Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission meeting (May 8, 2012): This month’s meeting of the county parks and recreation commission had three themes: starting new projects, planning for the future of the natural areas preservation program (NAPP), and updating commissioners about ongoing and completed projects.
Much of the discussion related to NAPP, including a proposed ordinance change to increase the proportion of funds that can be used for maintaining (as opposed to purchasing) property for natural areas or land preserves. The change would allow the county to set aside up to 25% of annual millage proceeds for stewardship, a significant increase from the 7% currently allowed under the NAPP ordinance. NAPP is funded by a 10-year, 0.25 mill tax that voters first approved in 2000 and renewed in 2010. It generates about $3.2 million in annual revenues.
Commissioners authorized staff to pursue the NAPP ordinance change, which would need to be approved by the county board of commissioners. A June 7 board working session is scheduled on the topic. If approved, WCPARC staff estimate they could set aside enough to build a $6 million fund by 2020, when the current NAPP millage ends.
The commission also approved two new NAPP purchases: (1) $75,000 for the Malikah Muhammad property, 20 acres in Scio Township adjacent to the county’s existing DeVine Preserve; and (2) $245,250 for 33 acres in Northfield Township owned by J.A. Bloch, contingent on partnering with the Ann Arbor greenbelt program for a portion of the cost.
Related to a project on the east side of the county, commissioners approved a $10,000 payment toward planning for the Eastern County Recreation Center on Ypsilanti’s Water Street site. WCPARC had been briefed on the project at its April 2012 meeting. The planning will be guided by faculty at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, who will lead a team of six students in developing a conceptual plan for the rec center by the end of December. A grant from UM will pick up $30,000 of the estimated $40,000 in planning expenses.
The commission also got updates on a range of projects, including completion of the extensive Malletts Creek bank stabilization at the County Farm Park, and the receipt of bids for design of the Ann Arbor skatepark, which WCPARC is helping to fund.
Natural Areas Preservation: New Purchases
Two proposed new purchases from proceeds of the natural areas preservation program millage had been given preliminary approval by commissioners at earlier meetings. Tom Freeman, recently retired as WCPARC’s associate director and currently serving as a consultant, made reports on the proposed purchases.
Natural Areas Preservation: New Purchases – Malikah Muhammad Property
The first is the Malikah Muhammad property, 20 acres in Scio Township on the north side of Liberty Road west of Zeeb Road. [Stags Leap, a private road that runs south of Liberty, is at approximately the middle of the property.] The natural areas technical advisory committee (NATAC) and several WCPARC staff visited the site several times, and on Nov. 8, 2011, NATAC identified the property as a high priority for acquisition.
Freeman described the property’s several significant features. Honey Creek bisects the property from north to south, flowing into the adjacent DeVine Preserve, which forms a dogleg to the east and north of the Muhammad property. The creek banks are in good condition, as is the creek itself, which is filled with very clear high quality water, Freeman reported. And, he said, the adjacency to the DeVine Preserve is an important feature – there is documented presence of a Native American trail close to, if not right on, the property. Freeman showed slides of the property, and commission members received a road map, an aerial photo, and a topographical map of the site.
The three steps required for due diligence are done, Freeman reported: Bosserd Appraisal Service appraised the property at $75,000 ($3,750/acre); Mannik & Smith Group did a Phase 1 environmental site assessment and found no recognized environmental condition on the property; and there is a boundary survey, including a legal description and certified survey drawing. [On Liberty Road, the property can currently be identified by pink survey tapes at the east and west edges.]
Outcome: The commission unanimously approved the motion to authorize purchase of the Muhammad property in Scio Township at a price of $75,000 (approximately $3,750 per acre).
Natural Areas Preservation: New Purchases – J.A. Bloch Property
The second recommended property acquisition coming to the commission on the recommendation of NATAC was a property owned by J.A. Bloch & Co., a land development firm based in Southfield. The 33-acre site in Northfield Township is on the north side of Joy Road east of US-23 and west of Gleaner Hall Road. Freeman noted that Joe Bloch, the firm’s owner, was nearing retirement. [As background, WCPARC records show the purchase of at least four other properties from Bloch, including 23 acres in Ann Arbor Township (across Joy Road and slightly to the east of the Northfield Township site) that WCPARC voted to purchase at its April meeting. At that same meeting, commissioners had given initial approval to buy the Northfield Township property, too.]
The Bloch parcel under consideration is primarily in active agricultural use, Freeman said. It has the advantage of lying directly on the east side of the Northfield Woods Preserve. Its most significant natural feature is a stream corridor, which crosses the property from west to east and then continues south along the eastern border. It contains five wetland areas, he said, two of which are associated with the stream corridor.
NATAC’s report noted “the corridor offers a chance to establish a trail connection between Northfield Woods Preserve and a nearby parcel scheduled for purchase later this month,” and that the acquisition of this Bloch property “offers the chance to connect over 100 acres of protected property.” In addition, Freeman said that the area immediately east may become available for a conservation easement. Finally, Freeman said that the Ann Arbor greenbelt program has indicated interest in contributing 25% of the acquisition cost of the Bloch property.
Freeman showed slides of the property, and went over the road, aerial, and topographic maps in the commissioners’ packets.
The three steps in due diligence are done, Freeman reported, at the expense of the property owner. Bosserd Appraisal Services identified a value of $245,250, or approximately $7,500/acre. Freeman noted this is consistent with the price paid for the Bloch parcel on the south side of Joy Road. Mannik & Smith carried out a Phase 1 environmental site assessment and found no recognized environmental condition. There is a boundary survey including legal description and certified survey drawing.
Before the vote, commissioner Dan Smith noted that this section of the county seemed to be the most valuable, and that he represents it. [Smith serves on the county board of commissioners and represents District 2, in the northeast corner of the county]. That prompted commissioner Barbara Levin Bergman – who also serves on the county board, representing one of the four Ann Arbor districts – to joke that “if we buy enough property out there he’ll run out of voters.”
Outcome: The commission unanimously approved the motion to authorize purchase of the J.A. Bloch & Co. property in Northfield Township at a price of $245,500, contingent upon execution of a participation agreement with the city of Ann Arbor detailing its contribution to the cost of acquisition.
Natural Areas Preservation: Stewardship Fund
Bob Tetens, county parks and recreation director, introduced this topic by describing his “recurring nightmare” – that WCPARC acquired acres and acres of land to preserve, but then became unable to maintain it. “What if a millage isn’t renewed?” he speculated, or “what if the county commissioners for whatever reason decided not to ask for a millage renewal?” He then turned the podium over to Tom Freeman to describe the proposed solution: creating a fund that could function like an endowment to support maintenance of the county’s natural areas.
Freeman first provided background. NAPP began in 2000 with the passage of County Ordinance 128 by the county board of commissioners, and a voter-approved 10-year, 0.25 mill dedicated tax to support the program. Voters first approved the millage in 2000 and renewed it in 2010. The county board of commissioners has charged WCPARC with implementing the purchase and management of the protected lands. The ordinance states NAPP’s purpose this way:
The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners declares that Washtenaw County is a desirable place to live, work and visit in large part because of the existence of natural areas within the County. Natural areas have aesthetic as well as practical benefits for County citizens. In addition, the purchase of natural areas can be used to protect fragile lands and environmentally threatened lands. The purchase of natural areas within the County will further these public benefits. Passive recreation would be appropriate use of this land.
So far, the county has purchased over 2,300 acres of land through NAPP (out of 9,077 acres nominated for the program) in 22 new nature preserves. Freeman said that implementing the program “has established strong working relationships with many of the communities within Washtenaw County and with the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy and the Legacy Land Conservancy.” And, he said, the properties “contain many unique areas with critical habitat for birds, animals and plants.”
A side issue developed at this point when commissioner Fred Veigel asked “Why is there no fishing in the preserves? Don’t you need to fish to keep the fish population in control?” Tetens first responded “it’s in the ordinance,” and then agreed that “this is something staff would look into.” Veigel, who also serves on the county road commission, asked that they look into hunting as well, since he feels there are too many deer on some of the properties. [The NAPP ordinance, in the paragraph describing NAPP's purpose (see above), seems to address the matter: "Passive recreation would be appropriate use of the land."]
Freeman then got to the crux of the potential problem: “Establishing these new nature preserves creates a corresponding growth in responsibility for the care and management of the properties, which requires significant resources.” These responsibilities include making and implementing a stewardship plan to provide for “maintenance of trails and boardwalks; monitoring of plant and animal species; habitat restoration including planting of native species; and control of invasive species through prescribed burns and manual removal.”
Freeman moved to the financial aspect of the situation, focusing on the second paragraph of Section 8 of the ordinance [emphasis added]:
The revenues from the deposit and/or investment of the Acquisition Fund along with the revenues from the sale of any natural areas property purchased pursuant to this Ordinance shall be applied and used solely for the purchase of natural areas land (75%) and agricultural development rights (25%) under this Ordinance, provided, however, that no more than 7% of increased millage funds used to purchase land under this Ordinance may be used annually to administer a land preservation program or maintain lands purchased under this Ordinance.
[The projected annual revenue from the 0.25 mill for NAPP is $3.2 million. Of that, 75% is for natural areas purchases ($2.4 million), with 25% for farmland preservation ($800,000), via conservation easements. 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.
Currently, 93% of the NAPP millage proceeds are used for acquisition of natural areas or conservation easements on agricultural land. The remaining 7% is for stewardship, management, monitoring, maintenance and other oversight.]
Freeman told commissioners that the millage generates $2.4 million for the purchase of natural areas, including about $160,000 (or roughly 7% of $2.4 million) to pay for maintenance. This is enough, he said, to cover the costs of staff who perform the stewardship activities: a naturalist and a park maintenance worker, assisted by two seasonal staff, and other costs such as equipment, supplies and travel.
While the current situation is acceptable, Freeman pointed out two ways in which it is not sustainable.
First, NAPP continues to make new acquisitions, which must be maintained. Freeman estimated the annual cost of maintaining purchases during the life of the current millage – through 2020 – would be about $240,000. That is, to provide care and maintenance for both current and future properties, WCPARC will need 2.8 full-time permanent staff members and 4 full-time seasonal workers (for 9 months of the year). To arrive at this number, Freeman said, he had consulted with the city of Ann Arbor and Oakland County.
The second danger is “the risk that the existing millage may not be renewed, and without a source of funding, the long-term sustainability of NAPP and the nature preserves it has established is uncertain,” he said.
Freeman then outlined the solution: “establishment of a dedicated reserve that could support a NAPP stewardship program.” As his written report described it, “once established at the necessary level, annual income could be generated similar to that which would be realized from an endowment fund. The principal of the fund would not be spent but would be used solely as the income through earnings generated by interest and dividends.”
[Ordinance 128 requires that "funding for the purchase of natural areas land shall be deposited in a special fund in the office of the Washtenaw County Treasurer...and may be temporarily deposited in such institutions or invested in such obligations as may be lawful for the investment of County money."]
Freeman proposed establishing such a fund “by changing the allocation of 7% of the millage for stewardship to 25%,” which would at present “generate approximately $600,000 per year. After using $240,000 for ongoing [stewardship] activities, $360,000 would remain to be invested in the dedicated reserve for long-term land stewardship.” Freeman went on to say that by 2020, when the current millage expires, the dedicated reserve would total $6 million.
To clarify the source of the $6 million, Tetens responded to an email query from The Chronicle after the meeting. He noted that the last year for revenue from the 2010 NAPP renewal millage would be 2021. That means there would be nine years with the new ratio of 25% – if approved – and one year (2012) at the current 7%. WCPARC anticipates additional revenue from interest on the principal, and assumes that property values will increase slightly over the term of the millage. Also, he wrote, “similar to our experience during the first ten years, we might receive donations or secure grants to supplement the fund. Six million dollars is our goal, and we think it’s very realistic.”
The Chronicle asked Tetens whether there were any limits on the amount of money that could be accumulated in this manner. He said there are not. Tetens also indicated that there is no specific long-term goal for the amount of land to be acquired through the NAPP program. “What we buy depends on the quality of land, water, and other criteria” in the ordinance, he wrote.
At WCPARC’s May 8 meeting, Freeman told commissioners that “looking ahead, if NAPP had 4,000 acres, we need to be able to maintain that.”
Natural Areas Preservation: Stewardship Fund – Commission Discussion
There was a brief discussion after the presentation, with support for the ordinance change.
Commissioner Barbara Levin Bergman noted that “we won’t buy land forever – there will be a cap. When we go to the board of commissioners, we might add that to the presentation.” Freeman responded that “this [plan] will give the county board options. WCPARC doesn’t want to tell the county board that they have to go for a millage to keep the NAPP program sustainable.” He added that “this money can’t be used for anything but NAPP.”
Tetens reported that the topic is on the agenda for the county board’s June 7 working session.
The rest of the commission discussion focused on the “brilliance” and “foresight” of the plan, and the “critical importance” of stewardship into the future “for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,” as commissioner Patricia Scribner put it.
Commissioners then voted on the following motion: ”That the WCPARC support amendment of Ordinance No. 128, allowing up to 25% of annual millage revenues to be dedicated to stewardship, so as to ensure the sustainability of the stewardship of the nature preserves established through the Washtenaw County Natural Areas Preservation Program.”
Outcome: The motion passed unanimously.
Natural Areas Preservation: Updates
Tetens’ written report to the commission covered additional items related to NAPP:
- An April 10, 2012, closing on an acquisition of the Pellerito property next to the Meyer Preserve in Superior Township; WCPARC holds a conservation easement and the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy owns the property. [See Chronicle coverage: "Superior Greenway Deal Adds 100 Acres"]
- An April 20, 2012, closing on the 22-acre Bloch property on Joy Road, approved at last month’s WCPARC meeting. This deal was in collaboration with Ann Arbor Township and the Ann Arbor greenbelt program.
- Start of a Phase 2 environmental site assessment for the 70-acre Baker property in Lima Township.
- Removal of surface debris from the Schrock addition to the Draper-Houston Meadows Preserve; and receipt of a permit from the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality to construct a boardwalk west of the bridge over the Saline River in the same preserve.
- Completion of construction documents for a parking lot for the Squiers Preserve.
- Continuation of staff work on trail layouts for Osborne Mill, Spike, Draper-Houston Meadows and Trinkle Marsh Preserves. [As background, Osborne Mill, Spike, and Trinkle Marsh Preserves are so new that, pending development of trails, there is little or no public access, nor is there information about the Spike or Trinkle Marsh preserves on the WCPARC website.]
Eastern County Recreation Center
At its April meeting, WCPARC heard an extensive presentation by faculty and students from the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, covering the work they would do on a site plan for a possible recreation center on the Water Street redevelopment on Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti. Parks and rec director Bob Tetens reported on the latest work on the project, which included the first meeting of a steering committee.
Working committees that will advise the planners will start to meet next week, he said. Tetens hopes to create a formal three-party development agreement among WCPARC, the city of Ypsilanti, and the Ann Arbor YMCA, which may manage the center. Tetens agreed to add members of WCPARC to the email list for the planning group. Commissioner Janice Anschuetz, who attended the meeting of WCPARC and Ypsilanti city staff regarding this project, praised city staff for all the information and expertise they brought.
Tetens reported that the total cost of the services provided by the University of Michigan is $40,000, but the cost to WCPARC is $10,000 because the university will cover $30,000 through a faculty seed research grant. Tetens asked the commission to authorize an expenditure of $10,000 to secure the services of the UM faculty and graduate student research assistant team.
Outcome: WCPARC unanimously approved the $10,000 expenditure.
Parks & Rec Updates
At various points during the meeting, parks and recreation staff gave updates on a range of topics, including the Mallets Creek stabilization project, Ann Arbor skatepark, Border-to-Border trail, and events in the parks system that occurred recently or are upcoming.
Parks & Rec Updates: Mallets Creek Stabilization
Director Bob Tetens and associate director Coy Vaughn gave an update on the Mallets Creek stabilization and improvement project. They showed slides to illustrate the extensive work, visible to motorists traveling east on Washtenaw Avenue between Manchester and Platt roads, to stabilize the banks of Malletts Creek, enhance water quality, remove dead and invasive plants, regrade to meet the hydrological needs of the site, and install new paved and unpaved paths.
Janis Bobrin, the county’s water resources commissioner who also sits on WCPARC, added further details – her office has overseen the project. The light tan material that covers the entire area contains seeds of native plants and grasses, as well as annual rye. The rye will sprout first, she said, to provide initial stabilization; then the native plants will emerge to provide permanent color, interest, and cover. Bobrin said the project “successfully withstood the big storm on March 15,” in that water flowed as intended and collected as intended.
Commissioner Barbara Levin Bergman was happy to hear about all the new trees that were planted, laughing as she recalled people asking her “How can you take away all those wonderful trees” as the site was being cleared – of dead and invasive trees – over the last several months.
Tetens added that there will be a grand opening in late July, after a new County Farm Park arch, identical to the one at the entrance from the Platt Road parking lot, marks the Washtenaw Avenue entrance to the park. He also pointed out that the path leading from Washtenaw to the pavilion in the play area will be paved.
Bobrin commented that this phase of the Malletts Creek project extends all the way to Chalmers Road – a road that’s east of and parallel to Huron Parkway, running north to the South Pond of the Huron River.
By way of background, County Farm Park is best known for the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center, which faces Washtenaw and opened in 1991. However, the park contains much more. Its 141-acre footprint is roughly the size of the University of Michigan golf course at the corner of South Main and East Stadium Boulevard. It boasts a large children’s play area, two pavilions, several miles of walking paths, dozens of Project Grow community gardens, a perennial garden planned for nine months of color, and Britton Woods nature area.
The woods, according to the parks and recreation website, “reflect the Ann Arbor landscape in pre-settlement times.” The land has belonged to the county since 1836, and housed a poor house and insane asylum from 1837 to 1917, and a brick hospital called the Washtenaw Infirmary until 1972. Project Grow then began to use some of the land.
The site also holds the WCPARC administrative offices.
Parks & Rec Updates: Ann Arbor Skatepark
Tetens reported the latest step in developing the Ann Arbor skatepark, to be located at the city of Ann Arbor’s Veterans Memorial Park. By way of background, the skatepark is a joint endeavor of WCPARC, the city of Ann Arbor, and Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark, a volunteer group.
Six proposals have been received for design of the project, which will be reviewed by a selection committee consisting of representatives from all three groups. Construction is expected to start in the spring of 2013. Tetens said it will be a “world class” skatepark unlike any most Ann Arborites have seen.
By way of background, just over $800,000 has been raised toward a $1 million fundraising goal for the skatepark. The roughly $1 million cost of the project will be paid for through a combination of private donations – primarily solicited through the Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark – a $300,000 state grant, and up to $400,000 in matching funds from WCPARC. The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation is acting as fiduciary for the project.
The six proposals are from the following firms: (1) Pillar Design Studios; (2) New Line Skateparks, partnering with Beckett & Raeder, van der Zalm + Associates, and SPA Skateparks; (3) Dan Joseph Architects; (4) Wormhoudt Inc.; (5) Wally Hollyday Skateparks and Midwestern Consulting; and (6) ASD (Action Sport Design) + Stantec.
The proposals are being reviewed and committee members will meet next week to open the bids. Committee members include Trevor Staples, Chris Cassell and Gregg Iddings of the Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark; Amy Kuras and Colin Smith of the city of Ann Arbor’s parks & recreation unit; David Barrett, a city of Ann Arbor park advisory commissioner; and Jeff Dehring of the Washtenaw County parks & recreation department.
Interviews with finalists are expected to be held during the last week of May.
Parks & Rec Updates: Independence Lake, Pierce Lake, Recreation Center
Tetens described several improvements at Independence Lake Park: a new overflow parking area that will be open all year; the start of construction on a new enlarged “spray and play zone,” which will include areas tailored to toddlers and to teens, separated by a significant difference in elevation; and scheduling of work to clean and fence 10 newly acquired acres.
He also reported that the weather continued to affect attendance at the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center and Pierce Lake golf course. Warmer weather discouraged attendance at the recreation center, but enabled Pierce Lake golf course to open two weeks earlier than in 2011 and 2010, bringing in more users and more revenue.
At the golf course, Tetens described an expanded pavilion complete with power and lights. The golf course continues to exceed the last two years in use and revenue.
An information packet provided to commissioners included data on revenues and users for the recreation center and golf course:
Parks & Rec Updates: Border-to-Border Trail
The county’s Border-to-Border Trail, Tetens reported, continues to expand with construction on River Terrace Trail southeast of Dexter, which should be done by the end of the summer. That will enable walking from downtown Dexter to the high school and to Hudson Mills Metropark. In response to a question from commissioner Dan Smith, Tetens said that the village of Dexter is working on a crosswalk at Island Lake Road for residents of the Cedars of Dexter.
Parks & Rec Updates: Events
Tetens described a “wildly successful” Earth Day celebration at the nonprofit Leslie Science & Nature Center, at which WCPARC handed out 400 young trees to children, including white pines, tulip trees, red maples, and sugar maples. And stakes, he added, to mark the trees so parents would not inadvertently mow them.
At the county’s Rolling Hills Park, Tetens said, there will be a ribbon cutting and grand opening of the new “northern parkland and ring road” on Sunday, May 20, from 1-4 p.m. The area suffered some washouts during winter rain events, but they are being repaired while final components of the stormwater management system are still under construction. Construction documents for 50% completion of the Rolling Hills Water Park expansion are ready for staff review, he added.
Park planner Meghan Bonfiglio showed slides of a “River Thing” workshop held April 22, 2012 at Sharon Mills Park. Participating kids wore tall wader boots and used nets to see what they could catch.
Bonfiglio went on to describe a new geocaching adventure for kids in 2012. She said that in addition to 10 adult locations, there will be six for kids. Information will be on the WCPARC website on June 1. Associate director Coy Vaughn underlined the impact the geocaching program has had in bringing people into parks and recreation areas they would otherwise never have known about. [Information about WCPARC's policy and guidelines for geocaching is available online.]
During his report later in the meeting, Tetens also mentioned that:
- In April, staff provided 10 programming days in four parks and two preserves.
- More than 225 children have registered for the summer day camp at County Farm Park, which starts June 19.
- A recent food drive at the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center yielded 358 pounds of non-perishable food for the local nonprofit Food Gatherers.
The commission approved payments of $1,079,035.23 for park, facility, and capital improvements; and payments of $445,771.38 for NAPP acquisitions and preserve management. The total for the month of April was $1,524,806.61.
Outcome: The commission unanimously approved the expenditure of $1,524,806.61.
Bob Tetens recommended changing the 2012 calendar, which included June and August meetings but no July meeting. However, the timing of bids from prospective contractors for the replacement of the bath house and expansion of the Rolling Hills Water Park will require a July meeting. Tetens recommended adding a regular meeting the third Tuesday of July, the 24th; and cancelling the scheduled Aug. 10 meeting. The revised calendar shows meetings on June 12, July 24, Sept. 11, Oct. 9, Nov. 13, and Dec. 11.
Outcome: The commission unanimously approved the revised calendar.
Present: WCPARC commissioners Janice Anschuetz, Barbara Levin Bergman, Janis Bobrin, Robert W. Marans, Nelson K. Meade, Patricia Scribner, Dan Smith, and Fred Veigel. WCPARC staff members Bob Tetens, Meghan Bonfiglio, Tom Freeman, and Coy Vaughn.
Absent: Jimmie Maggard, Rolland Sizemore Jr.
Next meeting: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at 7 p.m. at the parks and recreation commission administrative offices, 2230 Platt Road in Ann Arbor.
The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!