Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (June 6, 2013): Three long-time commissioners attended their final GAC meeting this month, marking a pivotal point in the history of the greenbelt program.
Tom Bloomer, Dan Ezekiel and Laura Rubin, whose terms end this month, are term-limited. Ezekiel and Rubin are the only remaining members of the original commission, which was formed in 2004. “I’m just really, really proud of what we’ve accomplished, and of what you all will continue to accomplish,” Ezekiel, GAC’s chair, told commissioners at the end of the meeting. “I’m done being on the commission, but I’m not done with land preservation – and I’m sure Tom and Laura feel the same way.”
It was the first meeting for GAC’s newest commissioner, Stephanie Buttrey, who replaced Liz Rother. Jennifer Fike will join GAC next month to replace Rubin, but there are still two remaining vacancies. Anyone who’s interested in applying should contact their city council representative. [.pdf of application form for city boards and commissions]
An ongoing concern emerged during the June 6 meeting related to Civil War Days – a reenactment event being held this weekend at Gordon Hall in the Dexter area. A dispute over spectator parking on the land has prompted Scio Township trustees to move toward rescinding an existing conservation easement and replacing it with a new easement. The new easement would allow for parking, without a requirement to seek permission for parking each year. The property is owned by the Dexter Area Historical Society, a group that was sharply criticized by Bloomer. “Quite frankly, the Dexter Area Historical Society has been an untrustworthy partner from the very beginning,” he said, “and I don’t know why [the township board] thinks they’ll honor a new easement any more than they honored the old one.”
Although the land in question is outside of the greenbelt boundaries, it’s of interest to GAC because of the underlying issue of easement enforcement.
Commissioners were also briefed on a proposed greenbelt registry that’s being developed. The intent is create a way to formalize relationships with landowners who aren’t yet part of the greenbelt program, but who are committed to the program’s principles of land preservation.
Easement Enforcement: Civil War Days
Dan Ezekiel reported that he and Ginny Trocchio had been contacted in late May by the Scio Township land preservation commission, which was “in a bit of a crisis.” The land preservation commissioners were concerned about the conservation easement that Scio Township holds for land owned by the Dexter Area Historical Society (DAHS), where the historic Gordon Hall is located.
By way of background, a “conservation easement” is a way for a municipality to preserve land without purchasing it or becoming the owner of the land. A conservation easement is a legally enforceable agreement – between a landowner and a government agency or a land trust – for the purpose of conservation.
Voters in several local municipalities – including the city of Ann Arbor, Webster Township and Scio Township – have approved millages to fund the purchase of development rights (PDR). PDR is a common mechanism for protecting undeveloped land by letting owners keep their property for farming or other specified uses but preventing its development. Development is prevented through a conservation easement.
A conservation easement restricts real estate development, commercial and industrial use, and certain other activities on a property to a level agreed to in the terms of the easement. In the case of the conservation easement on the Gordon Hall property, different parties have different perspectives on what’s allowed under terms of the easement.
Among land preservationists, it’s assumed that there might eventually be violations to terms of the easements. But if those violations happen, they’re more likely to occur when the property changes hands. So, as a part of every land preservation deal, Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program sets aside funds in an endowment, which will be used to cover expenses to monitor and enforce the greenbelt’s conservations easement – by legal action, if necessary.
In the case of the Gordon Hall property, both Scio and Webster townships hold conservation easements on the parcel, which has portions of the property in both townships. For the past two summers, the townships have allowed spectator parking there as part of the DAHS Civil Wars Days – even though land preservationists argue that parking conflicts with terms of the conservation easements. [See Chronicle coverage: "Webster Gives Ground for Civil War Days."] Parking is again allowed this year for the event, which is taking place June 7-9.
GAC commissioner Tom Bloomer – a Webster Township farmer who also serves on that township’s farmland and open space preservation board – had asked GAC to weigh in on the issue prior to last year’s Civil War Days. At GAC’s Jan. 5, 2012 meeting, commissioners passed a resolution encouraging Webster Township board to strictly enforce all of its conservation easements. [.pdf of Jan. 5, 2012 resolution]
Easement Enforcement: Civil War Days – Commission Discussion
At GAC’s June 6, 2013 meeting, Ezekiel noted that even though the land in question is outside of the greenbelt boundaries, it’s of interest because of the underlying issue of easement enforcement.
Each year, Ezekiel said, the historical society has promised to address the problem of parking, but it’s a problem again this year. The Scio Township board was set to pass a waiver to allow parking again on the property, he said, which is why the township’s land preservation commission alerted GAC. The land preservation commission was “really up in arms about this,” Ezekiel said, and wanted a GAC representative to talk to the township board about the importance of defending easements.
The township board met on May 28. Ezekiel and some members of the township’s land preservation commission spoke at the meeting. Ezekiel reported that his remarks focused on telling the board to be careful and not to allow exceptions to the easements, “because then everybody wants one, and you’ve set a precedent.”
According to Ezekiel, the township trustees indicated that they want to rescind the current agricultural conservation easement, and create a new historical easement instead. He said the board passed a resolution to set that in motion, directing their attorney to draft the new easement. The land preservation board members indicated that they could live with this approach, he said, adding that “it’s something we need to keep our eye on and find out what actually does happen out there.”
Bloomer was more critical of the move. “I think this is a huge disappointment and a step backwards,” he said. Pursuing a new easement is no different than changing the old easement. “Quite frankly, the Dexter Area Historical Society has been an untrustworthy partner from the very beginning,” Bloomer said, “and I don’t know why [the township board] thinks they’ll honor a new easement any more than they honored the old one.”
Bloomer said he realized that it was technically none of GAC’s business. But in the past, he noted, greenbelt commissioners have discussed that if any township doesn’t defend its easements, it’s appropriate for Ann Arbor not to partner with them in the future on deals where the township is the lead agency. “I think it’s important for us to take that stand,” he said.
Ezekiel agreed, and he hoped that greenbelt commissioners would continue to keep an eye on this issue, which “can potentially be dangerous for the greenbelt.” The important thing is who holds the easement, he said. The situation is a timely wake-up call for GAC, Ezekiel added – it’s lucky that the situation is occurring outside of the greenbelt boundaries, so that GAC can learn lessons from it without being directly affected.
Right now, Scio and Webster townships are involved, Ezekiel said. But no one knows who’ll be elected in any township, so GAC needs to think carefully about who holds the easements. There are also degrees of risk, he noted. On many easements, the federal government is involved, and the easement language in those situations is very firm. That’s a different situation from the easement with DAHS, he said.
Ezekiel reported that Scio Township supervisor Spaulding Clark had called the situation a mess that was inherited from the previous township board. But Clark doesn’t think the easement language would be defensible in court, according to Ezekiel. That was one reason that Clark wanted to draw up an entirely new easement.
Peter Allen described it as an unusual situation. The Gordon Hall property is not a typical farm, he said. It’s adjacent to the village of Dexter and has an historical house, with events like the Civil War reenactment. He didn’t think it was the kind of “protect-the-easement situation we might face in the future.”
Bloomer disagreed. The easement with Scio Township is on agricultural land, he noted, while the Gordon Hall historical building is on the Webster Township portion of the property. “There is no historical aspect to the Scio Township portion,” he said. While some people might think the easement language isn’t defensible in court, Bloomer said, it uses the same language that all conservation easements used at the time it was drawn up. “To me, it seems very clear what the intent of that easement is, which is not to infringe upon the conservation values of the agricultural land. I think there’s only one way to read that – and that’s not parking.”
Ezekiel observed that DAHS had been “very happy to take the money at the time [of the easement deal], and they signed the paperwork and went into it with their eyes wide open, and now they are basically reneging.” It shows that an elected board is going to be very reluctant to tangle with someone who is politically powerful, he said, no matter how unpleasant that person is behaving. “It almost sometimes makes township boards look better if they tangle with big, bad old Ann Arbor instead of standing up to their own residents who are violating an easement that they themselves helped draw up, sign, and take money for,” Ezekiel said.
Ezekiel also noted that the Legacy Land Conservancy had secured a legal opinion on the easement, which determined that parking is prohibited under the easement.
Trocchio reported that when this issue initially arose, she reviewed all the easements in which the greenbelt program is involved. There are only two or three instances that don’t involve a federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) grant, she said. In those few instances, there are still multiple entities involved that provide multiple layers of protection. However, it’s something to keep an eye on in structuring these deals and partnerships in the future, she said.
Ezekiel said it was good to know that none of the current greenbelt easements are imperiled.
Commissioners had initially discussed the idea of a greenbelt registry at their April 4, 2013 meeting. On June 6, Ginny Trocchio – a Conservation Fund employee who provides staff support to the greenbelt program under contract with the city – gave an update on the project.
The concept of a greenbelt registry is laid out in the program’s strategic plan:
A land registry program is a listing of the properties that contain “special” natural features or has remained in farmland open space that landowners have voluntarily agreed to protect. This is an oral non-binding agreement between the City of Ann Arbor and the landowner. The landowner can end at any time, and the agreement does not affect the deed. The landowners agree to monitor and protect specific features of the property and notify the City if the landowner is planning on selling the property or if major threats have occurred.
The purpose of the land registry is to identify significant parcels of land and, through voluntary agreements with landowners, take the first step toward protection of the land’s natural resources. Furthermore, a land registry program recognizes landowners for protecting significant open space/natural features. Ultimately, these lands could be protected permanently through a conservation easement.
The landowner, by voluntarily agreeing to register their land, agrees to the following:
- Protect the land to the best of their ability
- Notify the City of Ann Arbor Greenbelt Staff of any significant changes they are planning or any natural changes that have occurred.
- Notify the City of Ann Arbor Greenbelt Staff of any intent to sell the property.
Trocchio reported that she’d been working on this project with commissioner Shannon Brines. They first identified which landowners and areas of the greenbelt they’d like to target for participation in the registry. The intent is to contact owners of property that the commission’s strategic plan has identified as a priority, including people that have been contacted in the past but who haven’t yet applied to the greenbelt program or completed a transaction. Trocchio noted that this includes about 20 landowners covering just over 2,400 acres.
In addition, she said, the tentative plan calls for doing a “broader sweep” across the greenbelt, contacting landowners of property that fits the program’s priorities. Those priorities include protecting larger tracts of land – 40 acres or greater – with quality soils for agriculture, and proximity to protected properties. It’s also important to fill in gaps or make connections between existing greenbelt-protected properties, she said. Those gaps are concentrated in the townships of Northfield, Salem, Superior, and Lodi. A lot of larger properties in Scio Township that might fit the greenbelt’s priorities lie outside of the greenbelt boundaries, she noted.
Trocchio estimated that it might be possible to protect an additional 6,000 to 7,500 acres during the remainder of the 30-year greenbelt program, assuming a modest annual increase in property values of 3%-4%, as well as the ability to secure matching funds of 25%-50% for these land preservation deals. The registry is a way to move toward this goal.
In terms of implementing a registry, the first step would be outreach, Trocchio said, so that landowners know about it. She showed commissioners a rough draft for a brochure that summarizes aspects of the registry. [.pdf of registry brochure] Public forums would be held, as well as one-on-one meetings with landowners. Trocchio reported that she’s met with several landowners over the past 6-9 months who decided that now isn’t the right time to participate in the greenbelt program, but they might be interested in a registry, she said.
Even though the registry would be a non-binding agreement, Trocchio explained, it’s important to ensure that the greenbelt advisory commission is kept apprised of it. One option is to develop a brief application, including property information and landowner contact information. Staff would review those applications and evaluate how the properties fit within the greenbelt program’s current scoring system, then bring that information to GAC. Trocchio said she’ll be working with the city administrator, Steve Powers, as well as councilmember Christopher Taylor – who serves on GAC – about the best way to inform the city council about this registry.
After landowners are enrolled in the registry, they’ll receive a framed aerial image of their property to thank them for being good stewards of the land and for keeping the land in open space and farmland. Trocchio would be compiling a database of landowners, and would contact the landowners if there are properties near them that become part of the greenbelt program. She’d also inform them of any greenbelt-related events, and would plan to meet with them at least once a year to touch base.
One question that she and Brines had for the full commission: Should landowners who participate in the registry get points for that, when they apply to have their land protected by the greenbelt program? That approach would give the landowners a bump up in priority, compared to non-registry parcels, she noted.
Greenbelt Registry: Commission Discussion
Several commissioners praised the registry. “This is fantastic,” said Peter Allen. “I think this will really open some doors for us.” He clarified with Trocchio that the plan would be to mail brochures to targeted landowners. He wondered whether the mailing would include a map showing the landowner’s specific property, in relation to land that’s already protected by the greenbelt program. Trocchio explained that the brochure will include a map showing protected properties, but it won’t be customized for each landowner. She felt the map would have sufficient detail – and that landowners would be familiar with the area – so that they could discern their land’s relationship to greenbelt properties.
Allen suggested including Trocchio’s name and picture in the brochure, along with her contact information. “To see a face will maybe get them to call you,” he said. Including a link to the greenbelt program’s website would also be helpful. He assumed that landowners would want to do some research before contacting Trocchio.
Allen also urged Trocchio to be more proactive about contacting landowners, rather than relying on a mailing and public meetings – especially for farmers with important parcels. He asked commissioner Tom Bloomer, a farmer from Webster Township, whether such an approach would be too pushy.
“Everyone’s an individual,” Bloomer replied, adding that in general, no single effort will yield results. Some landowners don’t want their neighbors to know what they’re doing, he noted, so they might not come to a public meeting. He recalled that some of the greenbelt program’s best acquisitions have come from people who didn’t attend public forums.
Bloomer said that reaching out in a variety of ways was important, but Trocchio shouldn’t be too aggressive – or landowners will feel targeted. Most people know that the greenbelt program exists, he added, and if they’re interested, they know how to contact Trocchio. “So I wouldn’t push too hard.” Sending out a mailing is fine, he said, but he’s on the fence about whether Trocchio should ask for one-on-one meetings. It depends on the landowner, he said.
Allen suggested the strategy of working with attorneys, accountants and other representatives of landowners – it’s another possible avenue of outreach to consider, he said. Bloomer replied that the initiative should come from the landowner.
Archer Christian asked if there would be a way to publicly honor the registrants. Trocchio said she’d need to talk to the city attorney’s office about whether registered properties could be included in the greenbelt maps. Christian thought perhaps recognition could be given at a greenbelt event.
Christian also wondered if Trocchio was planning to partner with townships in the public forums. How much had Trocchio communicated with township officials about the registry program? Trocchio replied that she hasn’t talked at length with township officials, since the details of the registry are still being worked out. The public forums would likely be held at township halls, she noted, so the townships would certainly be informed.
Catherine Riseng wondered how the greenbelt advisory commission would be involved. Would it be similar to the greenbelt program’s land acquisition process, where proposed properties are presented to GAC for review? It’s still unclear how that would work, Trocchio replied. She said she’d keep the commission up to date about who is applying. If the intent is that these properties might become part of the greenbelt in the future, she added, then it’s important that the properties in the registry meet the greenbelt program’s priorities.
Bloomer noted that Trocchio had asked for feedback about whether to award points to registry participants, if they later apply for the greenbelt program. He thought that awarding points has merit, “as long as it’s not too much.” Awarding points would be a way for landowners to see a real benefit to participating in the registry and maintaining contact with the staff, he said.
Dan Ezekiel described the registry as a best next step for the greenbelt program.
Outcome: This was not a voting item.
Ginny Trocchio, who provides staff support to the greenbelt program, reported that there’s still no word about the status of a 2013 application to the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP). The application is for grants totaling about $202,000 for two properties covering 169 acres.
She also noted that the greenbelt program will have a table at the Sept. 7 Homegrown Festival in Ann Arbor.
Most meetings of the greenbelt advisory commission include a closed session to discuss possible land acquisitions. The topic of land acquisition is one allowed as an exemption by the Michigan Open Meetings Act for a closed session. On June 6, commissioners met in a closed session that lasted about 30 minutes, then emerged and voted on a recommendation that will be forwarded to the city council.
Before appearing on the city council’s agenda, details of proposed greenbelt acquisitions are not made public. Parcels are identified only by their application number, with the first four numbers signifying the year in which the application was made.
On June 6, commissioners recommended that the city council move forward on the purchase of development rights on parcels identified as application number 2013-02 and 2011-13, if federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) funds are received.
Outcome: Without discussion, commissioners unanimously passed the resolution.
The June 6 meeting concluded with farewells to three long-time greenbelt advisory commissioners: Tom Bloomer, Dan Ezekiel and Laura Rubin. Their terms end this month, and because they are term-limited they can’t be reappointed. To mark the occasion, commissioners were served pie – pecan and chess – during their closed session.
The outgoing commissioners were also formally honored at the end of their meeting. Ezekiel, who serves as GAC’s chair, noted that the transition is historic because he and Rubin are the only remaining members of the original commission, which was formed in 2004.
Ezekiel first presented a plaque to Bloomer, saying that his expertise about farming had been invaluable. Bloomer, who owns Bur Oaks Farm in Webster Township, recalled that when Mike Garfield left GAC last year, Garfield had commented that this was one of the few endeavors he’d been involved with that went exactly as he thought it should. “I echo that,” Bloomer said. “This has been about as successful as I’d expect a program to be. I’m really grateful to have been a part of it.”
Ezekiel then gave a plaque to Rubin, noting that she had provided leadership as GAC chair for three years of her nine-year service. Rubin said she’d enjoyed serving on GAC in part because it’s been such an effective commission. The last couple of years have been particularly rewarding, she said, because she’s been able to see earlier plans come to fruition. “Especially that first year, we really struggled with ‘What did we pass?’” Rubin said, referring to the 2003 voter-approved open space and parkland preservation millage. “What was the expectation from the public in terms of farmland and open space and anti-sprawl – all the issues that were wrapped up with the greenbelt initiative?” She was proud of how far it’s come.
Catherine Riseng, GAC’s vice chair, presented Ezekiel with a plaque in honor of his nine years on the commission. Ezekiel echoed the remarks of Bloomer and Rubin, saying he felt that the commission’s collective decisions were better than what any one person could have decided. He said Rubin, Garfield and Jennifer Santi Hall had led the commission with wisdom and integrity when they served as chairs, and that he had tried to walk in their footsteps. He felt that Riseng would continue that same vision and leadership.
Ann Arbor voters acted wisely and presciently in approving the parks and greenbelt millage in 2003, Ezekiel said, and it had been a bold leap. Ann Arbor was the first community to levy a tax to protect open space and farmland outside the actual boundaries of the community, he said. Since then, there’s been a lot of progress to convert the greenbelt dream into reality. “It’s been a really interesting and exciting journey.”
The greenbelt in fine shape, Ezekiel said. Over 4,000 acres of farmland and open space have been preserved within an hour’s bike ride of downtown Ann Arbor. Matching funds from many sources have leveraged Ann Arbor’s taxpayer dollars, and three local townships – as well as Washtenaw County – have land preservation millages, too.
The registry is a logical next step to bring more properties into the pipeline, Ezekiel said. He thanked Ginny Trocchio and Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund for their competence and professionalism, saying they are trusted by the greenbelt stakeholders. He praised the city council for expanding the greenbelt boundaries twice, and cited the program’s robust endowment that will help support the defense against easement violations in the future.
Even though no one predicted it, Ezekiel said, the greenbelt program was well-positioned – because of its dedicated funding source and staff – to take advantage of the drop in land values. No one could have predicted how the past nine years turned out, he said, and the next nine years will probably be just as unpredictable. But Ezekiel was quite optimistic that people will look back on the GAC’s work and say it was wise to have protected the greenbelt’s open space and farmland.
“I’m just really really proud of what we’ve accomplished, and of what you all will continue to accomplish,” Ezekiel concluded. “I’m done being on the commission, but I’m not done with land preservation – and I’m sure Tom and Laura feel the same way.”
The outgoing commissioners received a round of applause.
Riseng told her fellow commissioners that she felt quite anxious: “We’re losing our brain trust.” She thanked the three commissioners for their work in laying such a strong foundation for the greenbelt program.
Assuming that GAC follows its custom, Riseng, as vice chair, will likely become GAC chair when the commission elects officers at its July 11 meeting.
Jennifer Fike, the finance director of the Huron River Watershed Council, was confirmed by the city council on June 3, 2013 to replace Rubin – HRWC’s executive director – on GAC. There are two additional openings: for a farmer to replace Bloomer, and for a general public position to replace Ezekiel. During the June 6 meeting, Bloomer indicated that he had submitted a name for consideration to fill the farmer position, but Trocchio said no one has applied. Bloomer said he’d tell the interested party that she would need to submit a formal application.
Anyone who’s interested in applying should contact their city council representative. [.pdf of application form for city boards and commissions] Meetings for the commission are scheduled monthly, typically on the first Thursday of the month.
Next meeting: Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 4:30 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date] The meetings are open to the public and include two opportunities for public commentary.
Present: Peter Allen, Tom Bloomer, Shannon Brines, Stephanie Buttrey, Archer Christian, Dan Ezekiel, Catherine Riseng, Laura Rubin. Staff: Ginny Trocchio.
Absent: Christopher Taylor.
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