County Working on Farmland Preservation

Washtenaw board of commissioners updated on tax-funded effort

As the Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission moves closer to making its first decisions about farm properties to include in its land preservation program, the county board of commissioners got an update on the process at its April 5 working session.

Susan Lackey

Susan Lackey, executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy, updated commissioners about Washtenaw County's farmland preservation efforts at an April 5, 2012 working session. (Photos by the writer.)

Susan Lackey, executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy – an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit that’s under contract to help manage the program – told commissioners that about $1.6 million is available to preserve farmland, using a portion of proceeds from the natural area preservation millage renewed by voters in November of 2010. That 10-year, 0.25-mill countywide tax also funds the acquisition of natural areas and land preserves.

Prior to 2010, the natural areas ordinance allowed for outright acquisition of land, but not for the purchase of development rights (PDR). PDR is a common mechanism for protecting farmland, letting landowners keep their property for farming but preventing – via a conservation easement – its development. In May of 2010, the county board approved an ordinance revision that incorporated farmland into the county’s natural areas preservation program and clarified the use of PDR for that purpose.

The county received 57 applications for its first round of potential deals, Lackey reported. That list has been narrowed down to seven parcels for final consideration, covering 1,100 acres. The locations of the parcels won’t be released until a final vote by the parks and rec commission. That vote will be taken when the deals are ready to close. That’s likely to happen later this year.

Yousef Rabhi was among the commissioners who praised the program, noting how it ties in with the food policy council that the county board recently created, as well as the food-related business incubator and job training program – called Seeds for Change – focused on the eastern part of the county. Rabhi serves on the Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee (ALPAC), which makes recommendations to the parks and rec commission about farmland deals.

The April 5 working session also included a briefing on the county’s community corrections unit. This report focuses just on the farmland preservation update.

County Farmland Preservation

By way of background, a countywide 10-year, 0.25-mill tax first was approved by voters in 2000 for natural areas preservation. The millage brings in about $3 million annually, and over the years the county has acquired more than 2,200 acres of land and established 17 new nature preserves, which are open to the public. However, millage proceeds could not be used for the purchase of development rights, a common way to protect farmland from being sold for development.

In May of 2010, a proposal was made to the county board – which commissioners ultimately approved – that changed the ordinance governing the county’s Natural Areas Preservation Program (NAPP), in preparation for a renewal millage later that year. The change reflected two broad strategic goals: (1) incorporating farmland into NAPP’s land preservation efforts, and (2) clarifying the county’s use of the purchase of development rights (PDR) to preserve land, in addition to outright acquisition. [The county has a separate ordinance, passed in 2007, for a PDR program aimed at securing grants from the Michigan Agricultural Preservation Fund. The Legacy Land Conservancy helps oversee that program too.]

At an April 2010 working session, Susan Lackey of the Legacy Land Conservancy had told commissioners that using PDR to preserve farmland had several advantages: (1) it allows the land to continue to be actively used as farmland, by the owner or others; (2) it keeps the property on the tax rolls; and (3) it enables the county to tap federal grants through the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Preservation Program (FRPP). The county is the most successful in the state at bringing in FRPP dollars for land preservation, through the Ann Arbor greenbelt and other programs.

The ordinance change added “agricultural purposes” as a definition of natural areas, and added the category of “agricultural land” in the section that defines criteria for NAPP purchases:

B. Agricultural Lands

  • Characteristics of the farmland: prime and unique soils, size, percentage of property in agricultural use, scenic historic or architectural features, scenic view.
  • Potential for development pressure: adjacent land uses, adjacent land use designation, amount of road frontage proximity to public sanitary sewer/water.
  • Leverage: Percentage of funding from other sources, including willingness of landowner to accept a percentage of the appraised value of the development rights on the property.
  • Open space value: Proximity to existing private and/or public protected land, regardless of use.

The county’s Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee (ALPAC) was designated as the group that would advise the county about farmland PDR deals. It’s a counterpart to the Natural Areas Technical Advisory Committee, which advises the NAPP program. Legacy Land Conservancy was hired to advise ALPAC in making its recommendations to the county parks and recreation commission, which makes the final decision regarding how to spend the natural area millage proceeds.

The ordinance revisions also added language stating that 75% of purchases would be natural areas and 25% agricultural development rights. At the April 2010 working session, Lackey had told the board that this reflected the reality of the county’s NAPP land acquisitions – active farmland was purchased in the past, because the parcels also included natural areas that the county felt were important to protect. However, that land then came off the tax rolls, and was difficult to manage. The county had to find a farmer to farm the land, or convert it to another use. Those issues would not be a factor if the county simply purchased development rights to farmland.

In November 2010, the county’s natural area preservation millage passed with 57.4% of the vote.

In her update at the county board’s recent April 5 working session, Lackey reported that about $1.6 million in funds are available for farmland preservation so far. If there were no leverage of those funds, that amount would be sufficient to do PDRs on about 450-500 acres, she said. However, the goal is to partner with other entities for additional funding, she said. That might include landowners willing to donate part of their development rights, local partners like the city of Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program, the state of Michigan, or the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP).

Lackey summarized the evaluation criteria that’s being used in selecting farmland parcels. [.pdf of scoring and evaluation criteria] Those criteria include (1) the characteristics of the farmland, such as the type of soil and the amount of land currently being farmed; (2) the likelihood of development pressure on the property, such as proximity to existing and proposed public sewer and water service; (3) the ability to leverage funds from other partners; and (4) other open space and natural features criteria, as established in the NAPP ordinance:

A. Natural Areas

  • Public Water Resources: property with water resources frontage; property located in a headwaters area important to protect water quality; property which overlies a groundwater recharge area that supports a public water supply; or, property which includes wetlands.
  • Special Plants, Animals and Plant Communities: property which supports wildlife populations or habitat or adds to already protected property/ies which would protect wildlife populations or habitat; property which has plant species listed by the State of Michigan as “Endangered,” “Threatened,” or “Special Concern,” and/or unique vegetative communities.
  • Recreation and Scientific Values: property, which provides public access to public waters or trails or protects a trail corridor; or, property, which is a well-documented site of scientific study.
  • Proximity to Protected Land: property, which abuts or is otherwise integral to a permanently protected tract of public or private land being held for conservation or recreation purposes.

Lackey told commissioners that for this first round of soliciting applications, it wasn’t clear what kind of response the county would get from farmers. In the fall of 2011, outreach included an educational meeting held by the Washtenaw County Farm Bureau, and a mailing sent to all active farm parcels in the county to inform owners of this program.

Ultimately, applications were received for 57 parcels covering 5,601 acres located throughout the county, Lackey said. Applications came from landowners in Webster Township (10), and Freedom, Lima and Lodi townships (6 each). Other landowners submitted applications for parcels in the townships of Scio (4), Salem (4), York (4), Northfield (3), Dexter (3), Bridgewater (2), and one each from Lyndon, Sylvan, Pittsfield, Manchester, Superior and Saline townships. [This breakdown reflects the number of landowners – some landowners submitted applications for multiple parcels.]

ALPAC made a recommendation to the county parks and recreation commission in February 2012 to move ahead with seven priority parcels, Lackey said, located in the townships of Webster, Salem, Dexter, Lima, Superior and York. The properties cover 1,100 acres and all but one are located within a mile or less of other protected land. That’s important, she said, because it helps build strong farming communities. And when combined with other protected natural and open space areas, the farmland becomes part of a wildlife habitat corridor as well, she said.

Next steps include notifying the township governments where these parcels are located. Lackey said she’s already talked with some local officials informally, and people seemed pleased. Appraisals on the properties will be done. The appraisals will likely result in very different valuations than would have been made even five years ago, she said, because of a decline in property values.

Additional due diligence and the development of preliminary terms for conservation easements will be needed before final recommendations are made to the parks and rec commission, Lackey said. She hoped that at least some of the deals occur this year, but noted that the process usually takes longer than anyone expects.

Lackey praised the members of ALPAC, saying that their in-depth knowledge of land in this county is remarkable. [ALPAC members are Julie Frost, Charlie Koenn, Joseph Luellen Jr., Yousef Rabhi, Sue Shink, Stephen Solowczuk, and Dale Weidmayer.] She said that all 57 applications would have been credible projects, which speaks to the sustainability of farming in this county – it’s an economically viable enterprise.

Lackey concluded by saying she looks forward to implementing the program over the next 10 years.

County Farmland Preservation: Board Discussion

Leah Gunn observed that “it’s been a long journey.” She recalled that the county’s land preservation efforts started in 1998, when the county board put a natural areas millage on the ballot. It had included a provision for the purchase of development rights, she noted – but the millage failed to win voter approval. [The millage had been actively opposed by a coalition that included home builders and developers, building trade unions, and farmers.] In 2000, another attempt was made that did not include a PDR component, and that was approved by voters, she said. Since then, farmers and others in the community have been educated about the benefits of PDRs, Gunn said.

Leah Gunn, Bob Tetens

County commissioner Leah Gunn talks with Bob Tetens, director of the county parks and recreation department.

Still, Gunn said county officials were a bit “antsy” when they made an ordinance change prior to putting the millage renewal on the ballot for November 2010, allowing for the purchase of development rights for farmland. She praised Lackey for the conservancy’s work with the Washtenaw County Farm Bureau and others in gaining acceptance for this approach.

Lackey noted that many people spent a lot of hours in the educational process. Gunn ventured that the “locavore” movement, with its emphasis on locally produced food, was also a factor in gaining broader acceptance of farmland preservation.

Yousef Rahbi said the farmland preservation program ties in with the food policy council that the county board recently approved, as well as the food-related business incubator and job training program – called Seeds for Change – focused on the eastern part of the county. It’s part of a broader movement, Rabhi said, that’s creating community and moving toward independence from the global food system. The farmland preservation program is great for farmers, he added, and people serving on ALPAC are excited about it.

Dan Smith began his comments by noting that he loves BLTs but dislikes store-bought tomatoes – he appreciates getting tomatoes harvested off the vine. He also proffered his view that BLTs are best with toast and Miracle Whip, a comment that elicited groans from some of his fellow commissioners. Lackey suggested trying a BLT with peanut butter.

On a more serious note, Smith asked Lackey to elaborate on the inherent conflict presented in the evaluation criteria. He pointed to a centennial farm in Northfield Township that is a productive farm property with lots of road frontage, yet it’s located between two expressways and near a new high school.

Lackey replied that a lot of time is spent talking about these issues when evaluating the applications – it’s a yin/yang push. For example, in looking at a parcel’s proximity to utilities, low scores are given if a farm is too far away from utilities, but also if it’s too close, she said. It’s not good to have a farm that’s an island surrounded by development.

Lackey also noted that master plans and zoning ordinances are examined, so that it’s clear how the farm fits into a township’s broader context. It’s a juggling act, she said, and it might well be that the decision on whether to protect a parcel isn’t right 100% of the time.

Gunn concluded the discussion by noting that before the natural areas program had been authorized in 2000, there had been some controversy on the board about who should make the final decision regarding land acquisition and preservation. Some commissioners at the time had argued that each parcel should come to the county board for approval, she said. But Gunn said she had advocated for that decision to rest with the county parks and recreation commission – an independent entity with members appointed by the county board, not elected – and her view had prevailed. That has kept the politics out of the decision-making process, she said, “and it has been successful.”

Present: Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Conan Smith, Dan Smith.

Absent: Barbara Bergman, Ronnie Peterson, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Rob Turner.

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. The ways & means committee meets first, followed immediately by the regular board meeting. [confirm date] (Though the agenda states that the regular board meeting begins at 6:45 p.m., it usually starts much later – times vary depending on what’s on the agenda.) Public commentary is held at the beginning of each meeting, and no advance sign-up is required.

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  1. By Dan Ezekiel
    April 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm | permalink

    This program will be a tremendous benefit to the county for generations to come. It’s amazing to think about all that has happened in open space and farmland preservation around here since the low point: defeat of the county Open Space/PDR millage in 1998, during the heyday of urban sprawl development. Thousands and thousands of acres have been preserved in perpetuity, and Washtenaw County will be both green and productive far into the future.

  2. By Susan Beecher
    April 16, 2012 at 8:10 pm | permalink

    I really appreciate your in-depth coverage of issues such as this one.