On Sept. 5, 2012, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners will consider amending an ordinance for the county’s natural areas preservation program. The intent is to create more flexibility in setting aside funds for stewardship, with the goal of eventually building a $6 million fund for ongoing maintenance of county preserves.
Since the NAPP initiative was established in 2000, nearly 2,500 acres of land have been preserved countywide. The millage-funded program is overseen by the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission (WCPARC), a body appointed by the county board that also oversees the much older parks and recreation system, which was established in 1973.
WCPARC also partners with other organizations on special initiatives, including the countywide Border to Border Trail, (B2B), the Connecting Communities program, and planning for an east county recreation center on Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti. That center’s planning effort is also taking another step forward this month, with WCPARC staff holding an open house on Thursday, Sept. 27 to review two design options for the center. The open house will be held at Spark East (215 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti) from 3-8 p.m., with formal presentations at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
In the context of current proposals – the NAPP ordinance change and possible new recreation center in Ypsilanti – this report looks at the history, budget, and scope of the county parks and recreation system, as well as its master planning for the future and its partnerships with local, state and national organizations with a similar purpose.
Background and Overview
When the Washtenaw County board of commissioners voted to establish the county parks and recreation department in 1973, the parks system started with just four roadside parks that had previously been maintained by the county road commission. By 2000, the system had grown to 1,100 acres of parks, all north of I-94 and east of US-23. Now, there are more than 2,000 acres of parks and recreation facilities countywide, overseen by the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission (WCPARC).
The operation is funded with an 0.472 mill tax and this year has a budget of
$23.838 $15.5 million.
WCPARC also administers a separate program, the natural areas preservation program (NAPP), which the county board established in 2000. NAPP is funded with a 10-year millage of 0.2409 mills, which voters renewed in 2010. Since 2002 – the first year that millage proceeds were received – the millage has generated about $37 million in revenues. The ordinance enables WCPARC to accumulate these funds, and expend them as properties are identified. With that funding, WCPARC has protected 2,459 acres, often in partnership with other organizations.
A fundamental difference between NAPP and parks & recreation is that parks & recreation’s efforts focus on very active uses, while NAPP’s focus is, by the terms of its ordinance, intended for “passive recreation.” Passive recreation includes trail walking, bird watching and other activities, but not active uses like fishing or hunting. Both programs are administered by the same staff and managed by the department’s director, Bob Tetens. The WCPARC website contains an interactive map showing all its facilities.
WCPARC Administration & Governance
The state statute enabling creation of WCPARC calls for the county board of commissioners, an elected body, to appoint 10 members who serve staggered three-year terms. The enabling legislation – 1965 Act of the Michigan Legislature – reads in part as follows:
§ 46.351. Sec. 1.
(1) The county board of commissioners of a county, by resolution adopted by a 2/3 vote of all its members, may create a county parks and recreation commission, which shall be under the general control of the board of commissioners.
(4) The county parks and recreation commission is an agency of the county. The county board of commissioners may make rules and regulations with respect to the county parks and recreation commission as the board of commissioners considers advisable. The members of the county parks and recreation commission are not full-time officers. The county board of commissioners shall fix the compensation of the members.
WCPARC members must include the chair or another member of the county road commission (Fred Veigel); the county water resources commissioner or an employee designated by the commissioner (Janis Bobrin); and eight others, which must include between one and three county commissioners – Barbara Levin Bergman (District 8), Rolland Sizemore, Jr. (District 5), and Dan Smith (District 2). Other current WCPARC commissioners are: Robert Marans (president), Patricia Scribner (vice president), Nelson K. Meade (secretary), Janice Anscheutz, and Jimmie Maggard.
The commission oversees work of the staff, led by the WCPARC director. The department has had only four directors in its 38-year history: Robert Gamble (1974-1980); Roger Shedlock (1980-1985); Fred Barkely (1985-2001); and Bob Tetens, the current director who was appointed in 2001.
When Tetens, a graduate of Eastern Michigan University, came to work for WCPARC in 2001, he brought years of experience in other parts of Washtenaw County government. He started working for the county in 1978 as a planner, and later served as a research associate, senior planner, and in the office of the county administrator. Tetens then served as executive director of the Urban Area Transportation Study, now known as the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study, an entity responsible for transportation planning in the area. Tetens cites his experience with transportation and countywide planning for his commitment to the importance of non-motorized transportation.
As WCPARC’s leader, Tetens oversees a staff of about 35 full-time employees. These include deputy director Coy Vaughn – whose experience includes several years with the Ann Arbor planning department – and park planners, administrative staff, two naturalists, a horticulturist, a greens superintendent, and other employees in six locations. As part of those 35 employees, each of the largest parks or recreation facilities – Meri Lou Murray, Pierce Lake, Independence Lake, and Rolling Hills – has a superintendent, building maintenance, and operations staff.
WCPARC also hires nearly 400 seasonal workers, including lifeguards, park rangers and managers, groundskeepers, concession workers, maintenance workers, gardeners, and interpretive naturalists. These people work in both the parks and recreation facilities, as well as for the natural areas preservation program.
National Areas Preservation Program (NAPP)
The county board of commissioners established the Washtenaw County natural areas preservation program (NAPP) in 2000 with its natural areas ordinance 128. The ordinance sets out NAPP’s purpose:
SECTION 1: Declaration of Purpose
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.
The ordinance also authorizes the parks and recreation commission to purchase and hold real estate in the name of the county, and lays out procedures and standards for the purchase and protection of lands. The process begins when landowners nominate their property to the program, either as natural areas or as agricultural lands. Potential natural areas are reviewed by the Natural Areas Technical Advisory Committee (NATAC), which makes recommendations to WCPARC.
The county board of commissioners appoints NATAC’s seven members, on WCPARC’s recommendation, to two-year terms. The ordinance requires them to be county residents who have a “demonstrable level of expertise” in each of several professions: fisheries biology, botany/forestry, wildlife management, land use planning, environmental education, professional real estate, and land trust management.
The ordinance outlines the standard for determining “natural areas” worth acquiring: “land, including that used for agricultural purposes, which provides the function of conserving natural resources, including the promotion of the conservation of soils, wetlands and waterways, habitat, and special plants, animals, and plant communities.” The ordinance also identifies types of “passive recreation” that considered appropriate use of this land: “walking, jogging, bird watching, nature studies, quiet picnicking and other quiet inactive pastimes.”
Agricultural lands that are proposed for NAPP are handled in a different way. Such properties are reviewed by the Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee (ALPAC), as well as by WCPARC and the local unit of government where the land is located. WCPARC performs standard due diligence, such as environmental assessments, property line surveys, and anything specific to the property, often hiring third parties to do that work.
ALPAC was established by the Washtenaw County board’s purchase of development rights (PDR) ordinance to assist WCPARC in determining whether it should purchase the development rights on a particular parcel, as well as how much the county should pay for those rights. 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.
ALPAC consists of seven county residents: three in the agricultural business, and one each from the professions of planning, real estate, and environment or conservation groups, plus an ex-officio member of the county board of commissioners.
The county also contracts with the Legacy Land Conservancy, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit, to assist with
both natural areas and farmland preservation efforts.
Natural Areas Preservation Program: Budget
Voters first approved NAPP funding in 2000 and renewed it in 2010, each time for 10 ten years. The current millage – at 0.2409 mills – will expire in 2020 and generates about $3 million annually. The total generated since the millage was originally approved through 2012 is about $36,989,093, according to WCPARC director Bob Tetens.
The NAPP ordinance directs specific fund allocations between acquiring and maintaining natural areas (75%) and agricultural land (25%). Funds used for natural areas are further divided: 93% for acquisition, and 7% for stewardship and maintenance.
For the first half of 2012, NAPP expenses totaled $1,124,591. Of that, $1,076,534 was for natural areas, and $48,057 for agricultural lands. The natural areas expenses are split between acquisition ($983,400) and management/stewardship ($93,134).
Natural Areas Preservation Program: Budget – Ordinance Change
A proposal to modify the allocation of funding for natural areas is being brought to the county board of commissioners as an ordinance change. It’s on the agenda for the board’s Sept. 5 meeting of the ways & means committee, where an initial vote is expected. A final vote would likely take place at the board’s Sept. 19 meeting.
The change would remove the restriction that only 7% of millage funds could be used for management or stewardship. WCPARC had been briefed on the proposal at its May 8, 2012 meeting. At that time, the proposal would have raised the limit from 7% to 25%. Now, however, proposed ordinance amendment would eliminate all percentage restrictions on set-asides for management and stewardship.
The proposal would amend Section 8 of the NAPP ordinance (deleted text indicated in strike-through):
SECTION 8: Natural Areas Acquisition Fund
Available funding for the purchase of natural areas land shall be deposited in a special fund in the office of the Washtenaw County Treasurer (“Acquisition Fund”). Money in such Acquisition Fund may be temporarily deposited in such institutions or invested in such obligations as may be lawful for the investment of County money.
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, stewardship and administration of natural areas land (75%) and agricultural development rights (25%) under this Ordinance, 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.
According to a staff memo that’s part of the county board’s Sept. 5 meeting packet, the goal would be to use $600,000 per year for management and stewardship. Of that, $240,000 would be used for ongoing stewardship activities, and $360,000 would remain to be invested in a dedicated reserve for long-term land stewardship. By 2020, when the current millage expires, that annual investment is expected to have built a dedicated reserve of $6 million.
Though no percentages are identified in the proposed amendment, $600,000 would work out to about 25% of annual millage revenues.
Natural Areas Preservation Program: Preserves
Since NAPP was formed, the county has created 22 nature preserves from over 2,300 acres of land that it has protected through the program. Like Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program, the preserves are located in the county’s rural areas, and are often protected in partnership with entities like the Ann Arbor greenbelt, the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy (SMLC), The Nature Conservancy, or land preservation programs set up by individual townships.
Unlike the greenbelt program, which doesn’t purchase land outright, most of the NAPP preserves are owned by the county and open to the public. Some examples of those preserves include:
- LeFurge Woods Preserve: This preserve, at 2384 North Prospect Road in Superior Township, is open to the public for wildlife viewing every day between sunrise and sunset. Parking is on the road, or in a small lot. The preserve is owned by the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy (SMLC); NAPP funds were used to purchase a conservation easement. Trails lead visitors over meadows, wetlands, agricultural land, and woods.
- Raymond F. Goodrich Preserve: On Dixboro Road just south of M-14 in Ann Arbor Township, this 29-acre preserve is adjacent to the 101-acre University of Michigan Horner-McLaughlin Woods, creating an area of old-growth oak-hickory forest, native shrubs, several small wetlands, and a large swamp that separates much of the woodland from the M-14 freeway. The preserve access point is located on the west side of Dixboro Road, approximately 0.2 miles south of M-14 and 150 feet north of Overbrook Drive.
- Leonard Preserve: This is the largest preserve in the WCPARC system, located on the northwest edge of the village of Manchester. It protects nearly one mile of River Raisin shoreline. WCPARC partnered with The Nature Conservancy, which purchased the historic farm house and surrounding 40 acres of land. WCPARC acquired the remaining 205 acres. The preserve has over four miles of hiking trails, and a 10-acre prairie remnant where grasses can grow over five feet tall by autumn. The preserve entrance is at the end of Union Street, off Main Street/Austin Road in the Village of Manchester (west of the Manchester downtown area).
- Scio Woods Preserve: An example of the collaboration of several entities – the Ann Arbor greenbelt program, Scio Township land preservation commission, and WCPARC – this 91-acre preserve just west of Ann Arbor has steep slopes and a mix of mature woodland, wetlands, ponds, and a seasonal stream. The preserve entrance is on the north side of Scio Church Road, between Zeeb and Wagner roads, part in Lodi Township and part in Scio Township.
- Devine Preserve: This natural area on Liberty Road was the first property purchased through NAPP in 2003. Most of the 137 acres are wetland, and two loop trails wind through the woods. Large burr oak and hop hornbeam trees are here. The preserve entrance and parking area is on the right (north) side of Liberty Road, approximately 0.5 miles west of Zeeb Road and about 2.4 miles east of Parker Road.
- Fox Science Preserve: This 69-acre site is a former gravel pit, dug to provide sand and gravel to build I-94. It’s now home to glacial boulders and evidence of prehistoric vegetation, used for more than 35 years as an outdoor classroom. According to WCPARC’s 2010-2014 master plan, “the gravel here resembles that which must have occurred upon retreat of the glaciers 12,000 years ago.” This preserve is the result of a collaborative effort between the city of Ann Arbor greenbelt program, Scio Township, and NAPP. The entrance to the preserve is on the east side of Peters Road, approximately 0.3 miles north of Miller Road.
- Recent acquisitions: To date in 2012, WCPARC has added three natural areas, including 20 acres of the Malikah Muhammad property in Scio Township, adjacent to the Devine Preserve; and 33 acres of J.A. Bloch property adjacent to Northfield Woods. [For details of these acquisitions, see Chronicle coverage of WCPARC's May 8, 2012 meeting.]. Also protected this year was the 100-acre Pellerito property in Superior Township, on which WCPARC holds a conservation easement on land owned by the Southern Michigan Land Conservancy.
Parks and Recreation
While the natural areas preservation program is relatively new, the larger operation overseen by WCPARC – created nearly 40 years ago – is the county parks system, with a variety of recreation facilities.
Two millages totaling 0.472 mills support the parks and recreation function of WCPARC: one for operations, and one for development.
The operational millage, at 0.2353 mills, was renewed for 10 additional years in 2004. It extends the millage that was first approved in 1976, and renewed in 1984, 1994 and 2004. Bob Tetens, parks and recreation director, explained that to ensure operational continuity, millage is renewed two years in advance of its expiration date. The current operational millage expires in 2016, and Tetens expects to seek renewal in 2014.
The development millage – which funds capital improvements and expansion – was first approved in 1988, and renewed in 1998 and in 2008. It is also a 10-year millage, currently at 0.2367 mills. It is scheduled for renewal in 2018.
In 2012, revenues from the combined operational and development millages are expected to generate $6.309 million. WCPARC budgets for three types of expenses: predictable recurring expenses (personnel, supplies, internal service charges, and capital outlays); an operating reserve (in case property tax revenues unexpectedly drop); and partnership commitments, such as those that have created the Border-to-Border Trail and Connecting Communities paths. The following chart summarizes the 2012 budget [Editor's note: This chart is a revised version of the chart that was originally published, to provide a clearer summary of the expenses and fund balance items.]:
Expenses can fluctuate dramatically, based on renovation or expansion projects that are in the works. This year, for example, Independence Lake Park is undergoing several enhancements that will be finished by its 2013 opening on Memorial Day, including a new pavilion, and a new enhanced spray zone. And a major renovation is also underway at the Rolling Hills Water Park, at a cost of $4.4 million. [See Chronicle coverage of WCPARC's July 2012 meeting, when these projects were discussed in detail.]
Parks and Recreation: Major Facilities
WCPARC operates five major facilities that require staff and where visits and usage can be measured: (1) the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center, located at Platt Road and Washtenaw Avenue, on the east side of Ann Arbor; (2) Independence Lake Park, on Jennings Road a bit north of North Territorial and east of US-23; (3) Parker Mill Park, at 4650 Geddes Road in Ann Arbor Township; (4) Pierce Lake Golf Course, an 18-hole golf course at 1175 South Main Street in Chelsea; and (5) Rolling Hills Park at 7660 Stony Creek Road, which includes a water park with a separate admission fee. [.pdf with descriptions of these recreational facilities]
The first of these facilities – Independence Lake Park – opened in 1985. That year, 80,653 visitors came to the park. As additional facilities were opened in the following years through the late 1990s, parks usage increased. Between 1985 and 2011, the five facilities have logged a total of 13,789,383 visits. Of those, the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center gets by far the greatest usage, with 6,798,885 visits logged since opening in 1991.
In addition, WCPARC owns several other parks throughout the county, including ones that are located in or near Ann Arbor:
- The County Farm Park: Located on 127 acres at the corner of Platt and Washtenaw, from 1837 until 1917 this area held a poor house and insane asylum. In 1917, those structures were replaced by a brick hospital called the Washtenaw Infirmary, which operated until 1967. In 1973, the land was transferred to the new WCPARC, and in 1991 the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center opened where the infirmary had stood years before. Other facilities include a playground, two pavilions, a perennial garden and community garden, and walking and jogging trails. The Britton Woods Nature Area is also located within the park, named after the last farmer to own the land. It reflects the Ann Arbor area landscape in presettlement times. In the last year, the area of the park through which Malletts Creek flows has been cleared of invasive plants, sculpted to enable the creek to flow, and replanted with native plants. [See May 2012 Chronicle coverage of that restoration project.]
- Swift Run Dog Park: This 13-acre park, built in partnership with the city of Ann Arbor, is bounded on the north by Ellsworth Road and on the east by Platt Road. Parking is located off of Platt on the west side of the road. It is open daily from dawn to dusk. There, dog owners may legally allow their dogs to run off-leash. There is an annual fee, and dogs must wear a permit tag, which requires the owner to accept responsibility in writing. This unsupervised park has large and small dog run areas, a portable toilet, and dog waste disposal stations.
- Staebler Farm: The farm is located on 98 acres off of Plymouth Road, just east of Prospect Road in Superior Township. With farm and residential buildings, frontage on four water bodies, a flowing perennial stream, and many acres of pasture and hayfields, it is easy to see from M-14, which runs along its north edge. WCPARC staff are currently working on a master plan to develop this park, which is not yet open to the public. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Parks: Options Staebler Farm"]
- Park Northfield: Located on Pontiac Trail, one-half mile west of Dixboro Road in Northfield Township and approximately eight miles from Ann Arbor. This park is relatively isolated and natural, although on a busy road. Just 12 acres, it holds a hardwood forest, marsh, and rolling open field, with a picnic area and shelter, play equipment, toilets, and an information playfield area.
- Sharon Mills Park: On the banks of the River Raisin at 5701 Sharon Hollow Road in Sharon Township, 1/4 mile south of Pleasant Lake Road, this park was originally a sawmill, built in 1834. In 1928 it became a Ford Village Industries plan and manufactured parts for Ford vehicles until 1946. Until WCPARC acquired it in 1999, it played many roles: private residence, antiques business, and a winery. The park has 170 acres and provides interpretive signage, fishing, picnicking, and canoeing. The park can be reserved for private events such as weddings, which are catered by a private firm.
In addition to WCPARC’s primary focus on parks, recreational facilities and natural areas preservation, administrators have developed collaborations related to several special initiatives. Over the years, WCPARC has partnered with dozens of organizations, government entities, nonprofits and private businesses. [.pdf of partnership list]
Current efforts include the Border-to-Border Trail, the Connecting Communities initiative, and the Eastside Recreation Center project. The first two are long-standing; the latter has emerged in the last year, with the intent of helping the city of Ypsilanti activate the long-dormant Water Street redevelopment project on Michigan Avenue.
Special Initiatives: Border-to-Border Trail
This is a multi-agency, collaborative project to build a 35-mile trail for non-motorized travel from Livingston County to Wayne County, traversing open spaces along the Huron River, Washtenaw County’s most distinctive natural feature. The concept, according to county parks and recreation director Bob Tetens, is driven by demand from local residents. Based on surveys that WCPARC has done over the years, he said, “people want non-motorized trails even more than they want open space.” Both efforts have received approval ratings in the 80% range when taxes to pay for it are not considered, he said, and in the 60% range “when you say you will pay for it with taxes.”
According to the WCPARC master plan, 70% of the county’s residents live in river-linked communities. The B2B trail is intended to support alternative transportation and “enhance the livability of the county’s main urbanized areas,” according to the plan. The trail is being developed in 13 segments, from Segment A in the northwest (on the Livingston County border) to Segment M in the southeast (on the Wayne County border).
Each segment provides opportunities for collaboration and joint funding. For example, the 2-mile “segment C” in Hudson Mills Metropark that was finished in 2010 involved the Huron Clinton Metroparks Authority, WCPARC, the village of Dexter, the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Special Initiatives: Connecting Communities
WCPARC’s master plan states that “development of a county-wide non-motorized trail network is a larger task than any single community of organization can assume,” so in 2009 WCPARC established the Connecting Communities initiative to pursue that goal. The approach is to provide funds to supplement funding by partner organizations, but only for construction, not for planning or design. Projects must accomplish WCPARC’s “primary goal of providing valuable, non-motorized connections between communities and activity centers,” according to the master plan, yielding an alternative for recreation, transportation, fitness, and energy conservation.
By 2010, WCPARC had spent or allocated about $5 million for 40 miles of trails and paved shoulders, and every year since then more has been added.
Examples of those projects include a collaboration with the city of Ann Arbor and the Washtenaw County road commission to pave three miles of the shoulder along Huron River Drive; and with the road commission and Superior Township to create a 1.5-mile non-motorized path on Geddes Road. Both projects were done in 2010.
To fund this initiative, WCPARC has committed 20% of its development budget – up to $600,000 a year – for each of the five years from 2010-2014. That gives WCPARC the potential to contribute up to $3 million to the Connecting Communities initiative during that five-year period.
Special Initiatives: Eastside Recreation Center
The Eastside Recreation Center is a proposal to build a multi-purpose recreation center in Ypsilanti, similar to the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center in Ann Arbor. It would be located on the south side of Michigan Avenue along the east side of the Huron River, just over the river from downtown Ypsilanti. This 38-acre city-owned area, referred to as the Water Street Redevelopment Project is currently for sale.
WCPARC formed a partnership with the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning in April of 2012, and since then a team of TCAUP faculty and students have been developing a site plan for a building and an extension of the B2B trail that would cross the Huron River and Michigan Avenue and run on the east side of the river. WCPARC staff is working with the city of Ypsilanti to create a plan acceptable to the Michigan Department of Transportation, which has concerns about pedestrian safety and interference with the existing bridge that carries US-12 traffic over the river. [For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "More Planning for Rec Center in Ypsilanti" and "County Parks Commission OKs $6M in Projects."]
The planners have sought public input, and will present their proposals at an open meeting at Spark East (215 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti) on Thursday, Sept. 27. That day, WCPARC staff will host an open house from 3-8 p.m., with formal presentations at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Scale models of two options will be available at the Spark East office starting on Monday, Sept. 24, and the public can view them during Spark East’s normal operating hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Next meeting: The Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission meets the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. in the county parks and recreation department’s office at 2230 Platt Road in Ann Arbor, in the County Farms property. The next meeting will be on Sept. 11, 2012.
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