Burning Interest in Ann Arbor Parks

Also, a heads up: West Park to be closed all summer

Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission (Feb. 23, 2010): Approval of new policies for gifts, sponsorships and naming opportunities in the parks system was the only vote taken at Tuesday’s PAC meeting.

A sign at the entrance to Ann Arbor's West Park, which will be closed in March through the summer for extensive renovations. (Photo by the writer.)

But commissioners heard updates on a range of issues, from capital projects – including the months-long closing of West Park, starting in March – to a report on the greenbelt program.

And though snow has blanketed the area, work is underway to prep for controlled burns throughout the city’s parks and natural areas. Commissioners got a report on that effort, which includes a public meeting on March 2 and volunteer training the following day. The topic also provided some fodder for puns – in introducing the presentation, PAC chair Scott Rosencrans joked that they’d be “burning with interest” to hear the report.

Natural Area Preservation: “Why Do We Use Fire?”

Dave Borneman, manager of the city’s Natural Area Preservation program, known as NAP, began his update on controlled burns by giving some history on the use of fire for clearing land, which he said dates back hundreds of years to when native Americans in this area used the approach.

Giving this “ancient pulse of energy” to the land has many benefits, Borneman said. It discourages the growth of most woody vegetation, takes care of the encroachment of non-native shrubs, and stimulates the growth of native wildflowers, among other things. He gave several examples, including the fact that the Upland Boneset – a wildflower not recorded here since 1937 – emerged after one of the city’s controlled burns.

The process starts with an inventory of the area to be burned, which is included as part of a more comprehensive burn plan. NAP staff get permits from the fire department, and permission from landowners, if access is needed through private land. They notify the public through letters to nearby homes and notices in the parks, and hold informational meetings two times a year.

The next public meeting is on Tuesday, March 2 at the Leslie Science & Nature Center, 1831 Traver Road, starting at 7:30 p.m. That will be followed on March 3 by a half-day volunteer training session, also at the center from noon-5 p.m. Borneman said that many people in the burn crew are volunteers.

To prepare for a burn, the crew surrounds the entire site with swaths of cleared land called burn breaks. They also use a leaf blower to remove leaves from logs, so they’ll be less likely to catch fire. Then they wait for the weather – burns are entirely dependent on weather conditions, Borneman said. The best days tend to be in late March and early April, then again in early November.

On the day of a burn, staff tries to get the word out – through announcements on the radio, signs in the park, and other means. They alert the city’s dispatch operations, in case residents call in, thinking it’s a real fire – “then away we go!” Borneman said.

There’s always a city PR person on site during a burn, to explain what’s happening. Borneman said schoolchildren sometimes attend – the April 1 burn in Buhr Park is especially popular, he said, as part of the Buhr Park Children’s Wet Meadow Project.

Some burns are more difficult than others. The small prairie along Huron River Parkway is tricky, Borneman said, because of its proximity to a heavily-used road. In general, smoke is more of a concern than fire, because smoke is harder to control. That’s one reason why most burn sites are fairly small, Borneman said – in the 5-10 acre range. They also burn during the dormant season, when plants are dry and therefore will generate less smoke. Burns are also done, whenever possible, on days when the atmospheric conditions maximize air lift, allowing the smoke to rise up and out of the area.

Responding to a question from commissioner John Lawter, Borneman said animals aren’t at risk from the slow burns that are done, since they burrow underground – even a quarter inch beneath the surface, the soil temperature can remain unchanged during the burn. Often the crew will see mice and toads scurrying around following a burn, he added – the threat to them is more from hawks than from the fire.

Commissioner Karen Levin asked how often areas are burned. It depends, Borneman said. Of the 150 city parks and nature areas, it’s not possible to do them all. Some sites are burned annually, some never, he said. In general, there are burns in 70-80 sites. Commissioner Gwen Nystuen asked about the burns done in the Ruthven Nature Area, near Gallup Park. NAP has done a lot of burning there with great results, Borneman said.

Lawter noted that others are doing controlled burns, not just the city – including private companies and the University of Michigan. That’s because there’s more interest in native landscaping, Borneman said. He gave credit to Bob Grese, director of UM’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, for starting up burns in this area – Grese’s own front yard is burned each year. In addition to burns on UM and Washtenaw County property, the Ann Arbor Public Schools does one each year at the prairie next to Pioneer High School, Borneman said.

He concluded by urging residents to sign up for alerts about NAP activities by emailing nap@a2gov.org.

Greenbelt Update

At the September 2009 meeting of the city’s Greenbelt Advisory Commission, Scott Rosencrans attended and introduced himself as the new chair of PAC, and said he looked forward to the two groups working together. On Tuesday, Laura Rubin reciprocated.

Rubin, who chairs GAC and serves as executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, gave park commissioners an update on the greenbelt program. She noted that an April 6 joint meeting of GAC and PAC has been scheduled, to talk about common issues for the two groups.

A 30-year millage at 0.5 mill was passed in 2003 to generate funds for the greenbelt. The greenbelt commission’s first strategic plan, approved in 2005, outlined priorities for the program. Those included a goal of forming 1,000-acre blocks of protected land, an emphasis on partnership and on leveraging funding from other sources. Rubin noted that three townships, for example – Scio, Webster and Ann Arbor – all have millages for land preservation, and have partnered with the greenbelt program on the purchase of development rights (PDR) in those areas.

Washtenaw County – specifically its natural areas preservation program – has been another partner. The greenbelt is also part of Preserve Washtenaw, a consortium of local groups working on land preservation.

The strategic plan gives priority to farmland and land along the Huron River, Rubin said. The deals are usually PDRs – buying the rights to development, which prevents the land from being used for purposes other than farmland or open space. The millage can only be used for acquisition, not management. In the cases where land needs to be managed, another partner – like Washtenaw County – takes the lead. The greenbelt program has partnered with the county on three purchases, Rubin said.

Since its inception, the greenbelt program has closed 15 transactions, spending $12.37 million and covering 1,782 acres. Those deals included an additional $11.85 million that came from other sources, such as the townships and federal funds.

As a result, Rubin said, “we are starting to see a greenbelt forming around Ann Arbor.” That includes nearly 900 acres in Webster Township alone.

Rubin outlined some recent changes in the program. For one, the market has changed dramatically over the past five years. Appraised values were far higher then, and there was competition from developers for many of the properties. Now, appraisals are dropping rapidly and the city’s greenbelt program is one of the only buyers in the market, Rubin said. In fact, they’re getting applications from developers who are trying to unload property previously set for development. [The implications of a drop in appraisals – which are affecting two deals that haven't yet closed – were discussed at the greenbelt commission's Feb. 10, 2010 meeting.]

The greenbelt commission is also putting more of an emphasis on the local food network, Rubin said. Farms must be 40 acres or more to qualify for federal funding for a purchase of development rights. In the greenbelt program’s previous scoring system – used to prioritize purchases – that size was give higher priority, because of the federal funds. The greenbelt commission has revised its scoring to give higher priority to small farms and community-supported agriculture, known as CSAs. Local residents buy shares in CSAs and receive produce from the farm. [See Chronicle coverage: "Greenbelt Explores Support for Small Farms"]

Rubin concluded by saying it’s an opportune time for land preservation, with less competition, lower land values and more funding coming in through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Rosencrans asked how natural areas and open space fit into the greenbelt program. Rubin replied that the program has designated about 10% of the greenbelt funds for high-quality natural areas, but one hurdle is land management – they don’t have funds to maintain properties. Having a partner like Washtenaw County helps, she said – the county can manage properties through their natural areas preservation program.

Rosencrans also wondered whether agribusiness was a competitor in terms of acquiring farmland. Not really, Rubin replied – in the past, it’s mostly been developers who were buying property in the county. The other difficulty initially in signing PDR deals with farmers was a skepticism about the program itself, she added. They had concerns about the city coming out and managing their land. The first few deals were important in building the program’s reputation.

Sam Offen asked whether there was a requirement to continue farming the land, as part of the PDR deal. Rubin said there are restrictions on development – no more than 2% of the land can be an impervious surface – but the land could lie fallow.

Offen also wondered how much more land the greenbelt program could buy, given current market conditions. That was difficult to answer, Rubin said. There’s about $13 million left in the fund balance, but land prices vary – property that’s closer to Ann Arbor is more expensive. It also depends on how many matching funds are available.

Rosencrans noted that both the park advisory commission and the greenbelt advisory commission used the same consultants – The Conservation Fund – and that he looked forward to stronger communication and partnership. Rubin agreed, noting that there was a bit of gray area regarding land acquisition, and that she was looking forward to talking about these issues at their April 6 joint meeting.

Millage-Funded Land Acquisition: An Update

Highlighting the common ground shared by both commissions, Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund also gave a presentation at Tuesday’s meeting. She updated commissioners on the city’s land acquisition efforts related to the open space and parkland preservation millage, which funds the greenbelt as well as land acquisition for parks. [She gave a similar report at the greenbelt advisory commission's Dec. 9, 2009 meeting.]

A goal for parks acquisition in 2008-09 was to complete one or two acquisitions, including at least one donation. The city completed the purchase of a conservation easement on 10 acres in Scio Township, in partnership with the township. Four other deals are expected to close this fiscal year, including the purchase of a parcel on Chapin Street near West Park, which the city council approved in December 2009.

Another goal for 2008-09 dealt was to rezone and annex 30 parks that had been acquired by the city. The rezoning of that annexed land to public land – was completed. The annexation of land that was previously in township “islands” within the city is in progress.

Trocchio reviewed financial statements for the millage, clarifying that one-third of the revenue is for parks, and two-thirds for the greenbelt. In fiscal 2009, land acquisitions for parks totaled $237,444. The fund balance for the parks share of the millage was $4.7 million as of June 30, 2009 – the end fiscal 2009.

Reviewing administrative costs, Trocchio noted that a cap of 6% had been put on those costs over the life of the bond, through 2023. At the end of October 2009, $3.1 million remained of that amount. [At its Dec. 21 meeting, city council approved a one-year contract with The Conservation Fund for $119,565, with possible renewals at $113,661 for a second year and $106,797 for the third year.]

Trocchio also showed calculations comparing administrative expenses to total expenditures. They’re hovering around 3-4%, she said. Total expenditures from the millage in FY09 were $4.26 million, for example, with administrative expenses of $184,924 – or 4.3%.

Several commissioners had questions for Trocchio. John Lawter asked about the jump in expenses for information technology – from $2,500 in fiscal 2007 to $12, 612 in FY08 and $21,540 in FY09. Trocchio said it reflected a change in the way the city charged for IT services to the different city units. Colin Smith, parks and recreation manager, added that it now reflects true IT costs, including the different software programs that are being used by Trocchio and Peg Kohring, a Conservation Fund manager who works with the city.

Sam Offen asked what was included in administrative expenses – did that include things like land appraisals? Appraisals are calculated into the cost of the acquisition, Trocchio explained. Whenever possible, expenses are allocated to specific properties, to make sure the true cost of the acquisition is known. She clarified that The Conservation Fund staff is paid on an hourly basis.

Capital Improvements

Parks planner Amy Kuras gave an update on capital projects that were completed in the city’s parks over the past year, and previewed those being considered for 2010. Some highlights:

  • The ice rink floor was replaced at Buhr Park Ice Arena. It was a complex, labor-intensive project, Kuras said, involving two layers of piping – a lower layer for heating to prevent permafrost, then a layer of insulation, then piping for refrigeration and an 18” slab of concrete. The arena is open for skating again. The spring, they’ll add a barrier-free entry – a sloping sidewalk – to the pool and ice rink complex.
  • A barrier-free sloping sidewalk was added to the Kempf House Museum, at 312 S. Division. A porch was replaced with a stoop and steps that are more historically accurate, Kuras said.
  • Most of the steel beams and decking were replaced at Bandemer Park bridge. The vehicle bridge at Gallup Park was also repaired – railings on that bridge will be replaced later this year.
  • Pathways were renovated in South Maple, Huron Highlands and Sugarbush parks. Renovations at Leslie Park Golf Course included path upgrades, benches, installation of “very fancy pit toilets,” an expanded tunnel and replacement of a bridge.
  • One shade structure was added near the vending machines at Fuller Park Pool, and another one was extended.
  • At the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, lights were replaced, bird screens installed and the structures were painted. The city is planning to upgrade the electrical system, Kuras said, extending electrical service to portions of the market where it is currently unavailable to vendors.
  • Pétanque courts in Burns Park were donated by Howard Ando and Jane Wilkinson, who are planning to program events for the coming season, Kuras said.
  • A new de-humidification system was added to the Veterans Memorial Park ice arena – it had been “pretty cloudy in there,” Kuras said. The city also renovated locker rooms there and installed a new fire suppression system.
  • The kitchen at Cobblestone Farm was renovated, as it wasn’t meeting needs of caterers for large events held there, Kuras said. A trash shoot and dumb waiter are being installed.
  • The Mary Beth Doyle Park disc golf course is complete, and a sign with a map of the course will be added. The park is off of Packard, east of Cobblestone Farm.
  • A shelter was added at Olson dog park, off of Dhu Varren on the city’s north side, and the parking lot was repaved.

Kuras also mentioned the major West Park renovations that are underway – the park will close in March and remain closed through the summer. One of the main goals is to improve stormwater management on the site. [Kuras had given a detailed presentation about the changes at PAC's August 2009 meeting. See Chronicle coverage: "West Park Renovations Get Fast-Tracked"]

As part of that project, Kuras said she’s working with the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission to design new seat walls that will be set into the hill opposite the park’s band shell. [See Chronicle coverage: "Artists Sought for West Park Project"]

Several questions from commissioners related to the West Park project. Tim Berla asked whether there were still plans to include gardens from the nonprofit Project Grow. Kuras said there was space in the master plan for those gardens.

Mike Anglin, who represents Ward 5 on city council, said he’d heard some grumblings about the final designs not including a dog park. Kuras said that all of the mowed areas of the park are heavily used. At a previous PAC meeting, John Lawter had floated the possibility of putting a dog park in the recently acquired Chapin Street property, adjacent to the park. Kuras said that lot was too small for a dog park.

Anglin also asked whether Kuras had any control over the crossing at Chapin and Huron. No, Kuras said, but Eli Cooper – the city’s transportation program manager – is in contact with the Michigan Dept. of Transportation about it. Although vehicles are supposed to stop for pedestrians using the crosswalk, that rarely occurs – making the crossing hazardous. West Park lies to the north of Huron, and the Ann Arbor YMCA is located at the southeast corner of Huron and Chapin.

Scott Rosencrans asked about the decision to use wooden decking on the bridges at Bandemer and Gallup – that gives it a lot of character, he said, but what about durability? Kuras said she’d been concerned about that too, and that they’d looked at other materials, including concrete and metal grating. The challenge with concrete is that the entire stretch would need to be torn out if you needed to access the bridge beneath it for repairs, whereas with wood planks, limited portions could be removed.

Grating was a problem because during the winter, salt from vehicles would get through to the structural part of the bridge, corroding the cor-ten steel. Cor-ten had been a popular material for bridge construction because its self-rusting quality was believed to provide a protective coating. That works in Florida, Kuras noted wryly, but not so well in northern states. This will be a problem statewide, she added, because many of Michigan’s bridges were built with this material.

Tim Berla asked about the possibility of putting recycling bins next to trash bins at the Mary Beth Doyle disc golf course. He hated to see recyclables being put into the trash, just because there wasn’t another option. Smith noted that it was unlikely to happen at the point, since staff would have to empty those bins. Because of the budget, they were looking for ways to cut back on work, not add new tasks. He encouraged disc golfers to carry their recyclables out of the park when they’re finished.

Future Capital Project – Setting Priorities

Later in the meeting, Kuras spoke again about capital projects for parks and recreation, this time giving an update on how staff will be setting priorities for choosing projects in the coming year. Last year, staff developed a rating system based on six broad categories: environmental; safety; regulatory compliance; financial impact; user experience; and social, cultural, recreational and aesthetic considerations. The categories are weighted, she said – for example, safety is given a heavier weight than aesthetic considerations.

They’ve identified 19 projects to prioritize for the next fiscal year, based on those six categories. The projects range from additional renovations at West Park and the farmers market, to replacing deteriorated roads and parking lots throughout the parks system.

Commissioner Gwen Nystuen asked why the Allen Creek Greenway wasn’t on the list – it had been identified by PAC as a goal on the parks system master plan, she said. Colin Smith, manager of parks and recreation, said they only had about $1 million to spend on capital projects. There were certain things – like the greenway – that they didn’t include, simply because the funding wouldn’t be available, he said.

Nystuen said she’s a little uneasy leaving those larger projects – including the greenway, skatepark and dog park – off the list. Mike Anglin noted that the greenway was in the city’s capital improvements plan (CIP), which city council recently approved, so perhaps just referencing that list would be sufficient.

The staff struggles with how much to include, Kuras said, noting that the PROS plan – the state-mandated Parks, Recreation and Open Space plan, which is being updated this year – covers an even broader range of projects.

Naming, Sponsorship and Gift Policies

Colin Smith, the city’s manager of parks and recreation, told commissioners that preparation of a policy for naming, sponsorships and gifts within the parks system had been expedited because of Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center. Efforts are underway to find additional revenues for those facilities, which have been targeted to close in fiscal 2010 because of budget cuts. Raising money through sponsorships, gifts and naming opportunities is one option that’s been discussed.

Kuras outlined some of the highlights of the policies. The gifts policy applies for gifts under $25,000, giving guidance to donors and staff about what gifts are appropriate – clarifying whether they fit the mission and vision of the parks system, for example. The policy states that installation and maintenance cost must be included in the gift, and the gift’s “permanency” – the amount of time that the city is obligated to care for the gift – will be limited to 10 years. [.pdf file of gift policy]

The policy gives people a clear idea of what’s required, Kuras said. Smith said that staff will prepare a gift guide as well, which lays out this policy. The guide will also give suggestions about what gifts the parks system needs. It’s unlikely that benches at Gallup Park will be on that list – Kuras noted that there are over 100 benches there. Maintenance workers used to joke that if more benches were added, you could eliminate the paths – it would be possible to traverse the park by walking on the benches.

For naming and sponsorship, the underlying philosophy is similar, Kuras said. Among other things, the policy clarifies that sponsorships are limited to two-year periods, and that for naming a facility, the donor would have to cover 60% of the project’s capital costs. [.pdf file of sponsorship and naming policy]

Several commissioners were concerned about adequately recognizing donations. Gwen Nystuen asked whether there was a way to permanently recognize a gift – perhaps on a plaque – even if the gift itself isn’t permanent. Kuras pointed to the mural at Leslie Science and Nature Center, where donors are named. The city could do something similar. Smith added that they could possibly have a recognition wall for that purpose – the policy gives them flexibility to determine that at a later date.

Sam Offen was also concerned about recognizing donors for their gift beyond the 10-year period. He noted that the University of Michigan had torn down a building that had been named for a donor, without notifying the family before the decision. There needs to be a continued recognition, on a permanent plaque or in some other way, he said.

Tim Berla noted that some “gifts” aren’t actually gifts at all – sometimes they aren’t items that are needed, and they end up costing the city money. Though gifts and recognition are obviously linked, he said, it would be good to try to separate the two.

Offen asked if gifts needed city council approval. Unless they’re in some way controversial, Smith said, gifts under $25,000 don’t require council approval. Anything over $25,000 would go to council, however.

Smith also clarified that in the naming and sponsorship policy, no dollar amount is mentioned. That’s intentional, he said, giving the staff flexibility to handle a wide range of sponsorships, including those that might be relatively small.

David Barrett asked how many gifts the city gets that are over $25,000.

“Not enough,” Smith quipped.

Outcome: The commission passed both policies unanimously.

Updates from Commissioners: Golf Advisory Task Force

Commissioner Julie Grand gave a report on the city’s golf advisory task force, on which she serves. The group met the previous week, she said, and had a heated discussion about the possible privatization of Huron Hills Golf Course. At this point, it’s just an idea, she said – no RFPs (requests for proposals) have been issued. [The RFP was discussed at city council meetings 0n Jan. 25 and Feb.8, 2010, and city administrator Roger Fraser indicated at the Febrary meeting that city staff will work on development of such an RFP.]

The task force has been directed to look for ways to get additional funding for Huron Hills, Grand said, and they hope to get clarification on a number of questions, such as how the city’s municipal service charges – fees paid by every department for shared services, such as information technology and legal services – factor into the budget.

Colin Smith added that the city has been approached by a private vendor interested in alternative uses for Huron Hills – splitting the course into a driving range and learning center on one side of Huron River Parkway, and a 9-hole course on the other. City staff will develop an RFP over the summer, he said, which will be put out for bids. There will then be a review process of the proposals submitted, including a look at proposed financial returns. “It is not a foregone conclusion, that’s for sure,” he said.

The RFP will likely be broad, Smith said, to allow for more creative proposals. Before being put out to bid, it would be reviewed by the task force as well as PAC. He likened it to the Library Lot process, in which the city issued an RFP for development on top of an underground parking structure. There would likely be a committee formed to review responses to the Huron Hills RFP, Smith said, and a lot of opportunity for people to know what’s going on.

Present: John Lawter, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, David Barrett, Scott Rosencrans, Julie Grand, Doug Chapman, Karen Levin, Tim Berla, Mike Anglin (ex-officio)

Absent: Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)

Next meeting: Tuesday, March 16 at 4 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date]

6 Comments

  1. By Bob Martel
    February 26, 2010 at 6:06 pm | permalink

    In reading these articles in the Chronicle I am often amazed at how much work is going on behind the scenes in this community to ensure that Ann Arbor remains a great place to live. My thanks to all the folks involved in the above endeavors and also a thanks to both Mary & Dave for making it possible for those of us who are the beneficiaries of these efforts to better understand that this stuff does not happen by magic!

  2. By johnboy
    February 26, 2010 at 7:27 pm | permalink

    How many tons of carbon pollutant does a “controled burn” add to the global warming problem? Or are we supposed to be PC and ignore the pollution?

  3. February 26, 2010 at 9:45 pm | permalink

    In regard to #2, even composting adds to carbon dioxide release. Anything that results in the breaking of bonds in complex carbon-based substances (plant and animal remains, or hydrocarbons) to carbon dioxide contributes. Of course, we humans are adding just by our respiration.

    Since these burns happen only in small areas once a year, I’m comfortable with the benefit gained vs. the cost in carbon release. Maybe it looks dramatic because of the smoke, but I doubt that it contributes much in the global scale of things.

  4. By mr dairy
    February 27, 2010 at 9:03 am | permalink

    Burning would have occurred naturally, more often and uncontrolled, were it not for human intervention. Because of overdevelopment we must occasionally attempt to mimic what we have prevented the earth from doing on its own. The amount of carbon released from burning the land would have happened regardless. I believe that human development, and not just from industrial processes, has incurred the release far greater amounts of carbon into the atmosphere than any amount from a controlled burn. If it weren’t for overdevelopment, including what I have contributed, controlled burns might not be necessary to complete the life cycle of many plants and animals.

  5. By Bob Martel
    February 27, 2010 at 7:28 pm | permalink

    Carbon released by burning of living plant matter, or the decaying recently dead plant matter, does not contribute to global warming as a like amount of carbon is subsequently sequestered by the growth of new plants to replace the dead or burned ones. To add meaningfully to the atmospheric carbon load requires the freeing up to permanently sequestered carbon into the atmosphere such as what occurs when fossil fuels (coal, oil & natural gas, basically) are removed from the earth and burned. Burns (controlled or otherwise) can release other pollutants into the atmosphere, however.

  6. By Bob Martel
    February 27, 2010 at 7:30 pm | permalink

    Please an unfortunate note a typo in the above: “freeing up to permanently sequestered” should read “freeing up of permanently sequestered”