Though they share oversight for portions of the same millage, the city’s park and greenbelt advisory commissions had never officially met – until last week.
As members arrived at the Ann Arbor Senior Center, where their joint meeting was held on April 6, some knew each other, but many others needed to introduce themselves. Among them were an attorney, a farmer, an ecologist, a teacher, a carpenter, a developer, a research scientist, a landscape architect – and many avid users of the local parks.
Scott Rosencrans, chair of the park advisory commission, told the group he thought it was important to strengthen communication between the two commissions, given the overlap in their strategic goals. And even though he’s stepping down from PAC when his term ends later this month, “hopefully you’ll pursue that,” he said.
At last week’s meeting, commission members got overviews of the parks and greenbelt programs from staff of The Conservation Fund, which manages the greenbelt and parks acquisition programs. In some ways, the meeting was a mini-tutorial for each group on the activities of the other, and an informal discussion about some ways to partner in the future.
There was also some frustration about what they couldn’t discuss. Typically, PAC’s land acquisition committee – a committee of the entire PAC membership – and the greenbelt commission spend much of their meetings in closed sessions, to discuss negotiations with landowners. But because each group needed a six-member quorum required by the Open Meetings Act to enter a joint closed session – and only five members of GAC attended – all of the meeting remained public. There was one property in particular that some commissioners and staff wanted to discuss in private, but couldn’t. About their inability to undertake that discussion, Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund said, “It’s killing me!”
Land Acquisition Millage: An Overview
In 2003, Ann Arbor voters passed a 30-year 0.5 mill tax for land acquisition – called the open space and parkland preservation millage. Two-thirds of it is used for the city’s greenbelt program, and one-third for parks land acquisition. The millage and the programs that it supports are managed by staff of The Conservation Fund, Ginny Trocchio and Peg Kohring.
To get money upfront for land acquisition, the city took out a $20 million bond in fiscal 2006, that’s being paid back with revenue from the millage. Trocchio told commissioners that the remaining fund balance for the greenbelt is $8.8 million, with $3.8 million for parks. [A detailed financial report on the millage was given at GAC's Dec. 9, 2009 meeting by Kelli Martin, the city’s financial manager for community services.]
Greenbelt’s Strategic Plan and Discussion
Trocchio gave a brief overview of the greenbelt’s strategic plan, which has focused on three areas: 1) preserving 1,000-acre blocks of land, 2) working with partners on land deals, and 3) protecting land connected to the Huron River. More recently, they’ve also been looking to support local food production, by prioritizing smaller farms in the 10-15 acre range.
Trocchio said the greenbelt has focused on preserving land through the purchase of development rights, or PDRs. Buying the rights to development prevents the land from being used for purposes other than farmland or open space. To date, there have been 15 transactions, she said, protecting about 1,800 acres of land.
Scio, Webster and Ann Arbor townships also have land preservation millages, as does Washtenaw County – the greenbelt has partnered with those entities, and has tapped federal funds as well. They haven’t protected land directly on the Huron River, but Trocchio said a lot of greenbelt properties are along the river’s tributaries.
The market has changed dramatically since the millage passed, Trocchio noted. Land values have dropped sharply, but landowner expectations remain higher than the actual market price – that’s an issue in trying to negotiate deals.
Discussion: Opening Greenbelt Land to the Public
Dan Ezekiel of GAC highlighted properties that Washtenaw County has purchased, with contributions from the city’s greenbelt millage: the Fox Science Preserve on Peters Road and the Scio Woods Preserve on Scio-Church Road east of Zeeb, both in Scio Township, and Meyer Preserve on Prospect Road in Superior Township. He recently went to the Scio Woods Preserve and saw that the county had put in a new parking lot – volunteers were at the site, pulling invasive plants. It was quite a change from the last time he’d been there, when the property had been privately owned. Peg Kohring said, “The county really gets stuff done.”
PAC member Julie Grand recalled that when the greenbelt millage was marketed to voters, there were two benefits cited: 1) reducing sprawl, and 2) creating a network of land not just for preservation, but also for active use. Referring to greenbelt land being used for recreation, like biking or walking trails, Grand said, “When I hear the priorities now, I don’t hear that.”
Ezekiel said that since the program started, some issues have emerged. For one, the city doesn’t want to hold title to greenbelt land – that’s why they’ve taken the PDR approach, which allows the city to hold development rights, but not the property itself. He noted that the greenbelt has partnered with other entities that do buy land, like Washtenaw County. In those deals – the Fox Science Preserve and Scio Woods Preserve, for example – the county owns the property and it’s open to the public. Even though the greenbelt program contributed to the purchase, they don’t always get credit, Ezekiel said.
They also learned that “bike trails are radioactive to the farming community,” Ezekiel said. When the program began, there was a lot of suspicion among farmers that Ann Arbor was trying to take over the county. “That’s a perception we’ve been working very hard to overcome,” he said. Although the current generation of farmers is dramatically opposed to opening up even a portion of their land to the public, that might change for future owners. He also noted that so far, no property connected to the county’s Border-to-Border trail has been nominated to the greenbelt program – that, too, might change.
Ezekiel cited a program in Columbus, Ohio in which bike trails are placed along the land that runs underneath power lines in rural areas. But even this idea has been opposed by farmers in Washtenaw, he said.
Kohring clarified that in addition to owner hostility toward the idea of having greenbelt land open to the public, there’s also no budget for the city to manage additional property. Millage funds can only be used for land acquisition, not property management.
Responding to questions from PAC commissioners, Kohring said there’s been a seachange in interest for small farms and locally produced food. There are two properties that the greenbelt could technically buy, she said, but it’s a hot market for young farmers. Trocchio reported that during the program’s first three years, she never got calls for people interested in buying farms. “I get calls quite often now,” she said, especially from people connected to Michigan State University’s organic farm program. These farmers are interested in being close to the Ann Arbor market, but the land cost can still be prohibitive.
Scott Rosencrans asked about the economic health of farms and community-supported agriculture, or CSAs. Kohring said it’s too soon to say – they’ll know in 10 or 20 years. She noted that the greenbelt had recently completed its first deal that helped transition land to a new farmer. [See Chronicle coverage: "Frederick Farm in Line to Join Greenbelt"]
Kohring pointed out that GAC member Tom Bloomer grows soybeans, with a lot of his produce sold locally.
Bloomer, a farmer from Webster Township who also serves on the township’s farmland and open space preservation board, then gave a lengthy description of issues facing local farms, and their connection to the greenbelt program. It’s hard for many people to understand the complexity of agriculture, he said. There are no new farms or old farms – there are just farms. “We protect the land,” he said. “We don’t really protect the business.”
The greenbelt program makes it possible for farmers to continue working the land. And though there’s been an increased focus on small farms and food produced for local consumers, most farmland that’s been preserved by the greenbelt already has some involvement in the local market – “you just might not see it,” he said.
Bloomer said that small farms alone won’t support an agricultural economy in Washtenaw. It takes 1,000 to 1,500 acres to earn a living, he said – smaller than that, and it’s likely a hobby.
Agriculture is mostly invisible to residents of Ann Arbor, Bloomer said. Most people think of fruits and vegetables when they think of local farms, but that’s really just a small portion of the agricultural economy. There’s actually a lot of other agricultural activity in the county, he said, though it’s been under duress, especially before the greenbelt program started.
Farmers think in terms of 20-50 years, Bloomer said. Before the greenbelt program, there was uncertainty about whether farms would survive. But by selling their development rights, farmers know that even when they’re gone, the property will be protected. And that makes them more comfortable in making major investments in infrastructure, like barns. Their planning horizon is instantly extended, he said.
Finally, Bloomer noted that even though farmers aren’t keen to have people walk or ride bikes on their property – it’s just not practical, he said – the roads in these rural areas are public. And it’s pretty pleasant to take a ride in the country.
Discussion: The Big Picture, and Future Acquisitions
Peter Allen, a member of GAC, described what he saw as two “big picture” issues related to the greenbelt. One was that they’re trying to build clusters of 1,000-acre greenbelt-protected land in three regions of the county: Superior Township to the east, Northfield and Ann Arbor townships to the north, and Scio and Webster townships to the northwest.
The second issue is the impact of land values, which have gone from more than $12,000 per acre to roughly $5,000 to $8,000 for development rights, he said. Because of that, “we can make our money go at least two times greater than before,” he said.
Scott Rosencrans asked how GAC determined what property to buy – what criteria did they use to identify “extraordinary” land? Tom Bloomer said the Scio Woods Preserve property, with its mature woods, was one of those, but that it’s hard to define. “When you see it, you know it,” he said.
Catherine Riseng mentioned property along the Huron River would be a priority, but said that’s more in the purview of the county or the city’s natural area preservation programs.
Dan Ezekiel noted that the greenbelt is a voluntary program – landowners can apply, and properties are scored based on several criteria. The criteria include the type of land, parcel size, availability of matching funds, and adjacent land use, among others [.pdf file of complete greenbelt scoring criteria]. There’s some flexibility, he said, if something comes along that’s clearly desirable like the Fox Science Preserve, where “every fourth grader goes on a field trip.”
Ezekiel also mentioned that in addition to the geographic areas that Peter Allen had cited, there’s also a large block of preserved land in Pittsfield Township – referring to the Pittsfield Preserve, more than 500 acres owned by the township, and the nearby 94-acre Morgan Farm.
Sam Offen of PAC asked what kinds of stipulations are on the greenbelt land. Trocchio explained that the PDR agreements include about 25 pages outlining what can and can’t be done on the land. For example, hunting is allowed, and though there are restrictions on what can be built on the land, it doesn’t have to be used for agriculture.
Later in the meeting, Gil Omenn brought up another issue related to spending priorities. He said that when the greenbelt program first started, the market was such that developers were buying farmland and the commission made a commitment “not to dally about committing resources.” Now, however, times have changed, he said. By continuing to spend the greenbelt money, they’re taking away the opportunity for the next generation to make choices, he added: “We haven’t talked about that for quite a long time.”
Kohring responded that with land prices at historic lows, this was not the time to stop buying property.
Parks & Rec Strategic Plan and Discussion
Ginny Trocchio showed the group a map identifying areas in the city that aren’t within a quarter-mile walking distance of a park. [.pdf file of underserved areas map] That’s helpful in prioritizing acquisitions, she said, as is the city’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space plan, known as PROS, which is being updated this year. [Section F of the plan, covering 25 pages, is devoted to land use planning and acquisition principles.]
Some parcels for land acquisition are highlighted in the PROS plan, she said, with the focus generally on needs for existing city parkland, such as better access to the Bluffs Nature Area off of North Main. Land that provides linkages between parks is another priority.
Trocchio also noted that in the last few years, most of the park land acquisitions have been for natural areas, including Camp Hilltop Park.
Commenting on the map of underserved areas, Scott Rosencrans noted that while some areas technically fit the category of underserved – they don’t have a city park within a quarter mile – there are other factors to consider. The upscale area of Arbor Hills, for example, shows up on the map but wouldn’t be a priority – their large lot sizes provide a fair amount of greenspace for residents. But on the city’s far west side there are genuinely underserved low-income neighborhoods, he said. “So there’s still a lot to be done.”
In addition to underserved areas, Rosencrans said priorities included downtown playgrounds – something that would be important if the city intends to encourage more density, especially for families – and perhaps a downtown dog park. Greenways are another priority, he said.
Allen Creek Greenway
Peter Allen queried PAC members specifically about the Allen Creek Greenway, and Rosencrans responded, “That’s not dead in our world.”
Gwen Nystuen of PAC noted that city property located in the floodway is supposed to be designated as parkland – and that would contribute to building the greenway. Rosencrans cited the land at First & William as an example, which prompted Nystuen to say, “But there are still cars on it!” [The land is currently a surface parking lot.] She pointed to city property on North Main and at First and Washington as other city-owned property that could be part of the greenway.
Funding Sources, Financial Challenges
Tom Bloomer asked whether PAC used state or federal funding sources to augment the millage, in the same way that the greenbelt taps the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, or FRPP. Rosencrans said they sometimes partner with other entities, citing the Swift Run Dog Park, a joint city/Washtenaw County venture – the city provided the land for that.
Tim Berla noted that the renovations underway at West Park are using federal stimulus funds, and funding from the county water resources commission. [See Chronicle coverage: "West Park Improvements Get Fast-Tracked"] The renovations at Mary Beth Doyle Park were another example of partnering with the water resources commission.
Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund told the group that federal funding for city parks hadn’t been available, and that the city was too wealthy to be awarded state funds through the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Funding is one of the reasons he wanted GAC and PAC to meet, Rosencrans said. He’d like the groups to communicate better in the event that PAC identified a property that might exceed the amount of funds available from its share of the millage. Sam Offen said he didn’t think people realized how many properties PAC passed on because they were too expensive.
Julie Grand said they’d been told they might see a council resolution putting a moratorium on buying land within the city – Rosencrans said he’d heard that rumor too. The question, he said, is how big of a park system can the city afford to maintain. Grand pointed out that they were very thoughtful in their acquisitions, and that she’d hate to pass on a fantastic property, if something became available. Nystuen said that the public needs to be better educated – people don’t understand that revenues from the millage can only be used for land acquisition, and can’t be allocated elsewhere.
Fuller Road Station
Mike Anglin, an ex-officio PAC member who also represents Ward 5 on city council, brought up the issue of the Fuller Road Station. He said there seems to be some movement about using parkland for other purposes, and “this might be the first salvo, so to speak.” [Fuller Road Station is a joint project with the city of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, located near UM's medical complex on city-owned land that's designated as parkland. The first phase is a parking structure with about 1,000 spaces, plus a bus station. Later, a station for commuter rail might be added.]
The city staff’s presentation about the project focused on the commuter rail aspect, Anglin said, when “in fact, we’re getting a parking structure.” He added that the salesmanship did not have the factual data to support the “sale.” [See Chronicle coverage: "Concerns Voiced over Fuller Road Station"]
Gwen Nystuen also questioned whether it was an appropriate use of parkland. Currently, the university leases a surface parking lot on that site, as well as on another city lot north of Fuller Road, next to Fuller Park. Those lots have fewer spaces and limited hours for university parking – weekdays between 6 a.m. and 4-5 p.m. In contrast, she said, the parking structure would have 1,000 spots and be used 24/7.
Scott Rosencrans asked whether there was interest in having the two commissions meet one or two times a year, or perhaps schedule meetings when there was a property that both groups were interested in.
At that, Tim Berla said that during a PAC land acquisition committee meeting, they’d heard about some land that GAC had decided against buying. PAC members had wondered about doing it as a joint project with GAC, sharing the cost – “since the money is coming from the same place,” he said. Rosencrans said there are always unanswered questions and lots of conjecture in those kinds of situations – for example, why didn’t GAC see value in the land?
Dan Ezekiel said it was too bad they couldn’t talk about the land in question – which wasn’t identified at the meeting, but which all commissioners seemed aware of. His remark prompted Peg Kohring to exclaim, “It’s killing me!” It was clarified that to enter closed session, each commission needed a quorum of six members – PAC had eight people attending, but only five GAC members were present.
Ginny Trocchio explained that even though she and Kohring participate in closed sessions for each group, they can’t share information from one meeting with participants of the other. Berla asked whether ex-officio members of both groups could share information, and Trocchio said she’d ask the city attorney’s office about it.
She also pointed out that if someone applied to have their land considered for the greenbelt but was turned down for that, GAC could pass the application on to PAC for consideration.
Returning to the issue of partnering on land acquisition, Sam Offen said that PAC has some interest in fields for soccer or disc golf – if there were a large parcel for recreational use outside the city, would that be something that GAC would consider? Catherine Riseng pointed out that the greenbelt doesn’t have money for maintenance, so they’d have to be a minor contributor in that kind of a deal.
Berla said there was some danger of both groups going after the same property, and that would be a bad thing since it could result in bidding up the price of the land. Dan Ezekiel had mentioned this earlier in the meeting, recalling that several years ago the city and the Ann Arbor District Library both had been bidding for the property that’s now Dicken Woods, a park owned by the city.
On the topic of joint meetings, Julie Grand said she liked the idea of everyone getting together each year. “It reminds us that we’re all on the same side, using the same millage,” she said. Several other commissioners also expressed interest in a joint meeting, citing the benefits of better communication.
Rosencrans encouraged them to do that, saying it reduced the chance of mis-communication or conjecture, and would allow them to meet their strategic goals better, since the groups have so much in common. “Hopefully, you’ll pursue that,” he said.
Present: (Park Advisory Commission): Mike Anglin, Tim Berla, Doug Chapman, Julie Grand, John Lawter, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, Scott Rosencrans. (Greenbelt Advisory Commission): Peter Allen, Tom Bloomer, Dan Ezekiel, Gil Omenn, Catherine Riseng. Staff: Peg Kohring, Ginny Trocchio.