Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (June 7, 2012): Collaboration was a theme that tied together several items at the most recent GAC meeting, starting with a review of farmland preservation efforts by Washtenaw County.
The county parks and recreation commission is moving toward a decision on the first farm properties to include in its land preservation program. It has about $1.6 million to work with, using a portion of proceeds from the countywide natural area preservation millage, which was renewed by voters in November of 2010. That 10-year, 0.25-mill tax also funds the county’s acquisition of natural areas and land preserves.
Susan Lackey, executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy, briefed the greenbelt commissioners on the first round of deals. The Ann Arbor-based nonprofit is under contract to help manage the county program. Out of 57 applications, seven properties are moving forward for appraisals and final consideration, potentially covering 1,100 acres.
Though the county’s efforts at protecting farmland are relatively new, the greenbelt program has focused on farmland preservation since Ann Arbor voters approved a 30-year 0.5 mill tax in 2003. Lackey described the county’s efforts as complementary to the greenbelt program, noting that there’s more work to be done than any single entity can do.
Later in the meeting – during an discussion about efforts to update the greenbelt program’s strategic plan – Mike Garfield suggested that it might be time to shift more of the greenbelt’s efforts to natural areas or recreational projects like the Border-to-Border trail or RiverUp, and scale back the amount of farmland preservation.
One difficulty in this shift relates to matching funds. Ginny Trocchio, who serves as support staff for the greenbelt program, told commissioners that while the greenbelt has been very successful in securing grants through the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Preservation Program (FRPP), there are far fewer options for non-farmland properties. Partnerships with other local entities, like the county parks and recreation department, is one of the main ways that non-farmland land preservation dollars can be leveraged.
Another general challenge for all types of land preservation was cited by Lackey: A mild resurgence of development pressure as the economy improves, which is starting to drive up land values. She urged all groups to get as much preservation work done as possible in the next three to five years.
This month’s meeting was the last one for Garfield, who was instrumental in helping pass the city’s open space and parkland preservation millage, which funds the greenbelt program. He is term-limited. His potential replacement, Archer Christian, was introduced at the meeting. She is development director at the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center, where Garfield serves as director.
At the end of the meeting, commissioners held a closed session to discuss potential land acquisitions. When they emerged, they voted unanimously to recommend action by city council on the purchase of development rights for four parcels within the greenbelt boundaries, if FRPP grants can be secured.
Washtenaw County Farmland Protection
Susan Lackey, executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy, updated GAC on farmland preservation efforts of the Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission. WCPARC has contracted with the conservancy to manage this relatively new program. Her update was similar to one she gave to the county board of commissioners in April.
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, as it was originally approved, millage proceeds could not be used for the purchase of development rights, a common way to protect farmland from being sold for development.
But in May of 2010, county commissioners approved a change in 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.]
Using PDR to preserve farmland is seen to have 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 or other entities to tap federal grants through the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Preservation Program (FRPP). Washtenaw County is the most successful county in the state at bringing in FRPP dollars for land preservation, through the Ann Arbor greenbelt and other programs.
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 about spending the natural area millage proceeds.
The county’s ordinance revisions also added language stating that 75% of purchases would be natural areas and 25% agricultural development rights. Lackey noted 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.
About $1.6 million in funds are available for farmland preservation so far – that represents about $800,000 annually, for two years of funding. 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. 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).
Criteria used to evaluate farmland parcels for selection 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.
One “on/off” button for potential preservation is whether a local government’s master plan calls for development in the area where a property is located, Lackey said. If an area is slated for development through zoning or a master plan, then the county won’t seek to preserve it, she said, because “we believe that local government policy has power and we should recognize that.” [.pdf of scoring and evaluation criteria]
Ultimately, applications were received for 57 parcels covering about 5,600 acres located throughout the county, Lackey said, including many within the greenbelt boundaries. 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 – and 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 officially notifying the township governments where these parcels are located. Appraisals on the properties will be done, and that will indicate how many deals can actually move ahead. The appraisals will likely result in very different valuations than would have been made even five years ago, Lackey 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.
The expectation is to start scoring properties after Labor Day for a second round of deals.
Lackey concluded by introducing Robin Burke, the conservancy’s new land protection coordinator.
Washtenaw County Farmland Protection: Commission Discussion
Mike Garfield began the discussion by commenting that the early returns on this effort sound terrific. He wondered whether the county’s program would be able to reach its goal of protecting 1,100 acres.
Lackey replied that she thinks the money is there to do it. The big question is appraisals, she added, “as it is for everybody.” In discussions with landowners, she said she was clear as possible about the potential land values. In many areas, there aren’t nearby comparables for the purchase of development rights. It all depends on how comfortable landowners will be with the offered price, she said.
Garfield noted that Lackey had mentioned an on/off switch for selecting properties to protect. Where there any other on/off switches? he asked. Lackey indicated that if land is already protected, it wouldn’t be a priority. Another “off” switch would be if there’s contamination on the site.
Garfield asked whether matching funds are a requirement for the program. No, Lackey said, but it’s one factor in a property’s scoring criteria. It’s not an on/off button, but it would be difficult to complete a deal unless there were other funds that could be leveraged. Otherwise, it would need to be a very special property. Garfield pointed out that this is a point of distinction between the county’s program and the greenbelt, which does require some kind of matching funds.
Peter Allen said he’d always been under the impression that there wasn’t much overlap between the greenbelt and the county’s programs, but he’s amazed to see that there is. In a big picture view, where do the programs compete or cooperate?
Lackey described the programs as more complementary than competitive. There have been several parcels that Ginny Trocchio – who is support staff for the greenbelt program – has alerted the county about, and vice versa. There’s more preservation work to be done than any single entity can do, Lackey said. The driving force behind all of their work is what’s best for the farmland and how can it best be protected. That’s true for the natural areas in the county too, she said.
Allen asked if there are ever any fee simple purchases – that is, outright acquisition of property in which the title would be held by the county. Not for farmland protection, Lackey said. However, there are fee simple purchases through the county’s natural areas preservation program, which is overseen by the natural areas technical advisory committee (NATAC).
Catherine Riseng reported that she also serves on NATAC, and had been curious about ALPAC’s work. Recently, NATAC has discussed the issue of setting aside more funds for stewardship. She wondered if that was an issue for the farmland program too. [For background on the stewardship issue, see Chronicle coverage: "County Parks: Stewardship Fund an Option?"]
Yes, Lackey said. In fact, she would be going to the county board of commissioners later that night to discuss a possible ordinance change that would allow for more millage money to be set aside for stewardship. If there’s a restricted fund for stewardship, you could easily contract out that work to monitor properties with respect to easement enforcement. The stewardship issue for preserves is a bigger concern, she noted. If the millage isn’t renewed in the future, are there adequate funds for managing those properties?
Lackey clarified for Riseng that currently 7% of millage funds are set aside for stewardship of both natural areas preservation and farmland preservation. [The proposed ordinance change, if approved, would allow for up to 25% of funds to be set aside for stewardship.]
Tom Bloomer wanted to know how flexible the county would be in allowing public access on the farmland it protects. That’s a discussion that ALPAC has had, Lackey replied. The ordinance stipulates that an educational event can be held not more than one time a year – something like a hike or a farming demonstration. It’s very limited, she said. In reality, as more easement deals are completed, such events will likely default to just the farmers who are interested in holding them, she said. There’s no contemplation of putting in parking lots or trails, or having a “y’all come down, folks” attitude, she added.
Bloomer ventured that it doesn’t sound like providing this access has been a stumbling block. That’s right, Lackey said. In fact, a couple of landowners are excited about the idea. Others just aren’t sure if anyone would be interested in seeing what’s on their property. But there’s been no pushback at all, she said. Of course, the devil will be in the details as the easements get finalized, Lackey added. But she felt that the easements would honor the spirit and certainly the letter of the county’s policy, as well as honoring the farm owners with respect to access to their land.
Dan Ezekiel clarified with Lackey that the county parks & recreation commission holds the easements, just as it holds the title for the natural area preserves that it purchases. He asked whether there had been any discussion about having an entity like the Legacy Land Conservancy hold a secondary easement.
Lackey said the county’s attorney has some concerns about that. The issue is that if another entity is given an easement, the county would be giving away value that it had purchased with public dollars.
Ezekiel observed that Lackey has considerable experience and knowledge about land preservation. He asked her to look into her crystal ball and identify strategic issues that might be emerging in the next three to five years.
Saying she hesitated to do that, Lackey did offer some observations. She expects the area will see a mild resurgence of development pressure, which will likely affect land within the greenbelt boundaries more than in the outlying rural parts of the county. She has heard there are some new proposals for residential subdivisions, which hasn’t been the case in recent years. The development pressure will probably happen more quickly than any of them expect, she added. That was true of South State Road in Pittsfield Township, which was undeveloped when she arrived to this area in the mid-1990s, and now is almost fully developed.
With development comes price pressure, Lackey said. So the challenge will be to do as much work as possible in the next three to five years – getting appraisals that are healthy enough for landowners, but not so high that land preservation programs wouldn’t be able to afford it. Unlike the greenbelt program, the county’s land preservation efforts don’t have the luxury of bonding, Lackey noted. So their work is based on the annual revenues brought in from the millage.
The other issue that Lackey raised was the area’s robust local food community, which tends to involve small farms. She said she’s still trying to puzzle through whether conservation easements are helpful to owners of small farms, or if such easements are more hassle than they’re worth. Conservation has a role to play, but it’s not clear what that role might be. Farming is more profitable now than it’s been in recent decades, she said, so that should encourage more farmers to stay in the county.
However, the average age of a farmer is 59, she noted. No matter what the development market does, farmers are aging. The concern is how to transfer farmland from one generation to another. Lackey cited the Girbach/Frederick farm as a good example of a successful transfer. [The greenbelt program and Legacy Land Conservancy were partners in purchasing development rights to the Lodi Township farm, which allowed the owners to sell the property at an accessible price to Mike Vestergaard. See Chronicle coverage: "Frederick Farm in Line to Join Greenbelt."]
Lackey said she’s struck by the interesting dynamic – operating the farm as a business, yet at the same time protecting the farmland.
Ezekiel asked Lackey to share her experiences in protecting conservation easements against encroachments or incursions. To date, Lackey said, that hasn’t been a big issue. Most situations have been accidental, she said. [The issue has arisen recently for an easement held by Webster and Scio townships on property owned by the Dexter Area Historical Society. See Chronicle coverage: "Webster Gives Ground for Civil War Days."]
Lackey identified two issues related to easement enforcement. First, land is starting to change ownership, as the owners that signed the original easement sell their property. So far, she said, the successor landowners have been great in abiding by terms of the easements. The second issue relates to terms of the easements. When the first easements were done in the early 1990s, they didn’t include a lot of terms that are standard today – like the issue of third-party enforcement. In newer easements, that third-party enforcement is standard, she said.
Possible New Commissioner
Following Susan Lackey’s presentation, Dan Ezekiel asked Mike Garfield to introduce a guest who was attending the meeting. Garfield, who is term-limited and was serving his last meeting as a greenbelt commissioner, introduced Archer Christian, saying that she’s interested in having her name put forward as his replacement. Garfield is director of the Ecology Center, a nonprofit based in Ann Arbor. Christian is the group’s development director.
Garfield said she’d make a wonderful addition to the commission.
Christian spoke briefly to commissioners, saying that as long as she can remember, she’s wanted to be a farmer. Being able to translate that passion into helping preserve land in the greenbelt would be an honor. She gave a brief overview of her background, including the fact that she started at the Ecology Center four years ago as grants director, and became development director in January of 2012. [.pdf of Christian's résumé]
Christian told commissioners that she’s lived in Ann Arbor for eight and a half years, and it feels like home. Being in a forward-thinking community is a delight beyond measure.
Ezekiel indicated that he believed her nomination was in process. For most city commissions, members are nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council. However, greenbelt commissioners are both nominated and confirmed by the city council. Carsten Hohnke, the city council representative on GAC, was expected to put forward the nomination. He did not attend the commission’s June 7 meeting.
A resolution to appoint Christian is on the June 18 Ann Arbor city council agenda. It is likely to be postponed, because such nominations are typically put forward as an item of communication, followed by a vote at the subsequent council meeting. A similar situation occurred with a recent resolution to reappoint greenbelt commissioners Peter Allen and Catherine Riseng.
If appointed, Christian’s term would run through July 1, 2015. She would fill a slot set aside for someone who represents an environmental/conservation organization.
Greenbelt Strategic Plan
At its May 2012 meeting, the commission formed a subcommittee to work on updating a strategic plan for the greenbelt program. The subcommittee consists of Peter Allen, Laura Rubin and Shannon Brines.
The first strategic plan was adopted in 2005, and updated in 2009 to reflect changing economic conditions and the growing local food movement. [.pdf of 2009 updated Ann Arbor greenbelt district strategic plan]
During her staff report, Ginny Trocchio – a staff member of The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit that’s under contract with the city to manage the greenbelt program – updated commissioners on the effort. [.pdf of subcommittee notes] The subcommittee has met for the first time and reviewed maps to see what the greenbelt program has already accomplished. Several townships have updated their master plans in the past three to five years, so the subcommittee looked at overlays of those plans as they relate to land preservation.
The general consensus is that the strategic plan needs some tweaks, Trocchio said, but not major revisions. She hoped the subcommittee can bring recommendations to GAC’s August meeting.
Rubin noted that part of the subcommittee’s discussion had involved trends in terms of matching funds that are available for the greenbelt properties. The greatest unknown is the future of funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP). That could be a huge change, she said – or not.
Trocchio reported that when the greenbelt program first launched, the initial deals included about 20-30% of funding from outside sources. Now, the deals average around 50% in funds from partners or FRPP. Land prices have also dropped significantly since the greenbelt program was formed, she said – from around $16,000/acre in 2005 to about $4,000/acre now. So the city’s cost per acre to preserve land in the greenbelt went from around $11,000 to $2,000 or $3,000.
Trocchio also noted that the program is coming close to spending down its fund balance. [To get money upfront for land acquisition, the city took out a $20 million bond in fiscal year 2006. That bond is being paid back with revenue from the 30-year, 0.5 mill open space and parkland preservation millage, which voters approved in 2003. Part of that fund balance is used for parkland acquisition within the city. About $6 million remains for the greenbelt program.]
When the fund balance is spent, then the city will only have enough revenue to do about one or two deals per year, Trocchio said. If land prices go up, even fewer deals would be possible.
Mike Garfield suggested that it might be time to consider more of an emphasis on natural areas, as opposed to farmland. It makes sense to look at recreational projects like the Border-to-Border trail or RiverUp, he said. Garfield added that he wasn’t saying they should stop doing farmland preservation, but there might be some other strategic projects that the greenbelt program could be part of.
Peter Allen said there was clear consensus among subcommittee members that overlaying the greenbelt program with the watershed, food shed and “recreational shed” would be a good strategy.
Rubin noted that the subcommittee also discussed the struggle of protecting property when they can’t find a partner. The city doesn’t want to own land that it has to manage, she said. One strategy might be to look for non-traditional partners, like parks and recreation departments. Garfield added that the greenbelt program wasn’t originally conceived that way – it was thought of as protecting farmland. So it might take some reaching out to find partners for recreational land.
Trocchio pointed out that one of the problems for deals related to non-farmland properties is that there’s nothing equivalent to the FRPP. Ezekiel said he understood the point, but he also ventured that a fair number of non-farmland deals had fallen through because the landowner had decided not to proceed. It had been frustrating, he said, adding that he agreed the greenbelt should have a healthy mix of property types. He pointed to the recent preservation of the Pellerito property in Superior Township, in which the greenbelt had participated. It’s not because of a lack of effort, he added.
Tom Bloomer expressed caution in the precision of language related to local food. It starts out as a concept but then becomes a catch phrase and loses its true meaning, he said. The concept of local food started out as food that’s grown here, he noted. All farms in Washtenaw County are producing local food. But what the phrase has come to mean is that it’s locally consumed, Bloomer said – and there’s a difference. As the local food movement has grown, he said he’s heard people use the term who don’t know what they’re talking about. It takes on a life of its own, he said.
Ezekiel replied that the commission should take Bloomer’s words to heart, because Bloomer is a local food producer of long standing. [Bloomer owns Bur Oaks Farm in Webster Township.]
Communications & Branding
Ginny Trocchio gave an update on work that she and commissioner Liz Rother are doing on communications and branding. Their goals are to improve outreach to residents about the greenbelt program, and to standardize communications and publications with a greenbelt brand.
Trocchio listed several events and activities, including a table at the June 8 Green Fair in downtown Ann Arbor, a panel discussion planned for Nov. 7 with landowners who’ve participated in the greenbelt program, and a bus tour of greenbelt land later this year. They’ve also talked about how to develop a compelling impact report that describes the success of the greenbelt program. She passed out a report from the Gathering Waters Conservancy in Madison, Wisc., that might serve as a model.
In terms of coming up with a branding image, Trocchio noted that it’s complicated trying to come up with a design that captures what the program does. It’s a city program, but protects farmland and natural areas.
She passed out a couple of examples of designs that are being considered, developed with the help of a designer on the city staff. [greenbelt branding sign 1] [greenbelt branding sign 2] Trocchio also showed how one of the designs would look on a tri-fold table sign, which included a map and other information about the program.
Trocchio asked for reaction from commissioners about these designs.
Tom Bloomer said the map of protected properties – by the greenbelt program as well as other land preservation efforts – is important to include. Giving a visual representation is much more powerful than describing it in words, he said. Dan Ezekiel agreed, saying he liked the combination of the map and the graphic.
Peter Allen also liked the map, but thought that the graphical representation of Ann Arbor was “a little too high-risey.” He also suggested that the watershed, food shed and natural resources need to be symbolized somehow. The map is critical, but the other images need work, he said.
Rother described it as very much a work in progress. The image has to be something you can recognize quickly as representing the greenbelt, as you bike or drive past the sign, she said.
Laura Rubin noted that there have been signs developed in the past with a logo – is the idea to go back and change those? [A prototype of a Preserve Washtenaw sign had first been presented at GAC's December 2009 meeting.] Trocchio said the idea was that all land preservation groups in the county would use them, but they haven’t, she said. A few properties – including Bloomer’s farm – are using those signs now, but not many.
Rubin noted that one key difference is that the old signs say Preserve Washtenaw and could be used by any land preservation group in that consortium. The new signs would just be for the Ann Arbor greenbelt.
Mike Garfield said it’s terrific that this is moving forward – it’s much needed, he said. The actual image isn’t as important as where the signs are located and how they’re displayed, he said. Garfield added that he personally would prefer something that promoted Preserve Washtenaw, to include all programs. But he encouraged Trocchio and Rother to move forward and come up with the best design possible “and we’ll go from there.”
Trocchio agreed that finding a way to indicate collaboration among the various programs is important.
Closed Session: Land Acquisition
Commissioners spent the last 30 minutes of their two-hour meeting in closed session to discuss possible land acquisitions, which is one of the reasons provided by the Michigan Open Meetings Act for a closed session. When they emerged from closed session, commissioners voted to recommend action by the city council on four parcels.
Before appearing on the city council’s agenda, details of proposed greenbelt acquisitions are not made public – but parcels are identified by their application number. Commissioners recommended that the city council proceed with the purchase development rights (PDR) on parcels with the application numbers of 2005-01, 2011-11, 2011-12, and 2011-13 if grants are received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP).
Mike Garfield made the motion, noting that it was his last chance to do so. GAC chair Dan Ezekiel commented, “Well, Mr. Garfield, you’re going out on a note you came in on, because what fine applications they are.”
Outcome: Commissioners unanimously recommended that the city council pursue these greenbelt deals.
Present: Peter Allen, Tom Bloomer, Dan Ezekiel, Mike Garfield, Catherine Riseng, Liz Rother, Laura Rubin. Also: Ginny Trocchio.
Absent: Shannon Brines, Carsten Hohnke.
Next regular meeting: Thursday, July 5, 2012 at 4:30 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]
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