County to Protect More Farmland, Nature Areas

Also: Applications reviewed for Connecting Communities grants; fees raised at Washtenaw County parks and recreation facilities

Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission meeting (Feb. 12, 2013): The first meeting of WCPARC in 2013 kicked off when each member received a copy of a half-hour video history of the county park system, in honor of WCPARC’s 40th anniversary.

Miller Creek, Washtenaw County parks and recreation, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

A section of Miller Creek runs through a property off of Geddes Road that the Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission might help preserve, in partnership with the city of Ann Arbor. The land is located in Ann Arbor Township. (Photos by the writer.)

Commissioners were then briefed on what WCPARC director Bob Tetens called a record monthly expenditure for his time with the commission: $3.9 million in January 2013, including $2.9 million for parks and recreation – primarily for capital improvements at Rolling Hills, Independence Lake and Sharon Mills parks – and $1 million for natural areas preservation.

Expenditures in January for the natural areas preservation program included acquiring land from the Ford Road Property LLC on the east side of Berry Road in Superior Township; for improvements at Trinkle Marsh, Spike, Hornback, and Nagle preserves; and for phase 1 due diligence on the proposed purchase of the Trolz property in Manchester Township.

The commission also approved taking the next steps on several additional natural areas preservation proposals. Those steps include applying for (1) federal funds to help cover the purchase of development rights on farmland in Superior and Lima townships, and (2) a state grant to help develop the Staebler Farm, located in Superior Township, into an active park. Commissioners also approved the purchase of a conservation easement on 82 additional acres from the Ford Road Property LLC in Superior Township.

Also discussed was a proposal to help the city of Ann Arbor buy the 8-acre Taylor property on Geddes Road, east of Huron Parkway. The land is immediately east of the city’s Ruthven nature area, and is seen as a priority because a section of Miller Creek runs through it. The creek is subject to flash flooding during heavy rains, and has been the focus of stormwater management efforts by the city and the county water resources commissioner. Conan Smith, a county commissioner who also serves on WCPARC, questioned whether this is an appropriate project for the county’s natural areas preservation program. He indicated that it might be better for the city to partner with the water resources commissioner on this project instead.

In other action, commissioners voted to increase fees at WCPARC facilities, including the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center, and Independence Lake and Rolling Hills parks. A staff report indicated that the fees would still be lower than comparable public recreation facilities in this region. [.pdf of fee schedule]

WCPARC members were briefed about applications to fund eight projects through the Connecting Communities initiative, under which WCPARC helps pay for non-motorized transportation trails throughout the county. The city of Ann Arbor is among those applicants, asking for $300,000 to fund development of trails along the Allen Creek greenway, including at the city-owned 721 N. Main site. Final decisions will be made at WCPARC’s March meeting.

WCPARC members also re-elected their officers, set the 2013 meeting calendar, and got updates on two months’ worth of activities at the county’s parks and recreation facilities – including a report on flooding at the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center in January, and steps toward developing a new recreation center in Ypsilanti.

The meeting was attended by six of the current nine-member commission. One vacancy remains to be filled on WCPARC by the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, which appoints all WCPARC members. A vote on that position is expected at the county board’s Feb. 20 meeting.

Natural Areas Preservation Program

Several items on the Feb. 12 agenda related to the county’s natural areas preservation program (NAPP), which is funded by a 10-year countywide millage of 0.2409 mill – most recently approved by voters in 2010. It raises about $3 million in annual revenues and has preserved about 2,500 acres of land since NAPP was established in 2000. That land includes both natural areas as well as farmland.

NAPP: Graichen and Heller Properties

The Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee (ALPAC) advises WCPARC on matters relating to the purchase of development rights on parcels of agricultural land in the county. ALPAC has recommended that WCPARC apply for 2013 federal funding for two properties: the Graichen property, 72 acres in Superior Township; and the Heller property, 190 acres in Lima Township. [.pdf of staff memo for Heller and Graichen properties]

Map showing Graichen property in Superior Township.

Map showing the Graichen property in Superior Township, indicated in yellow. The map also highlights other nearby protected land, including WCPARC’s Meyer Preserve, Superior Township’s Cherry Hill Nature Preserve, and the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens. (Image from the WCPARC Feb. 12 meeting packet.)

The funds would come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP). According to the FRPP website, the program “provides matching funds to help purchase development rights to keep productive farm and ranchland in agricultural uses.” It’s a common source of matching funds for farmland preservation, and is frequently tapped by the city of Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program.

According to the staff report from consultant Tom Freeman, WCPARC had in February 2012 given permission to proceed with appraisals and discussions with landowners as needed, so that ALPAC could make final acquisition recommendations for these two properties, along with five others. All seven properties were identified as high priority, using a scoring system that the commission previously approved. At WCPARC’s Feb. 12, 2013 meeting, Freeman showed maps of the local area, topography and soils, for each of the two properties.

The Robert and Opal Graichen property lies at the northwest corner of Vreeland and Leforge roads. The soil map prepared by the nonprofit Legacy Land Conservancy for WCPARC reports that the soils are all “prime and locally important.” WCPARC’s Meyer Preserve is less than a mile to the east on Vreeland; Superior Township’s Cherry Hill Nature Preserve is about the same distance to the north and west, helping to create what Freeman called the “developing Superior Township greenway.”

The 190-acre Else Heller property is in Lima Township, south of a line running from the west end of Liberty (at Guenther Road) to Lima Center Road; a piece of it extends across Guenther Road. The Legacy Land Conservancy’s soil map identifies 144 of the acres as “prime and locally important soils.” Freeman’s presentation highlighted the presence of Mill Creek on the north end of the property, and the proximity of the segment that is east of Guenther Road to Sutton Lake.

Freeman’s presentation concluded with a reminder that these purchases would come back to WCPARC for final approval, and that the matter before the commission tonight was to authorize submission of the grant application.

NAPP: Graichen and Heller Properties – Commission Discussion

Commissioner Jan Anschuetz asked about public access to this property, should the transaction go through. Freeman said the owners would have to agree to allow periodic public visits with prior arrangement, and that this was normally done for a naturalist to present a program. The Legacy Land Conservancy, he continued, does bus tours.

“Could they please tell us when they are going to do that?” Anschuetz asked. “It’s so hard to find out about these without a newspaper.” Freeman took the opportunity to say that once WCPARC was involved, there would be wider outreach.

By way of background, the purchase of development rights (PDR) is a common mechanism for protecting farmland, letting landowners keep their property for farming but preventing – via a conservation easement – its development. Because the landowners retain ownership of the property, the land is generally not open to the public, unless at the invitation of the owners.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved ALPAC’s recommendation to apply for 2013 FRPP funding for these two properties, and to authorize staff to perform any necessary due diligence to strengthen the application.

NAPP: Ford Road Property LLC

Tom Freeman presented a written report, slides, and a verbal description of a proposal regarding an 82-acre property in Superior Township on the north side of Ford Road east of Berry Road. It was nominated for purchase in February 2012 and WCPARC’s Natural Areas Technical Advisory Committee had recommended purchase of a conservation easement on the land. [.pdf of Ford Road Property staff memo]

Ford Road Property LLC, Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission, natural areas preservation program, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Map showing two Ford Road Property LLC parcels (encircled) that the county is purchasing for its natural areas preservation program. A third parcel, which fronts Ford Road, is not part of this deal. The land is located in Superior Township.

Freeman reminded the commission that at their Dec. 11, 2012 meeting, WCPARC had approved outright purchase of two adjacent parcels totaling 65 acres. Freeman’s report stated that the agricultural portion of these 82 acres was not deemed appropriate for outright purchase through NAPP. Instead, the report continued, “purchase of a conservation easement on the agricultural portion of the Ford Road property would offer a valuable buffer to the recently purchased natural area [to the north].”

Superior Township has expressed a desire to have a farmer own the land, farm it and pay taxes on it, according to Freeman’s report. The current owner, Ford Road Property LLC, sees it as potential residential land. However,, a realtor has found a Superior Township-based farmer, Freeman said, who wants to farm it and is willing to sell the conservation easement. The land contains a stream that is part of the headwaters of the Rouge River. Access will be through Superior Township’s Schroeter Park, on the north side of land that WCPARC purchased in December, where there is already a parking lot. Bosserd Appraisal placed a value of $413,000 for a conservation easement on the 82 acres.

NAPP: Ford Road Property LLC – Commission Discussion

WCPARC president Bob Marans commented on the collective value of these purchases. “If you could look back a hundred years from now, this is huge,” he said. Freeman added that WCPARC would work with the township to continue to build high quality trails, and that the property would be available for seasonal pre-arranged tours; he planned to meet with Superior Township officials the next day to talk further about this.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the motion authorizing staff to prepare a purchase offer for the southern portion, approximately 82 acres of the Ford Road Property LLC at a price of $413,000 for a conservation easement, contingent on the completion of all necessary due diligence of the property and the commission’s final approval.

NAPP: Taylor Property

This 8-acre parcel on the north side of Geddes Road is immediately east of the city of Ann Arbor’s Ruthven nature area. The current owners, who could by right put residential development on the land, contacted the city, which “immediately asked us to partner with them,” Freeman reported. [.pdf of staff memo for Taylor property]

WCPARC’s Natural Areas Technical Advisory Committee (NATAC) identified the property as a high priority in a Nov. 12, 2012 memo. The Ann Arbor Township property, Freeman said, is densely overgrown with invasive species so much that walking it is difficult. Most significantly, Miller Creek runs through the property, under Geddes Road, and into the Huron River at the Gallup Park parking lot. The creek is subject to flash flooding during large rain events, in spite of work done on it by the county water resources commission and the city of Ann Arbor, Freeman said, adding that the city wants to take the lead on this. [The city's acquisition of parkland and land preservation efforts are funded through a 30-year open space and parkland preservation millage that voters approved in 2003.]

By way of background, according to the nonprofit Huron River Watershed Council, Miller Creek “is degraded due to a high amount of impervious surface in its watershed, and alterations to the stream channel. Stream monitoring data show Millers Creek to be in poor condition overall. According to the city of Ann Arbor:

Millers Creek drains only 2.4 square miles, making it one of the smallest watersheds in the Huron River system. However, the creek is also the steepest tributary to the Huron, averaging a gradient of 52 feet per mile. The creek runs along Huron Parkway from Plymouth Road to the Huron River. The stream’s steep gradient, combined with extensive impervious surface in the watershed and straightening of the stream channel over time contribute to extremely flashy flows in Millers Creek during storm events.

NAPP: Taylor Property – Commission Discussion

At the WCPARC Feb. 12 meeting, Bob Marans asked Freemen, “How would NATAC have valued this [property] if the city had not approached us to partner?” Freeman’s response: “If this were out in the country, it would not be so attractive. What is valuable here is the location – this property has daily impact on the quality of the Huron River. The stream has been highly affected by development elsewhere in the city, which makes sediment flow into the [Huron] River.”

Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County parks and recreation, natural areas, Miller Creek, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Map showing the location of the Taylor property in Ann Arbor Township, outlined in black within the black circle.

Freeman’s recommendation was that WCPARC contribute $27,500 – about 25% of the estimated $110,000 cost – to help the city buy the property, and in return obtain a guarantee that the property would always be open to the public, and that WCPARC’s contribution be recognized with a sign.

Conan Smith, who represents one of the Ann Arbor districts on the county board of commissioners, asked whether the property could be developed residentially, given that part of it is in the floodplain. Freeman indicated that it would be possible to build on the west side of the property. He continued: “We could do what we did with Malletts Creek at the County Farm Park, slowing the water down, allowing it to overflow its banks onto the west side of the property.” [The Malletts Creek bank stabilization project was discussed most recently at WCPARC's May 8, 2012 meeting.]

Smith replied: “Isn’t that engineering rather than natural area preservation?” Freeman allowed that treating this area “as we did with Malletts Creek would require a huge investment. What we can do [on the Taylor property] is keep the creek from being subjected to the additional hard surfaces of residential development.”

Smith said he “was not sold on this as NAPP” and that although he could support the next step to approve completing all necessary due diligence, he could not yet support the purchase itself. He said his preference is that he and Evan Pratt, the county water resources commissioner, and “one other person” approach the drain board and asked that the office of the water resources commissioner partner with the city on this property, rather than WCPARC. Smith mentioned that it would fit with the Huron River Green Infrastructure Drainage District, which uses tree plantings for stormwater management project within the city of Ann Arbor. [At its Dec. 3, 2012 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council approved petitioning the county water resources commissioner to proceed with this green infrastructure project, at a cost of $300,000.]

Freeman replied to Smith: “What I struggle with is once this [property] becomes available, it has a momentum. What is proposed here is for the city to purchase this to make it part of Ruthven, and we would partner in return for getting access.”

Outcome: Commissioner Jan Anschuetz moved to authorize “the option to work with water resources,” and there was unanimous approval.

Connecting Communities

Commissioners received a separate packet consisting of a background memo on the Connecting Communities program, and copies of six applications for funding, which covered eight proposed projects. [.pdf of staff memo]

According to the staff memo, in May 2009 WCPARC authorized the Connecting Communities initiative, through which it would make up to $600,000 available annually from 2010 through 2014 – a total of $3 million – toward the cost of eligible trail projects. According to the memo, “eligible projects will be those that accomplish the Commission’s primary objective of providing valuable non-motorized connections between communities and activity centers, offering a healthy alternative for recreation, transportation, fitness, and energy conservation.”

WCPARC developed criteria for selecting projects, which include:

  • ten primary considerations (e.g. highway, river, railroad and other barrier crossings);
  • fourteen types of projects generally not eligible (e.g. trails solely within existing local parks);
  • six review criteria that applicants must use to document a compelling need for a project (e.g. that the project directly relates to the county’s important natural features, such as a river, and notes that the Huron River corridor is WCPARC’s highest priority)
  • five secondary criteria that apply to high-ranking projects (e.g. project quality and land availability or encumbrances).

The process for selecting projects to be funded involves a staff review of the applications. The projects are then presented to the projects to the Greenways Advisory Committee, which provides input that staff uses to prioritize the applications and make recommendations to WCPARC for final approval.

Connecting Communities: Summary of Applications

The applications for 2013 include:

  • Ann Arbor: $300,000 (of total cost of $1 million) for 1,500 feet of trail, part of a project for the “development of pathways, storm water features to improve the quality of Allen Creek…on property which will serve as a trailhead for the proposed Allen Creek Greenway.” The site includes city property at 721 N. Main. Paths will connect Felch Street to both North Main and west Summit Street. The proposal states that the city will also apply for a match from the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Trust Fund (MDNRTF), and that the city will consider using the adopt-a-park program to help maintain the facility.
  • Village of Dexter: $300,000 (the total cost) for the final 1,300 feet of trail connecting Dexter Huron Metropark to Dexter, as part of the countywide border-to-border trail. The trail will run from the current end of the trail to Central Street.
  • Northfield Township: $230,000 (of total cost of $600,000) for 2,925 feet of trail along Barker Road in Whitmore Lake, connecting Whitmore Lake’s downtown with the Northfield Township Library and Whitmore Lake Elementary School. This is the third phase of a project that received $120,000 in 2010 and $250,000 in 2011.
  • Pittsfield Township: $400,000 (of total cost of $1.8 million) for 1.8 miles of trail, phase 2 of the Lohr-Textile greenway, extending it east from the corner of Lohr and Textile, on Textile, to the Marshview Meadow Park and the Pittsfield Preserve. Other potential project funders include MDNRTF ($300,000) and MDOT/SEMCOG ($1,064,708). This project received $300,000 in 2010 and $290,000 in 2011.
  • Superior Township: $300,000 for two projects: 2,700 feet of trail along the east side of Prospect Road from Clark Road to the north side of Berkshire Drive (total cost $406,000); and 2,200 feet of trail along the south side of Geddes Road from Andover Circle to the Ridge Road roundabout (total cost of $267,000).
  • Ypsilanti Township: $295,000 for two projects totaling 4,032 feet (total cost of $310,000). One project (2032 feet) would run along the east side of Tuttle Hill Road from Textile Road north across South Huron River Drive and into Ford Lake Park; the other (1,000 feet) would run on the south side of Textile from just east of South Huron River Drive to the entrance of Lakeview mobile homes. The township received $100,000 in 2010 and $250,000 in 2011, and has pledged $100,000 for project engineering.

Connecting Communities: Commission Discussion

Commissioner Jan Anschuetz asked about the Ann Arbor application. “What if they don’t get the [MDNRTF] grant?” WCPARC director Bob Tetens replied: “Then they would not get our money. When we pledge, we put it on the table only until we know whether they get the other money. If they don’t, the money would roll into the next year.”

Outcome: There was no vote. WCPARC staff expects to make recommendations to the commission at the March 12, 2013 meeting.

Funds to Develop Staebler Farm

Planner Coy Vaughn presented information about the recommendation to prepare and submit an application to the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Trust Fund for funding to start development on part of the 98-acre Staebler farm site for active use. [.pdf of staff memo on MDNRTF application] [As background, the site is in Superior Township, east of Prospect Road and south of M-14. It is bisected by Plymouth Road and edges both Frains Lake and Murray Lake. For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "County Parks: Options for Staebler Farm"]

Bob Marans, Bob Tetens

From left: Bob Marans, president of the Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission, and WCPARC director Bob Tetens.

WCPARC acquired the land in 2001, Vaughn said, and has “invested considerable effort and funds to repair and preserve a loafing barn, cattle barn, horse barn, milk house, and corn crib.” Vaughn’s report suggested that completing a master site development plan and providing entrance drives to allow public access would cost $750,000. The proposal is to apply for $300,000 from MDNRTF – the maximum grant level that’s awarded.

Both Vaughn and WCPARC director Bob Tetens expressed optimism about the success of the application. “We’ve had a lot of success the last few years, and not been denied in several years,” Vaughn said. Tetens chimed in: “Not since I’ve been here.” Vaughn noted that the WCPARC applications line up well with the MDNRTF grant criteria.

The outline plan that Vaughn presented put active uses on the north side of Plymouth Road, retaining the south side (where Don Staebler still lives) for pasturage and hayfields. He reviewed previous thinking about the site: to preserve the character of the historic property with active farming that would also support the local food movement; to celebrate the agricultural heritage of the county and the evolution of agricultural practices; to provide park amenities; and to take advantage of the water resources on the site. Vaughn added that WCPARC staff have met with Superior Township staff to be sure they agree with these ideas.

The first phase of development, Vaughn said, would be a trail, fishing pier, pavilion, parking, interpretive signs, and further improvement of structures on the site.

Funds to Develop Staebler Farm: Commission Discussion

Commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked whether the site would have to be rezoned. No, replied Vaughn, but the township might require a site plan. Commissioner Jan Anschuetz asked whether the grant would be for the first phase, and the answer was affirmative. Tetens clarified that the application is due April 1, and there has to be a public hearing, which will occur at the March 12 WCPARC meeting.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to authorize staff to prepare and submit a grant application, and to hold a public hearing at the March 12 commission meeting.

Fees for WCPARC Facilities

Director Bob Tetens introduced the topic by saying: “We have to raise fees, but we don’t want to raise very much.” Coy Vaughn, WCPARC planner, added that with all the improvements and additions to Independence Lake and Rolling Hills parks, which will have facilities they did not have previously, staff compared costs at similar facilities in the area to make the fee proposal. [.pdf of staff memo on proposed fee schedule]

For Rolling Hills, which has had no price increase since 2003, the proposal calls for raising all fees by $1 (but only 50 cents on weekdays after 5 p.m.). The proposal also includes increasing rent for the Great Room from $100 to $125, and eliminating the hourly rental option.

Independence Lake Blue Heron Bay – the new spray-and-play zone – will have a separate entrance fee per day of $4 for county residents and $5 for non-residents. Weekdays after 5 p.m., the fee would be discounted by $1. Children age and under can enter at no charge.

At the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center, the annual fees for county residents would be increased as follows:

  • Adult (16-61): from $220 to $230, renewal at $220.
  • Youth, senior, disabled: from $165 to $180, renewal at $170.
  • Over 80: from $50 to $60.
  • Family (up to 6, no more than two over 18): from $480 to $495, renewal at $485.
  • Non-resident fees will be 50% more than resident fees in all categories.
  • Daily fees for adults will go from $7 to $8, and those for youth, seniors and disabled from $5 to $6, with non-resident daily fees $1 higher.
  • Independent personal trainer and private swim instructor fees will go up 10%.

The staff report stated that “among the facilities similar to MLM, only the Livonia Rec Center charges less for adult passes, $206.” The report noted that the Livonia facility is heavily subsidized by the city’s general fund. “With an average adult fee of $266 among the public rec centers,” the report continued, “and an average of $538 among the local private gyms, we can justify an increase….”

The report contained charts of fees for publicly owned facilities in Canton, Dearborn, Livonia, Saline, and Troy, averaging $266. Locally, fees for Ann Arbor’s YMCA, Anytime Fitness, Arbor Fit, Liberty Athletic, One-on-One, Planet Fitness, and Washtenaw Community College averaged $538.

Commission discussion was limited to brief comments, agreeing that people are still getting a bargain at MLMRC.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the new fee structure at all locations.

Financial Reports

Because WCPARC’s January 2013 meeting had been canceled, commissioners reviewed financial reports for two months.

Financial Reports: Claims in January 2013

Total claims for January reached $3,912,657 – including $2,265,456 for capital improvements at park facilities. WCPARC director Bob Tetens gave a report to commissioners with highlights, including road and trail construction at Rolling Hills and Independence Lake parks; and bridge replacement at Sharon Mills. [.pdf of January 2013 claims report]

In addition, WCPARC paid $121,000 to the city of Ann Arbor for stormwater fees that had been paid by county facilities on behalf of WCPARC; the city will, in turn, repay the county. In addition, WCPARC paid $373,591 toward partnerships, the second largest monthly expense, including a total of $340,000 to Chelsea, Northfield Township, and Saline.

The natural areas preservation program’s expenses in January were $1,003,799. This included closing on the first Ford Road purchase, approved by WCPARC in December 2012; constructing an overlook in Trinkle Marsh; $83,000 for a boardwalk and parking lot at the Spike Preserve; a $64,000 contribution to a conservation easement on the Hornback property in Salem Township; $40,000 to Mannik and Smith for a phase I environmental assessment on the Trolz property west of Manchester; and improvements at the Nagle and Squires preserves.

Bob Marans asked whether, now that all reports are in electronic form, the printed report could include more details, rather than getting them in an oral report. Tetens agreed to do that.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the claims for January.

Financial Reports: Claims in February 2013

The claims report for February 2013 totaled only $94,588 for parks facilities and functions, plus $119,215 for NAPP – a total for the month of $213,802. The NAPP expense included acquiring a conservation easement in the Drake Preserve. There was no commission discussion. [.pdf of February 2013 claims report]

Outcome: Unanimous approval of the claims for February.

Financial Reports: Year-end 2012

Tetens supplemented the written report with comments on the financials at the end of WCPARC’s fiscal year – Dec. 31, 2012. There were separate reports for parks facilities and functions, and the natural areas preservation program (NAPP). [.pdf of WCPARC fund balance statements]

Parks began with a fund balance of $20,412,417 on Jan. 1, 2012, and ended the year with a projected (unaudited) balance of $12,245,536. On the revenue side, property taxes exceeded budget expectations by $241,863, and fees by $376,329, putting total revenue at $10,219,773. Actual expenses totaled $17,690,375. The top two expenses were $11,091,512 for land development and $4,041,245 for personnel services.

Meghan Bonfiglio, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

WCPARC planner Meghan Bonfiglio and commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr.

In addition, WCPARC had $6.7 million in an operating reserve, and $50,000 for partnerships, both functioning as expenses. Conan Smith asked Tetens whether WCPARC gets a report from county treasurer Catherine McClary on its investments. Tetens replied that he had not requested that, and was “not sure she can break it out by department.”

NAPP’s beginning fund balance was $9,374,016. Its revenue, primarily property taxes, was $3,357,670. Expenses were well under projections, primarily because land acquisitions, with a budget of $3.2 million, only used $1,638,416. The projected fund balance of $10,818,369 includes money set aside for land stewardship and management.

As background, WCPARC administers 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.

Recreation Reports

WCPARC staff gave several reports and updates related to the county’s recreation facilities.

Recreation Reports: Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center

Bob Tetens characterized use and revenue from the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center on Washtenaw Avenue as he has in the past – “stable.” [.pdf of MLM Rec Center report]

In 2012, there were 5,093 memberships that brought in $737,305 in revenue. That’s down from 5,584 memberships in 2011 and $750,008 in revenue. In 2010, memberships were 5,368 and revenue was $736,580. Daily passes and revenue have also declined: 28,071 passes in 2012 ($177,501); 29,748 passes in 2011 ($187,283); and 38,174 in 2010 ($199,364).

In 2012, the center reported overall participation of 325,234 resulting in revenue of $1,218,007. That compares to a count of 339,946 people in 2011 ($1,244,205 in revenue); and 333,865 in 2010 ($1,245,167 in revenue). So the center saw a 4.3% decline in participation and a 2.1% decline in revenue from 2011 to 2012.

The January 2013 report showed participation by 33,151 people and revenue of $157,372, compared to 34,901 ($142,232) in January 2012 and 35,430 ($147,811) in 2011.

Conan Smith asked about the decline in daily passes, especially in light of the concurrent decrease in memberships. Bob Marans asked whether any surveys are taken in the building, to gauge usage.

Tetens said he did not think the decline was due to competition from the Ann Arbor YMCA or the Washtenaw Community College facility, because they are “a different market from Meri Lou Murray.” He pointed to warmer weather in 2012 as affecting use of MLMRC.

Recreation Reports: Pierce Lake Golf Course

Tetens called the report on the Pierce Lake Golf Course “very very good,” with 2012 showing the greatest use and highest revenues ever for the course. In 2012, 19,278 golfers paid $399,242 in green fees, compared to 15,836 ($346,049) in 2011 and 18,477 ($338,905) in 2010. [.pdf of Pierce Lake report]

Retail operations took in $110,589 in 2012, compared to $89,523 in 2011 and $92,325 in 2010. Total revenue in 2012 was $614,620, up from $526,501 in 2011 and $532,415 in 2010. Tetens attributed the increase to the investments in food and beverage, including a stone patio and liquor license obtained in the summer of 2010. He expressed hope that business would increase in the future because the pavilion’s size is now twice what it was.

Recreation Reports: Independence Lake Park

Both attendance and revenue at Independence Lake Park continue to increase: 17,743 ($137,217) in 2012; 17,019 ($132,602) in 2011; and 16,886 ($132,419) in 2010. [.pdf of Independence Lake Park report]

The percent of annual users who are non-residents of the county was 6.2% in 2012; 5.1% in 2011, and 4.5% in 2010. The percent of non-resident daily users is higher, though it has shown a decrease in recent years: 28.8% in 2012, 32.1% in 2011, and 31.6% in 2010.

Annual revenue peaked in 2012 at $211,578. That compares to $209,960 in 2011, and $201,731 in 2010. Tetens called attention to the increase in day camp attendance: 928 in 2012, up from 600 in 2011 and 495 in 2010.

Recreation Reports: Rolling Hills Park and Water Park

The park section of Rolling Hills Park saw 34,788 attendees and $268,288 in revenue in 2012, about the same as 2011, with attendance of 34,844 ($267,130). [.pdf of Rolling Hills report]

In 2010, attendance was 33,780 ($259,990). County non-residents accounted for 5.41% of the annual users, but 46.99% of the daily users. In 2011, non-residents were 3.95% of annual attendance and 46.55% daily; and in 2010, 3.89% annual and 46.29% daily.

The water park section of Rolling Hills, which requires an additional entrance fee, had 114,522 users who paid a total of $780,122 to enter. In 2011 there were 115,012 uses ($780,995), and 113,635 ($761,453) in 2010.

Overall revenue at Rolling Hills was $1,322,131 in 2012; $1,310,515 in 2011; and $1,249,894 in 2010.

Outcome: All recreation reports were received for filing.

Project and Activities Updates

WCPARC meetings typically include a range of updates on parks and recreation projects that are underway, as well as activities within the system.

Project and Activities Updates: Development Projects

Bob Tetens reported on continuing work at Independence Lake Park, where a new water park with an administration/ticket sales and a bathhouse building are under construction, along with spray and play water features that include interactive devices – kids can use their hands to control the amount of water. Tetens highlighted the details such as images of herons, cattails, dragonflies and butterflies in the railings; the standing-seam metal roof; and the water slides, which are the main attractions. One is completely enclosed – commission member Jan Anschuetz called it the “panic attack” feature. Tetens underlined the fact that the play area is fenced off so kids can’t wander into the lake. There is “a beautiful new grill in the concession area,” he concluded.

At Rolling Hills Park, which will have a soft opening the weekend before Memorial Day, there is a new 450-space parking lot leading to a more dramatic entry with a courtyard, a new 32-foot water slide tower, and a new park headquarters building. Tetens also noted, with appreciation to the commission, the value of the new snow removal and snow grading equipment, which has been used this winter.

[See Chronicle coverage of WCPARC's July 24, 2012 meeting, when the projects at Rolling Hills and Independence Lake parks were discussed in detail.]

Project and Activities Updates: East County Recreation Center

The concept for a new recreation center just east of downtown Ypsilanti continues to move forward. It would be at the northwest corner of the 38-acre Water Street development site. [For additional background on this project, see Chronicle coverage: "Public Gives Input on East County Rec Center"]

Tetens updated WCPARC on one component: A section of the border-to-border trail that will run from Riverside Park, across Michigan Avenue, and along the west side of the proposed rec center on the east bank of the Huron River. Currently the county is negotiating with the owner of Fischer Honda for an easement across his property that would contain a bridge, and with the Michigan Dept. of Transportation for a HAWK signal. [A HAWK – High-Intensity Activated crossWalK beacon – is a signal that a pedestrian can activate to stop traffic and allow a safe crossing.]

Tetens said he is very optimistic about getting permission from MDOT, because the pedestrian counts met the warrants for establishing such a crossing. Commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. called attention to the need to coordinate the two efforts: “Before we give money to Honda, we have to be sure we can build the bridge and do the crossing.”

Tetens said they would use an escrow account to hold payment for the property until the bridge and the crossing were assured. Several commission members commented on the increased activity and number of residents in downtown Ypsilanti. Jan Anschuetz said “You can’t rent a loft, and Linda [French] is putting $1.2 million into her building [the Sidetrack Bar]. You can’t park in Ypsi at ten at night.”

Project and Activities Updates: Ann Arbor Skatepark

The proposed Ann Arbor skatepark, to be located on the northwest corner of Veterans Memorial Park in Ann Arbor – across Dexter Road from Aldi’s – has been approved in concept by the Ann Arbor city council, Tetens reported, and will be released for bids next month. He also said the city is asking for state money to share the cost of handling stormwater.

Ann Arbor skatepark, Veterans Memorial Park, Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ann Arbor skatepark sign at the northwest corner of Veterans Memorial Park.

Coy Vaughn showed a slide of the proposal, and commissioner Bob Marans commented that the design is very different from the original concept.

Tetens responded: “People will drive for three or four hours to use this – there is nothing like it anywhere near here.” Jan Anschuetz stated that if WCPARC hadn’t offered a matching grant, this project wouldn’t have happened. [The county put forward $400,000 in matching funds for the project.] Tetens laughed, saying “that was the year we offered matching grants on a lot of projects and never thought so many of them would come through.” Conan Smith praised Ann Arbor parks and recreation manager Colin Smith, saying he was “awesome.” [The two Smiths are not related.]

Project and Activities Updates: Flood at Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center

Bob Tetens told commissioners that “it was a quiet Friday morning [Jan. 25, 2013] when I got a call about 10 a.m. – we had to evacuate the rec center.” While Tetens narrated, Coy Vaughn showed video from a security camera that was aimed at the source of the water: a fire suppression system leak caused by extreme cold weather.

Tetens described the staff response, as excellent, saying it was so effective that the building re-opened at 5 p.m. that day. “When I walked in,” he said, “I thought we would be closed for a week or more.” He went on to describe the extent of the damage, when the water extended into the “main intersection” of the building, down the stairs, cascading into utility rooms and locker rooms, into heat outlets, light fixtures, and even the elevator. Staff streamed in from field operations and all the parks. They stopped the flow of water, removed water in the building, cleaned outlets and restored electricity, and had the elevator inspected before they could reopen.

Project and Activities Updates: Paving Jennings Road

Tetens reported on a meeting with the county road commission to plan for paving about two miles of Jennings Road. [Jennings Road provides the best route to the county's Independence Lake Park for anyone living south of North Territorial.]

He reported on an agreement in which WCPARC, Webster Township, and the road commission to split the cost three ways, with the road commission “fronting the money and the other two paying them back over three years.” The matter, he said, would come to WCPARC for final approval in a couple of months.

Commissioner Conan Smith asked whether anyone was working with the residents. Tetens replied: “That’s the township’s job. From what I hear, people want it paved, but the next thing we’ll hear is people are driving too fast once it’s paved.”

Project and Activities Updates: Stewardship Proposal

Tetens reported on the result of WCPARC’s Sept. 2013 proposal to the county board of commissioners to modify the NAPP ordinance. [See Chronicle coverage: "Change to Natural Areas Ordinance OK'd"]

The change 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.  WCPARC had suggested the 93%/7% split be changed to 75%/25%. However, as Tetens reported, the county board’s response was to instead give WCPARC discretion about how to spend the 75% of all NAPP funds that can be used for natural areas.

Tetens told WCPARC he would come back with a proposed organizational structure to implement the change. He indicated that there would be two steps: first, adding “a couple of positions.” But also, he said, “we won’t spend all the funds we have available for stewardship or management, so that by 2020 [when the NAPP millage expires] we won’t be forced into asking for re-authorization. We hope to save enough money to pay for stewardship forever, or, in the worst case, ask for a lower millage. There is only so much land we can buy”

Conan Smith, who also serves on the county board of commissioners, complimented Tetens: “Your structure is very smart, dividing this up into three parts: purchase, manage, and stewardship.”

New Members, Election of Officers

WCPARC’s Feb. 12 meeting was the first recent one for new member Conan Smith, whose presence brought the number of WCPARC members up to nine. Smith had previously served on WCPARC, prior to his stint as chair of the county board of commissioners for the past two years. When he rotated off that chairmanship at the end of 2012, he asked his colleagues on the county board to reappoint him to WCPARC. For the past two years that position on WCPARC had been held by county commissioner Dan Smith.

All members of WCPARC are appointed by the county board of commissioners. At their Dec. 5, 2012 meeting, the county board appointed former county water resources commissioner Janis Bobrin as a community member to WCPARC. Evan Pratt, who was elected water resources commissioner in November 2102, took a seat on WCPARC by virtue of that position – it’s mandated that the water resources commissioner serve on WCPARC. Leaving WCPARC at the end of 2012 were former county commissioner Barbara Bergman and public member Jimmie Maggard.

Of WCPARC’s 10 membership positions, up to three can be from the county board. At their Jan. 16, 2013 meeting, the county commissioners made appointments to all of the county’s boards and commissions, including WCPARC. Currently, commissioners Conan Smith and Rolland Sizemore Jr. serve on WCPARC.

One vacancy on WCPARC remains to be filled by the county board. A vote on that position is expected at the board’s Feb. 20 meeting, for a term ending Dec. 31, 2014.

At WCPARC’s Feb. 12 meeting, president Bob Marans announced that the time had come to elect new officers. Commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. responded by moving to re-elect all of the current officers: Marans (president), Patricia Scribner (vice president), and Nelson K. Meade (secretary).

Outcome: Without discussion, the motion passed unanimously. 

Meeting Calendar for 2013

WCPARC’s Jan. 8, 2013 meeting had been cancelled for lack of business. So the meeting calendar for 2013 was presented for approval on Feb. 12. The commission meets on the second Tuesday of each month. Remaining meetings are scheduled for March 12, April 9, May 14, June 11, Aug. 13, Sept. 10, Nov. 12, and Dec. 10. Bob Tetens reminded WCPARC that usually either the July or August meeting is skipped.

Outcome: Without discussion, commissioners approved the 2013 meeting calendar.

Present: Robert Marans, Patricia Scribner, Rolland Sizemore, Jr., Nelson Meade, Jan Anschuetz, Conan Smith.

Absent: Janis Bobrin, Evan Pratt, Fred Veigel. [There also is one vacancy on the commission.]

Staff present: Director Robert Tetens, deputy director Coy Vaughn, planner Meghan Bonfiglio, and consultant Tom Freeman.

Next meeting: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 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.

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  1. By Eric Boyd
    February 19, 2013 at 10:23 am | permalink

    How much is available for the Connecting Communities grants? Is it the typical $600k or is there more rolled over from previous years?

    I thought the B2B piece to connect Dexter to Dexter-Huron was paid for in previous years.

  2. By Bob Martel
    February 19, 2013 at 10:57 am | permalink

    These are the kinds of efforts that pay off forever. In fifty years, folks will look back at these efforts and realize how forward thinking those of us in the “old days” really were.

    Good job everyone!

  3. By Ross Gladwin
    February 26, 2013 at 12:18 pm | permalink

    Wow, another amazingly detailed article from the Chronicle. Please keep it up! I would NEVER find this type of news anywhere else. And I agree, Bob, this type of natural area preservation will benefit us all FOREVER.

  4. By Steve Bean
    February 26, 2013 at 12:29 pm | permalink

    Now would be a good time to begin an evaluation period as land prices once again drop dramatically as deflation re-engages. The markets have topped and will lead the way to lower prices, lower employment, and lower tax revenues. Demand for farmland and natural areas will only decrease. Spending scarce public funds on land that will not be built upon is avoidable if we pause and observe.

  5. February 26, 2013 at 2:52 pm | permalink

    Even collapsitarians should recognize the value of stabilizing our local farmland.

    First, I don’t agree that demand for farmland will decrease. In fact, a minority of the Federal Reserve governors have noted that there is a danger of a bubble in farmland because of the desperation of investors who are searching for yield. The artificial depression of interest on capital is causing people to look at assets that might appreciate, and farmland is one of them.

    Second, while we may be heading toward a worldwide deflation, we are also experiencing resource depletion. This extends to food. I reviewed this in part of a recent series of posts [link] (alas, like so many of my series, yet to be completed). We are fortunate to live in an area where local food production is possible and is being supported by our local choices, including the protection of farmland.

    The argument for preservation of natural areas (which typically contain important communities of plants and animals) is more subtle and less economic. As a biologist and environmentalist, I value these communities for themselves, apart from any putative economic value (“undiscovered drugs for dread diseases”, etc.). But there is solid research that shows our own mental health is improved by exposure to the natural world.

    Thanks to the County, and especially to Bob Tetens, for preserving these valuable resources.

  6. By Steve Bean
    February 26, 2013 at 5:02 pm | permalink

    Vivienne, do you imagine that I think farmland and natural areas shouldn’t remain as such? That I didn’t mean demand for development? If farmland increases in value (it won’t in the near term), it would only do so as farmland, not housing tracts. In other words, the ‘threat’ is passing, and it’s time to plan for what comes after. That’s why I suggested an evaluation, not an end to the program.

  7. February 26, 2013 at 5:18 pm | permalink

    Steve, I’m glad (as I would have surmised) that you support farmland continuance, but I think a speculative bubble in it would be a destabilizing trend that might have negative consequences. As to whether it might be developed – there could be a lots of ups and downs in the development saga over the next 50 years.

    Yes, any program should be subject to intermittent evaluation. But this is one that I would like to see continue with its successes as long as the money voted in to support it is used well. (Note that this is different from the city Greenbelt program. The allocation of those resources is open to debate, as it is partitioned between city and outside our borders. The county millage was approved by a good margin across the county for this one purpose.)

    BTW: I HOPE that these parcels are not subject to mineral exploitation, i.e. fracking.

  8. By Steve Bean
    February 26, 2013 at 6:49 pm | permalink

    “But this is one that I would like to see continue with its successes as long as the money voted in to support it is used well.”

    Using the money well (both the county’s NAPP and the city’s greenbelt fund) is what I’m referring to: as prices drop, waiting to purchase properties or not purchasing them at all if development pressure doesn’t return. Owners might get anxious and sell, but speculators wouldn’t be able to hold properties for long as values keep dropping. Establishing an endowment for maintenance might be in order.

    Of course, along the way, foreclosures and donations are likely to increase land conservancy and public ownership of land.