The main topic of discussion for the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Advisory Commission’s November meeting could be distilled into this: How can the greenbelt program support the development of small farms, and ensure that farm properties remain farms, even when the property changes ownership?
It’s an unlikely resource that might actually be able to help answer those questions: the federal housing programs administered by the Office of Community Development, a joint county/city department.
Jennifer Hall, OCD housing program coordinator, attended the Nov. 4 meeting of the greenbelt group and floated some ideas for how federal funding might provide resources to retain land for the farming community.
The commission also heard from the managing organization of the greenbelt program, The Conservation Fund, about strategies for preserving small farms.
Ensuring a Farming Legacy
Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund, which is under contract with the city to manage the greenbelt program, gave a presentation to commissioners designed, she said, to give them something to “chew on.” She reported she’d recently attended a conference hosted by the Land Trust Alliance, a national organization, and had come back with some ideas about how to preserve farmland in this area. To see an example of the kind of thing that’s possible, Kohring suggested that commissioners go online to view a clip from a documentary called “The Last Crop,” about an attempt by owners of an organic farm in California to make sure their land remains a farm for future generations.
Kohring outlined several ways that farmland could be secured for farming. One option is an agricultural easement stipulating that at least 50% of the landowners’ gross income, averaged over five years, comes from farming. Another option might be for the city, via the greenbelt program, to own the land, with a farmer signing a long-term lease to use the property.
Commissioner Tom Bloomer, a farmer from Webster Township, wondered why there couldn’t just be a deed restriction on the land, limiting it to agricultural use. Kohring said that one issue was the cost of the land itself. New farmers don’t necessarily have the capital to buy the land, she said. Leasing the land to farmers would make it more affordable for them.
Carsten Hohnke, city council’s representative to the greenbelt commission, asked how these other approaches differed from the purchase of development rights (PDR). He noted that just recently the greenbelt advisory commission had approved a deal that would allow a family to sell their farm at a lower price, because of the greenbelt PDR. [See Chronicle coverage: "Frederick Farm in Line to Join Greenbelt"]
Kohring said that none of the greenbelt’s conservation easements – the agreements which put restrictions on property, such as preventing dense housing developments – have required that the land be farmed. The easements put restrictions on what it can’t be used for, not what it must be used for. It would be possible to buy a farm, for example, and use the land as a large mowed back yard, she said.
Laura Rubin, the commission’s chair, clarified that there were two issues of concern: 1) making farmland affordable for new farmers, and 2) permanently restricting the use of the property to farming.
Commissioner Jennifer Santi Hall brought up the fact that Ann Arbor Township had received a federal grant to explore the development of sustainable agriculture. From the project’s website:
The primary outcome of this project is to establish small farms producing for regional markets using purchase of development rights (PDR) to reduce land costs, improve farm profitability and preserve farmland in a near-urban setting. Ann Arbor Township, with its proximity to the City of Ann Arbor and its ample open space and farmland, is an ideal location for this initiative.
In the short term, the project will identify and introduce interested landowners and potential farmers to learn about opportunities to work together and establish small farming operations. In the intermediate term, those relationships will be established and farmers will be encouraged to seek guidance in formulating sound business plans to meet market demands. The long-term outcomes (third year and beyond) will be to have established several operations and to share the results and lessons of our work with others in the immediate region, before reaching out to southeast Michigan, the entire state and beyond.
This project is being viewed as a demonstration for other communities interested in agricultural profitability, land use at the urban/rural interface and local food production. It is expected that new relationships will be created, small farm operations will be established, more local food and other produce will enter the marketplace and lessons will be learned to provide insight and establish the area as a center for innovative approaches to preserving farmland.
Commissioner Dan Ezekiel said that the greenbelt commission’s committee on small farms had been discussing this issue too, in light of the commission’s efforts to prioritize farmland within the greenbelt program. Unfortunately, he said, the size of properties that would be ideal for small farms would also make it attractive as a large estate with a single house. Even if the greenbelt program buys development rights with the expectation that the land be used for farming, right now there’s nothing to prevent the land from being used merely as a residence.
Kohring encouraged commissioners to consider ways that they might institutionalize the commitment to small farms.
Affordable Housing for Farmers
Jennifer L. Hall, housing program coordinator for the Office of Community Development, talked to greenbelt commissioners about how the Urban County program might be a path for helping to make small farms affordable. The Urban County is a consortium of townships and cities within Washtenaw County that are eligible for the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which funds low- and moderate-income housing, infrastructure and other community development projects.
Hall said that for the Urban County’s federally-funded affordable housing projects, restrictions can be placed on the property with regard to the buyer’s income level at the time of purchase. Owners can also be restricted from reselling the dwelling to anyone who doesn’t meet those income requirements. She said that the Urban County hadn’t targeted farms in the past, but there was no reason why they couldn’t use federal dollars and apply the same income restrictions for someone purchasing a small farm through the Urban County’s housing program.
Right now, 11 jurisdictions are part of the Urban County partnership. They include the cities of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, and the townships of Ann Arbor, Bridgewater, Northfield, Pittsfield, Salem, Scio, Superior York and Ypsilanti. Nationwide, dollars are awarded to designated urban areas and urban counties based on a calculation that includes factors such as population, poverty rate and infant mortality rate, among others. Locally, an Urban County Executive Committee, chaired by county commissioner Leah Gunn, determines how those funds are used within the participating municipalities, which propose projects for consideration.
Hall said that rural communities who participate in Washtenaw’s Urban County might be excited about a focus on small farms. York Township, for example, is considered a “donor” township because it typically contributes more federal dollars to the Urban County pool than it gets back in projects.
In response to questions from commissioners, Hall said that funds could be available for rehab as well as new construction. The deed restrictions – requiring that the property be sold to people below a certain income level – would apply in perpetuity. The owner’s income level could increase while they owned the property – the only thing that mattered was their income level at the time of purchase.
Commissioner Gil Omenn said that the program seemed to offer more options than they’d previously considered. The harder question, he said, is whether they feel strongly enough to promote this approach. “That’s a whole other level of activity,” he said.