farmers to forgo lucrative offers just so they can keep their pretty views.

"I'm very bitter against all these protection groups," said Ann Fouch, who with her husband has raised fruit on the peninsula for 44 years.

"None of these people who've come out here and built these beautiful homes has ever done anything for us. . . . What right have they got to tell us what to do with our land?"

The peninsula is the scenic crown jewel of Grand Traverse County in Michigan's northwestern Lower Peninsula. Grand Traverse and three neighboring counties produce 40% of the nation's tart cherries--the ones made into pie filling. They grow 12% of its sweet cherries, used for juices, canning and table fruit. One in every 20 of the region's jobs is linked to cherry farming.

Of the peninsula's 17,000 acres, 10,000 are zoned for agriculture, although only 7,000 are being farmed. That means there's still plenty of open space, but officials are nervous about the steadily encroaching subdivisions and pricey vacation homes that dot the shoreline.

About 4,300 people permanently live on the peninsula, but current zoning would allow a population approaching 30,000, officials say.

If enough cherry farms disappear, courts could order a zoning change from agricultural to commercial, allowing an influx of hotels, restaurants and strip malls, warns Peninsula Township planner Gordon Hayward.

The prospect is ominous for many farmers, who say their delicate coexistence with residents, particularly new arrivals, is fraying.

It's not just the housing developments, growers say. It's the single families who move to the country and then gripe about farm noise and pesticides. It's rowdy youths who strip cherries from trees and damage equipment in the field.

"If that kind of thing keeps up, I may reach the point where I just don't want to put up with it any more," said Rob Manigold, a 43-year-old cherry farmer and township supervisor.

"My family has been farming here for nearly 100 years," Manigold said. "I'd like to stay in farming and pass it on to my children. But if we don't take action now, I don't know if that will be possible."

Supporters of the preservation plan hope the $2.6 million would buy development rights to 1,100 to 2,000 acres. Combined with state money, private grants and other sources, they hope ultimately to protect 9,000 acres.

"We aren't saying let's slam the door and not let anyone else in," Hayward said. "What we're trying to do is channel the growth in ways that won't destroy our agriculture industry and our quality of life."

Supporters acknowledge a big obstacle in Michigan's longstanding hostility to property taxes, which for years were well above the national average. Only five months ago, voters approved a sweeping rollback in exchange for a higher sales tax.

On the peninsula, supporters hope anti-tax fever will be cooled by the prospect of losing a cherished way of life.

Walter Johnson, 71, a lifelong resident of peninsula cherry farms, said he'll be the first to offer his development rights for sale if the plan passes.

"If I'd wanted to live in a suburb, I'd have left the farm a long time ago," Johnson said. "I have a great attachment to this land, this way of life. . . . It's in my blood."

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