Ann Arbor Greenbelt Advisory Commission meeting (March 10, 2010): After hearing from Ann Arbor Township supervisor Mike Moran, and meeting in closed session with Mary Fales of the city attorney’s office, commissioners passed a resolution of support for the acquisition of development rights on the Braun and Gould properties in Ann Arbor Township.
These deals have been in the works for more than two years. The city has binding purchase agreements with the owners based on appraisals taken when land values were higher. New appraisals, required to get funds from a federal program, came in with much lower values. That means fewer-than-expected federal funds will be available, and the city would be required to come up with the difference.
Saying that Ann Arbor Township was their partner, Moran urged commissioners to support the purchase of development rights. He called the Braun farm a “poster child” for the township’s land preservation movement, and said it would be a significant error to reject the deal simply because of the new appraisals.
Later in the meeting, commissioners also got an update on committee work being done to help support small farms in the greenbelt.
Impact: Land Values, Delayed Application Approval
Problems with the Braun and Gould deals came up at the commission’s February 2010 meeting. From The Chronicle’s report:
New appraisals for two properties – the 286-acre Braun farm and 51 acres of Gould land, both in Ann Arbor Township – had been requested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, or FRPP. The city is requesting FRPP funds to help pay for the purchase of development rights to those properties, but previous appraisals were more than a year old by the time the federal program accepted all of the application paperwork, according to Kohring. [The city council has already approved the purchases, but the deals haven't yet closed, pending FRPP funding.]
At its January meeting, the greenbelt commission had recommended that the city council authorize the new appraisals. On Wednesday, Kohring reported that the Braun farm, which originally appraised for just over $4 million, was now appraised at $2,107,500. For the Gould property, the appraisal was lowered from $691,000 to $385,000.
In response, the available FRPP funds dropped from $1.43 million for the Braun farm to just over $1 million, Kohring said. For the Gould land, FRPP funds fell from $256,000 to $192,500. To cover the difference, an additional $377,000 is needed for the Braun property, and an additional $63,500 for the Gould property – those costs could be split with Ann Arbor Township, if township officials agree, Kohring said. The city had previously committed to paying $1,363,500 for Braun and $269,000 for Gould.
Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund said that the next steps would be to ask city council to approve the additional funds. It takes the FRPP between three months to a year to process the federal portion, she said, adding that she’s been told the FRPP would expedite this application because the deals need to close by Sept. 30, 2010.
Peter Allen asked what the implications would be if the commission postponed action until its next meeting. Trocchio said they’ve been working with the landowners since 2007, and both owners are “pretty antsy.”
Jennifer Hall confirmed with Trocchio and Kohring that the city had binding purchase agreements with the landowners. Allen said the commission was hearing for the first time that the financing contingency in the agreements wasn’t valid. “What we’re hearing tonight is the reverse of what we were told by the attorney at the last meeting,” he said, referring to Mary Fales from the city attorney’s office. He suggested scheduling another meeting – perhaps an emergency meeting – to bring back someone from the city attorney’s office to clarify the situation.
Fales attended the March 10 meeting, along with Sumedh Bahl, the city’s interim community services director. They joined the commissioners in a closed session that lasted over an hour.
Just before going into closed session, commissioners heard from Ann Arbor Township supervisor Mike Moran, who spoke during the time set aside for public commentary. The Braun farm is a significant parcel, he said, noting that years ago it was the site of a proposed mobile home development – a project, called Colt Farms, that helped spur residents to mobilize and pass a land preservation millage, both in the township and for the city’s greenbelt.
Initially, Moran said resistance to the greenbelt program came from homebuilders, not surprisingly, but also from farmers. It’s taken a long time to build up significant credibility, he said. Now, however, farmers will take township officials at their word when approached about being part of the greenbelt. “Our word is our bond,” he said, and it’s very important to live up to their commitments.
Moran also expressed concern over the views of some commissioners whom he’d heard are reluctant to close on these deals at a time when the city is facing significant budget cuts. But the city can’t use greenbelt monies for other purposes, he noted, and if purchases aren’t made when land values are low, they won’t be making the best use of taxpayer dollars.
“I hope you’ll be strong in this regard,” Moran said.
He ended by saying that the township is a partner with the city in this matter and is ready “to do what needs to be done” to close the deal. “We will share with you those difficulties that have been occasioned by the delay of time,” he said.
Resolution of Support
About an hour and 20 minutes later, the commission returned from its closed session on attorney-client privileged communication about the land acquisition deal. Laura Rubin, the commission’s chair, said they’d discussed the two properties and had spent considerable time reviewing decisions that were made two years and four months ago. Back then, the properties had first been considered for the greenbelt and had received high scores on measurements used to evaluate potential acquisitions. Rubin said the commission was ready to consider a resolution related to the topic of the closed-session discussion.
Carsten Hohnke, who also represents Ward 5 on city council, said the commission had concluded that the new information they’d received didn’t impact their support for the deal. He moved a resolution stating that the commission “wishes to express its continued support of the acquisition of the Braun and Gould property development rights, in compliance with FRPP requirements and in partnership with Ann Arbor Township and the property owners.”
There was no further discussion.
Outcome: The resolution of support passed with no dissent. The matter will next be considered by city council at an upcoming meeting.
Supporting Small Farms: Working Out the Details
Dan Ezekiel gave an update on the commission’s small farms subcommittee. A recent meeting had included Ezekiel and fellow commissioner Tom Bloomer; Molly Notarianni, manager of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market; local farmers Tomm Becker and Shannon Brines; and Mike Moran and Ray Grew of Ann Arbor Township.
Ezekiel said they kicked around possible language for a conservation easement specifically for small farms. They used the boilerplate easement language required for the FRPP applications (U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program), but considered how it could be adapted without some of the federal requirements. Ann Arbor Township is doing a lot of parallel work, Ezekiel said, and it was good to get their perspectives.
One issue they discussed was impervious surfaces. What would be a reasonable amount of temporary, impervious surface to accommodate hoop houses? The requirement should meet the needs of farmers, Ezekiel said, but also take into account the fact that neighbors probably don’t want to have a collection of hoop houses packed close together and covering the entire property.
They also discussed water needs and drainage issues, and whether the greenbelt program should play the role of “farm police” – that is, how closely should these properties be monitored? Should these small farms be required to submit annual reports? Ezekiel said everyone agreed that requiring a business plan was important. One of the fears is tied to the potential failure of the farm – what would happen to the property in that case? Would it just become someone’s nice yard that’s protected by taxpayer dollars?
Affordable housing was another issue they discussed, Ezekiel reported, including the idea of having housing on the land for an intern or apprentice farmer. What are some creative approaches to fund housing for small farms, and how might that be written into the easement agreement? [This issue was discussed at some length during the greenbelt commission's December 2009 meeting. See Chronicle coverage: "Greenbelt Explores Support for Small Farms: Federal housing grants could offer funding options"]
Ezekiel described the conversation as fruitful, saying it was good to have a lot of stakeholders involved. No decisions were made and it will be a continued discussion, he said, but they had made a lot of progress.
Present: Laura Rubin (chair), Jennifer Santi Hall (vice-chair), Mike Garfield, Peter Allen, Dan Ezekiel, Carsten Hohnke, Tom Bloomer, Catherine Riseng
Absent: Gil Omenn
Next meeting: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 4:30 p.m. at the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners boardroom, 220 N. Main, Ann Arbor. [confirm date]