Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Nov. 10, 2010): At this month’s meeting, commissioners unanimously approved forming a subcommittee to explore possible changes to the existing boundary of the greenbelt district. Led by GAC vice chair Dan Ezekiel, the group will look for ways to protect properties that might be appropriate for the greenbelt, but that lie just outside of the current district. A similar effort in 2007 resulted in bumping out the boundary by a mile.
Noting that this was the second time they’d looked at the issue, GAC chair Jennifer S. Hall suggested exploring other ways that the greenbelt program might achieve the same result, but that wouldn’t involve regularly moving the program’s fixed boundary.
Another theme of the meeting was local food. Two local food advocates – Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe – gave a presentation about their work raising money to fund construction of hoop houses at local farms. Gottlieb and McCabe host the weekly Selma Cafe, a breakfast gathering every Friday morning at their home that regularly draws more than 120 people. Commissioner Dan Ezekiel praised their work, and GAC chair Jennifer S. Hall expressed the hope that they could find ways to work together in the future.
Also during Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners voted to recommend an agreement with Webster Township, which is offering to contribute $50,000 to the purchase of development rights for the 146-acre Whitney farm. The city council has already agreed to pay $707,122 toward that purchase.
Greenbelt program manager Ginny Trocchio reported that the city has closed on the 51-acre Gould property, adjacent to the recently protected 286-acre Braun farm – both farms are located in Ann Arbor Township. The Braun acquisition bumped the greenbelt program over the 2,000-acre mark, she said – about 2,200 acres are now part of the greenbelt. The Brauns have agreed to open their property for a celebration in the coming months.
In other action, GAC voted unanimously to set public commentary rules in alignment with other city boards and commissions. And Hall noted that two vacancies will be opening up next year on GAC – she encouraged local residents who might be interested in serving on the commission to attend some of their meetings, or talk to their city councilmember about their interest.
The commission also got an update from city treasurer Matt Horning, who was responding to questions that commissioners had raised regarding a drop in investment income on the latest year-end financial statement.
GAC Financial Report: Coda
At the commission’s Sept. 8, 2010 meeting, Kelli Martin, financial manager for the city’s community services unit, gave an update on the greenbelt program’s unaudited financials for FY 2010, from July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010. Some commissioners questioned a sharp drop in investment income – from $815,261 last year to $130,011 in FY 2010 – and Martin agreed to ask the city treasurer, Matt Horning, to give a more detailed explanation of that decrease.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Horning began by giving a description of how the greenbelt monies are handled within the city budget. There are two funds: Fund 24, which includes revenue generated by the Open Space and Parkland Preservation millage; and Fund 29, which was set up for bond proceeds. [In FY 2006, the city took out a $20 million bond that’s being paid back with revenue from the millage. At the end of FY 2010, the remainder of the bond monies was $2.952 million.]
The bond proceeds (Fund 29) were invested separately from the city’s general operating portfolio, which pools money from various city sources to make investments. Separate investment decisions were made for the bond proceeds based on projected cash flow needs, Horning said, knowing that the city would be using the money for greenbelt purchases. There was a certain amount of guessing involved, he said, though they had targets for how much they thought they’d need for greenbelt acquisitions, and when those deals might flow. Every greenbelt purchase to date has been paid for out of the bond proceeds.
As the city has made greenbelt acquisitions, the bond fund has decreased, Horning said, so that by now, it’s approaching zero. [This includes purchases that have been earmarked from the $2.952 million, but not yet spent.] The intent is to merge the two funds, and close Fund 29. He noted that some confusion might have stemmed from the fact that the financial report given to commissioners consolidated the two funds, for reporting purposes.
When the two funds merge, Horning expects there will be $17.6 million in the combined fund balance. Additionally, he said there will likely be between $2 million to $4 million annually in excess revenue from ongoing millage proceeds available for the greenbelt program, after debt service payments are made.
Regarding concerns over investment income, Horning said the good news is the amount reported to GAC in September was an unaudited figure – the final number will be much higher, at about $492,000. To explain the difference, Horning said that at the end of the year, the city does a reclassification entry, required by the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB). This mark-to-market accounting requires that the city record the actual market value of its investments at the end of the fiscal year – that is, what the value of their investments would be, if liquidated. If it’s worth greater or less than the book value of the investments, you have to record that difference, Horning said.
At the end of the last fiscal year – on June 30, 2010 – the city made a mark-to-market entry of about $362,000 for greenbelt investment income. That figure isn’t reflected in the financial statement that had been presented to the commission, Horning said. So the total investment income is actually about $492,000, he said.
Responding to a request for additional detail, Horning explained that on June 30 of this year, the fair market value of the city’s investments – its mark-to-market – was much higher than the book value, which is based on the investments’ original price. So on June 30, they recorded a large mark-to-market gain, Horning said, then closed the books on that fiscal year and prepared their financial statements. The next day, however, they made a reverse entry, he said. So the end-of-year snapshot showing a gain is almost immediately recorded as a loss for the start of the new fiscal year.
Horning said this accounting method, which is required by GASB, skews the financial statements when you look at them on an annual year-end basis. He described it as an accounting requirement, not a reflection of actual gain or loss.
Jennifer S. Hall said that Martin had indicated the investments for bond proceeds had performed better than the city’s general investment portfolio – was that the case? she asked. Yes, Horning said. He attributed the better return to the timing of their purchases of securities for Fund 29, which he said were able to achieve a higher rate of return than the general portfolio.
The current rate for the general portfolio is about 2.12%, and is projected to yield 1.57% in FY 2012. “Hopefully, I’m wrong,” he joked. “Hopefully it’s higher.”
Ezekiel asked what kinds of securities the city invests in. Horning said decisions are guided by the city’s investment policy and limited by state law – Public Act 20 – which describes the types of investments that government entities can make. Currently, the city’s portfolio is invested in the following percentages: 65% U.S. instrumentalities, 30% U.S. treasuries, 5% cash, in the form of repurchase agreements that Horning described as overnight investments collateralized by bonds.
Hall thanked Horning for coming, saying they now had a better understanding of how investments are handled.
Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe – hosts of FridayMornings@Selma, also known as the Selma Cafe – gave a presentation about their efforts to support the local food economy.
Gottlieb began by giving some background on the breakfast salon, which they hold each Friday in their home from 6:30-10 a.m., bringing together different volunteer chefs each week and using locally sourced food. The event, which regularly draws between 120-150 people, raises money for building hoop houses at farms in this region.
The effort started when they hosted a fundraising dinner for the nonprofit Growing Hope more than two years ago, Gottlieb said. But the tickets were high priced – even out of reach for them, she said – so they decided to hold something more informal. They hosted a breakfast for the filmmaker Chris Bedford, and called it Diner for a Day. The event drew about 160 people, and generated excitement for coming together to support the local food economy, she said.
They decided to keep it going as long as there were volunteers to support it, Gottlieb said. They now have about 500 people in their volunteer pool. They’ve served thousands of meals made by dozens of chefs – from some who own “fancy” restaurants to people who simply love to cook. They’ve raised about $120,000, she said. About $40,000 of that has gone back into the economy by purchasing local food and supplies. The remainder is being used for microloans to build hoop houses for local farms. To be eligible, farmers need to grow food to be sold locally at a reasonable price.
Next year’s goal is to build 20 hoop houses in 20 days, and they’re working to raise funds for that. The Farmer Fund was created for that purpose.
McCabe told commissioners that they are trying to plug into the goals of 10% Washtenaw – a campaign to ensure that 10% of the $1 billion that’s spent in this county on food each year is sourced locally. [See Chronicle coverage: "Column: The 10% Local Food Challenge"]
There are two main challenges to achieving that goal, McCabe said – finance, and four seasons. The Farmer Fund addresses this in two ways. Their microloan program will provide funds at a 2% interest rate, he said – he noted that a lot of farmers can’t walk into the bank and get financing. And by funding hoop houses, they’re providing a way for farmers to extend the growing season in this climate. By using volunteers to build the hoop houses, they’re also developing a skilled workforce, he said.
McCabe said he hoped that they could find ways to work with the greenbelt commission, and they are looking at next steps. He cited the example of the PCC Farmland Trust, a nonprofit created by the Seattle food coop PCC Natural Markets, as one model.
Selma Cafe: Commissioner Questions
Dan Ezekiel said he’d enjoyed several breakfasts at Selma Cafe, saying “your efforts and your activism are amazing.” He asked what their definition was of local food. It’s an issue that’s been tying the commission up in knots, he said.
Gottlieb said they first look for sources within Washtenaw County, or around the edges of the county. For things that aren’t grown locally – like tea and coffee – they buy from small local businesses and people who live and work in this community, she said, including the People’s Food Coop. McCabe added that sustainability is another factor. Sugar is one example, he said – do you buy Michigan GMO (genetically modified organism) sugar, or non-GMO sugar that’s non-local. It’s a difficult choice, he said.
McCabe said that for him, the slogan “Know Your Farmer” was a good one. The idea is to have a personal relationship with the people that provide your food.
Gottlieb said she was interested in opening up the definition of local food. She noted that they’d held a fundraiser the previous night featuring Michigan wines – the Mitten WineFest, hosted by wine expert Joel Goldberg. [Goldberg also writes a monthly wine column for The Chronicle.] Wine is an agricultural product too, she noted.
When asked by McCabe if his question had been answered, Ezekiel said that McCabe’s response doesn’t make the commission’s dilemma go away. GAC’s job is to advise the city council about how to spend taxpayer money, and that can’t be based on relationships – quite the opposite, he said.
In addition to geographical constraints of the greenbelt boundary, Ezekiel said they also struggled with the definition of locally grown food. Does it mean food that’s intended for local consumers, or just food that’s grown here, regardless of where it’s sold? For example, if a farmer grows sunflower seeds and some of it ends up as birdseed mix that’s sold locally, does that count as local food?
There are many nuances, McCabe said. For him, farms that grow corn and soybeans don’t contribute to the local economy, and might actually work against the local food system. He’d like to see an emphasis on food grown for local consumers.
Carsten Hohnke asked about the loan program – when loans are repaid, will the money go back out in new loans, creating an “evergreen” fund? Yes, that’s the plan. McCabe said they wanted to create something that wasn’t simply handing out money, and that could be a model to use as the dollar amounts grow.
Ezekiel asked for more information about the project to build 20 hoop houses in 20 days. McCabe said part of the impetus was that he didn’t want to give up 20 Saturdays next year, so they were aiming to consolidate their efforts into a shorter period. They also wanted to do a 20-day blitz to take advantage of student volunteers, and to get the work done between the time that farmers were planting and harvesting. Gottlieb added that the model harkens back to the time when farmers would help each other out for major projects on their farms.
Jennifer S. Hall wrapped up the discussion by acknowledging that these were difficult issues. She said when she first became involved in the greenbelt project, she’d been shocked to discover how many vendors at the farmers market came from outside of the greenbelt boundary. She said she hoped they could find areas of overlap to work with Gottlieb and McCabe, and to continue this discussion.
McCabe noted that the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture maintains a local food index, sorted by county. Right now, Washtenaw County has one of the worst local food index numbers in Michigan, he said, reflecting how most of the food consumed here comes from outside of the county. We have the opportunity to be one of the strongest, he said.
Subcommittee Formed to Study Greenbelt Boundary
At Wednesday’s meeting, GAC vice chair Dan Ezekiel proposed forming a subcommittee to examine possible expansion of the greenbelt’s boundary. [.pdf map of existing greenbelt district]
By way of background, in August 2007 the Ann Arbor city council expanded the greenbelt’s boundaries for the first time since the Open Space and Parkland Preservation millage passed in 2003. A summary of the ordinance for that expansion reads as follows:
Ordinance No. 26-07 amends Section 3:62(13) of Chapter 42, Open Space and Parkland Preservation of the City Code enlarging the boundaries of the Greenbelt District one mile to the west in both Webster and Scio Townships, one mile to the south in Pittsfield Township and one mile to the east in Superior Township and incorporates a new map of the boundaries, as revised, as part of Chapter 42.
On Wednesday, Ezekiel explained that the original boundaries created a “nice, neat square.” As the commission started to develop a strategic plan, it became clear that some tweaks were needed, to take advantage of opportunities they had to protect land outside of those boundaries.
Similar reasons are driving the desire to again examine the boundaries, he said. As an example, Ezekiel cited two farm properties in Salem Township, owned by the same people and separated by a road. The owners wanted to sell development rights for both properties, but only one is inside the greenbelt.
He noted that several important properties that are now part of the greenbelt – including the Nixon and Smyth farms, which are helping to form a 1,000-acre block of protected land in Webster Township, as well as the Biltmore farm in Superior Township – lie outside of the original greenbelt boundary.
Another example can be found in Lodi Township, Ezekiel said. Until recently, there was little activity there related to the greenbelt. But that’s changed, and greenbelt properties now include the Girbach/Frederick farm, which will be put back into active farming.
Things have changed politically and economically over the years, he noted, and it’s worth another look at the boundaries.
Gil Omenn asked whether the subcommittee would simply look at the fixed boundaries, or whether they’d consider new criteria as well. He observed that no matter where you set the boundaries, there will always be exceptions that fall outside of those lines.
Ezekiel said he’s given that a lot of thought, and has talked to Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund, which has a contract with the city to manage the greenbelt program. Kohring has a lot of creative ideas that they can consider, he said.
Omenn also asked Carsten Hohnke, a GAC member who represents Ward 5 on city council, whether Hohnke had any sense of council’s sentiment on this issue. Hohnke said he didn’t – other than the council would be open to investigating it. They’d probably want to know what properties have potential to join the greenbelt both inside and outside of the current district.
Jennifer S. Hall said she supported forming a subcommittee to discuss the issue, but she has some concerns. When they changed the boundary last time, her concern was that they were diluting the impact that the greenbelt had on Ann Arbor – proximity had been a selling point of the millage campaign. It was a large political change, she said. One proposal that didn’t get support in 2007 was a suggestion to leave the boundary in place, but to give them the option of going outside the boundary, if necessary. People wanted a fixed line, she said, and now they’re in the same position again. Rather than move the boundary every few years, they need to come up with a more permanent way to deal with this issue, she said.
Ezekiel said he took her concerns seriously, and they aligned with what Omenn had mentioned. They could look at language that would be more flexible and achieve the same goals. The last time they examined the boundary, Bob Johnson was a GAC member and on city council. At the time, Ezekiel said, it had been important to come up with something that would receive support on council.
Outcome: The commission unanimously agreed to form a subcommittee to examine whether to change the greenbelt boundaries, led by Dan Ezekiel. Any recommendation would then be considered by GAC, and ultimately the city council.
Agreement with Webster Township: Whitney Farm
The commission briefly discussed a resolution to accept a partnership agreement with Webster Township, which has agreed to contribute $50,000 toward the purchase of development rights for the 146-acre Whitney farm, located along Webster Church and Farrell roads. In July 2010, the Ann Arbor city council voted unanimously to pay $707,122 toward the purchase. The total cost is $1,125,592 – the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service is contributing $418,470 in matching funds.
Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund, which manages the greenbelt program, told commissioners that they planned to take the resolution to city council in December, and hoped to close on the property by year’s end.
GAC chair Jennifer S. Hall thanked Webster Township officials for their contribution.
Outcome: The commission unanimously agreed to recommend that city council enter into a partnership agreement with Webster Township.
Greenbelt Update: Gould, Braun Farms
During her staff report, Ginny Trocchio noted that the city had now closed on the 51-acre Gould property, adjacent to the recently protected 286-acre Braun farm – both properties are located in Ann Arbor Township, which has its own land preservation millage. [For background, see Chronicle coverage: "Greenbelt Supports Ann Arbor Twp. Deals"] That brings the total greenbelt-protected land to about 2,200 acres, she said.
The Brauns have agreed to open their property for some sort of community celebration, Trocchio said. It is a significant property, she noted, because it pushed the total of greenbelt land over the 2,000-acre mark. Details are still being worked out for an event.
The city paid $1,412,417 of the total $3,878,583 purchase of development rights for the Braun farm, plus an additional $82,500 in due diligence, closing and monitoring costs. Ann Arbor Township contributed $1,412,416. The city also received a federal grant of $1,053,750 through the USDA Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP). For the Gould property, the total $669,833 purchase price included $238,667 from the city of Ann Arbor, $238,666 from Ann Arbor Township and $192,500 from an FRPP grant. In addition, the city paid $51,500 in due diligence, closing and monitoring costs.
Later in the meeting, the commission held a brief closed session and emerged to vote on another Ann Arbor Township property. They unanimously approved a resolution recommending that the city council accept 50% of the due diligence costs associated with the property. [The identity of the property and its owners are withheld until council approval.] Describing it as a great project, Dan Ezekiel noted that the township has taken the lead on this deal, which has been in the works since 2007.
Public Commentary Rules, GAC Term Limits
Jennifer S. Hall, the commission’s chair, introduced a resolution to set rules for public commentary. She noted that other boards and commissions have similar rules, but GAC did not. The proposal called for a five-minute limit per speaker, with a limit of four speakers at the meeting’s first opportunity for public commentary, and a requirement that they speak on issues related to agenda items. For the final public commentary time, there would be no topic requirement or limit to the number of speakers.
Catherine Riseng asked whether these rules would also apply to public hearings. Hall said that GAC had never held a public hearing, but that those were, by their nature, limited to a specific topic. She noted that the commission could waive these rules by a vote at any time.
Outcome: Public commentary rules were unanimously approved.
Later in the meeting, Hall noted that GAC members are limited to two, three-year terms. She and Gil Omenn will be ending their service at the end of June, leaving two vacancies on the commission as of July 2011. She encouraged anyone who might be interested to attend some GAC meetings and talk to their city council representative.
For most city boards and commissions, the mayor is responsible for nominating members, and those nominations are voted on by city council. However, GAC and the environmental commission differ in this respect – for those bodies, nominations are made by city councilmembers.
Misc. Items: NAPP Renewal, “Dirt Road Washtenaw”
During Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners and staff mentioned several items connected to land preservation issues and other related topics.
Dan Ezekiel highlighted the fact that on Nov. 2, voters had approved a 10-year renewal of the Washtenaw County natural areas preservation program (NAPP) by a “generous margin.” [The vote was 57.4% approval.] He noted that the outcome was wonderful, especially given that it’s hard to vote yes on a millage during these difficult economic times. He also observed that the county had tweaked the language related to NAPP funding so that farmland is eligible – that means the county might be able to partner more with the greenbelt in the future, he said. [See Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw Natural Areas Tweaked for Ballot"]
In another election-related note, Gil Omenn reported that during governor-elect Rick Snyder’s acceptance speech, he’d stated that protecting and creating jobs was his No. 1 priority, but that his No. 2 priority was protecting the state’s quality of life and the environment. That’s “highly congruent with our priorities here,” Omenn said.
Jennifer S. Hall called attention to a new book by Ann Arbor author Rob Pulcipher: “Dirt Road Washtenaw.” The book is a guide to cycling the county’s back roads, and Hall said that some of the land protected by the greenbelt is noted in the book. She also observed that an interview with GAC vice chair Dan Ezekiel is included in the book – along with a photo of Ezekiel’s bike. “Dirt Road” can be purchased online or at several local stores, including Nicola’s Books, Downtown Home & Garden and the downtown Ann Arbor Borders.
Present: Tom Bloomer, Dan Ezekiel, Jennifer S. Hall, Carsten Hohnke, Gil Omenn, Catherine Riseng
Absent: Peter Allen, Mike Garfield, Laura Rubin
Next meeting: Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010 at 4:30 p.m. at the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners boardroom, 220 N. Main, Ann Arbor. [confirm date]