Environment Section

On Ann Arbor’s Energy Agenda: Carbon, Solar

Two energy-related items will appear on the Ann Arbor city council’s post-holiday agenda next week.

solar panels ann arbor

From a recent application to Ann Arbor’s historic district commission to allow the addition of photovoltaic panels, possibly in conjunction with existing thermal panels. A resolution on the council’s agenda would direct city staff to work with DTE to develop a pilot program that would benefit people who, unlike this homeowner, don’t have solar access.

One of those items calls on the city’s employee retirement system to divest from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies.

The second resolution would direct the Ann Arbor city staff to work with DTE to develop a pilot program for a “community solar” project – an initiative that would allow a group of people or businesses to purchase shares in a solar energy system, not located at the site of their electric meter.

The items appear on the council’s tentative agenda for Sept. 3, 2013, which is shifted to Tuesday from its regular Monday slot due to the Labor Day holiday.

Both resolutions were sponsored by the city’s energy commission, a 13-member group with the responsibility of overseeing city policies and regulations on energy and to make recommendations to the city council. [Full Story]

Greenbelt Commission Elects New Leaders

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (July 11, 2013): GAC’s first meeting of the fiscal year was relatively brief, lasting less than an hour – including about 35 minutes in closed session to discuss possible land acquisition.

Jennifer Fike, Archer Christian, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commissioners Jennifer Fike and Archer Christian. Fike was attending her first meeting as a GAC member. (Photos by the writer.)

It was the first meeting for the newest commissioner, Jennifer Fike, who replaced Laura Rubin. The last meeting for long-time commissioners Rubin, Dan Ezekiel and Tom Bloomer was on June 6, 2013. Jean Cares, owner of the Dexter Mill, was nominated at the Ann Arbor city council’s July 1 meeting to replace Bloomer, with a confirmation vote expected by the council on July 15.

Also on July 15, John Ramsburgh’s name is expected to be put forward to replace Ezekiel, with a confirmation vote on Aug. 8. If those two appointments go through, all seats on the greenbelt advisory commission would be filled.

Commissioners elected new officers on July 11, unanimously voting for Catherine Riseng as chair and Shannon Brines as vice chair. Both work at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment. Riseng, an aquatic ecologist, is a research program manager at SNRE, while Brines is manager of SNRE’s environmental spatial analysis (ESA) lab. Brines also runs Brines Farm near Dexter.

At their July 11 meeting, commissioners also received news about the city’s 2013 application to the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP). The city is receiving grants totaling about $220,000 for land preservation of two properties in Lodi Township: (1) a portion of the Donald Drake farm along Waters Road; and (2) the Carol Schumacher farm along Pleasant Lake Road. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Greenbelt Group Marks Transition

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.

Laura Rubin, Archer Christian, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory board, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commissioners Laura Rubin and Archer Christian came to city hall by bike. This was the last meeting for Rubin, who is term limited. She and other outgoing commissioners Dan Ezekiel and Tom Bloomer were honored during GAC’s June 6 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

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. [Full Story]

County Gets Info on Flooding, Shares Options

A meeting last week at Lawton Elementary School, in southwest Ann Arbor, fell the day before the one-year anniversary of significant overland flooding in the neighborhood. The flooding resulted from heavy rains last year on March 15, 2012. Last week’s meeting followed an earlier one held on Jan. 29, 2013.

Ann Arbor city storm drain in action. (Chronicle file photo)

Ann Arbor city storm drain in action. (Chronicle file photo)

The meetings are part of a study of the Upper Malletts Creek watershed, being conducted by the office of the Washtenaw County water resources commissioner under an agreement with the city of Ann Arbor. The year-long study is supposed to culminate in a final report due to the Ann Arbor city council in February 2014. Water resources commissioner Evan Pratt was on hand at the meeting, along with other members of the project team.

In response to direction from a citizens advisory group that’s been formed for the project, the team used the March 14 meeting to introduce residents to the basic toolkit for stormwater management techniques. The general stormwater management practices described at the meeting – without trying to analyze which solutions might be appropriate for specific locations in the area – ranged from increasing the number of catch basins in streets to the construction of underground detention facilities.

At least 60 residents attended the meeting, and seemed generally receptive to the idea that some money might actually be spent on infrastructure projects to reduce flooding in their neighborhood: “If you want me to sign up for you breaking up my street and putting [stormwater management infrastructure] in there, just give me a consent form and I will sign it tonight!”

The project team is also still in a phase of gathering information about specific experiences that residents have had with past flooding problems. And the same technology platform – an online mapping tool – can be used by residents for logging future flooding events. For help in using a smart-phone app, one attendee volunteered her grandson “for rent” to other residents. Members of the project team also indicated they welcomed information submitted in any format – including letters, face-to-face conversation and phone calls.

But it was a missing follow-up phone call – expected from one resident who’d attended the first meeting on Jan. 29 – that indicated some continuing frustration about the city’s footing drain disconnection (FDD) program. The frustrated resident’s experience had been that after an FDD program sump pump was installed in his basement, he’d started having problems with a wet basement – problems he hadn’t experienced before. Project manager Harry Sheehan, with the county water resources commissioner’s office, extended an apology for the missed communication and an offer to arrange a site visit.

The FDD program removes a building’s footing drain connection to the sanitary sewer system and redirects that stormwater flow to the system designed to handle it – the stormwater system. The FDD program, which has been somewhat controversial, is not the focus of the Upper Malletts Creek study. But residents got an assurance that the additional volume of rainwater that goes into the stormwater system – as a result of the FDD program – would be accounted for in all the modeling that’s done as part of this study. [Full Story]

Column: Taylor Lewan Leads the Band

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

With the college football season finally behind us, I wanted to write a sweet little story about a very good guy who plays football for Michigan. But every time I tried, some bad news got in the way.

The first obstacle was Lance Armstrong. In case you missed it – perhaps you live on Mars – it turns out the man who came back from cancer to win a record seven Tours de France and write two bestselling books about his inspirational story is a complete fraud. He was taking performance-enhancing drugs during his entire reign, and whenever someone tried to tell the truth about his drug use – even if they had been forced to – he went out of his way to ruin their careers, their finances, and occasionally their lives.

It appears Lance Armstrong is a genuinely bad person. So, that’s all the time I want to give him.

Now, back to college football. On Monday, January 7th – six days after New Year’s, when the college football season always ended in the old days – I stayed up until midnight to watch the national championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame. I don’t know why I stayed up that late. It was over after Alabama ran up an insurmountable 28-0 lead in the first half. But I did learn Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who already makes more than $5 million a year, earned an additional $400,000 that night. His players – who, as you might recall, actually played the game – received $500 of souvenirs. Think anything’s wrong with this?

I was heartened, at least, to see the head coaches at Penn State, Notre Dame and Oregon all turn down bigger salaries from the NFL to stay with their schools. Until, that is, Chip Kelly, the head coach at Nike University – er, the University of Oregon – changed his mind, took the money, and ran. But that’s barely news.

Okay, now can I get to my favorite story, about Michigan’s Taylor Lewan? No? There’s some bizarre story coming out of Notre Dame I’ve got to talk about first? [Full Story]

EPA, Others Object to Whitewater Project

Four entities – including the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the local Huron River Watershed Council – have filed letters of objection with the state of Michigan to a project that would add a recreational section of whitewater along the Huron River, next to the new Argo Cascades.

Huron River near Argo Dam

A view looking upstream at the Huron River from the Broadway Bridge, toward the section of the proposed whitewater feature. On the left is environmental remediation work on the DTE/MichCon property. (Photo by D. Askins.)

Colin Smith, Ann Arbor’s parks and recreation manager, informed the park advisory commissioners about the opposition at PAC’s Sept. 18, 2012 meeting, describing the news as “not especially positive.” Other letters filed against the project were from the state Dept. of Natural Resources fisheries division and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The project requires a permit from the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) because it affects the Huron River, a state waterway. The project was originally approved by the Ann Arbor city council in 2010, as part of a larger effort that included building the Argo Dam bypass, which wrapped up earlier this year. Subsequent to that council approval, DTE Energy offered to pay for and oversee the whitewater aspect, to coordinate it with environmental remediation work that’s taking place on property it owns along that stretch of the river, just downstream of Argo Dam.

DTE is the applicant for the whitewater permit, although the company is working closely with the city on the project. The city is interested in acquiring the DTE property along the Huron after remediation is completed – and it’s hoped that the company might gift it to the city as a park.

Smith told PAC members that the EPA objection – because it comes from a federal environmental oversight agency – has triggered a process that might stop the project. The EPA filed its letter on Aug. 15. From that date, the MDEQ has 90 days [until Nov. 13] to resolve the EPA’s concerns with the applicant.

The EPA’s letter from Tinka Hyde, director of the agency’s water division, states that the project could significantly degrade the Huron River by inhibiting fish passage and increasing the water velocity, which in turn could affect sediment flow and degrade the stability of that section of the river. Another concern cited is that the project could constrain public use of the river. Because of these issues, the EPA believes the project does not comply with the federal Clean Water Act. [.pdf of EPA letter]

Similar concerns were cited in the other letters of objection. Additional issues raised include water quality concerns that could affect the health of those using the whitewater area, who might come in contact with E.coli in the river; and exacerbated flow problems during drought periods. [U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services letter] [DNR fisheries division letter and additional attachments] [HRWC letter]

The DNR fisheries letter – signed by Jeffery Braunscheidel, senior fisheries biologist – also alludes to the contentious “dam in/dam out” debate involving Argo Dam. Structures used to create the whitewater are in essence dams, he stated, and the division does not support new dam construction. “Planning should provide for a naturally functioning system below Argo Dam as history has made clear that, at some point in time, the Argo Dam will be modified or removed. Impediments should not be constructed in the river that the public will again be asked to address.”

But it’s the EPA’s objection that carries the most weight. If the EPA does not withdraw its objection and the MDEQ still decides to grant the permit, then DTE would also need to seek a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the project can move forward. [Full Story]

County Parks & Rec System Plans for Future

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.

Entrance to Scio Woods Preserve on Scio Church Road

The entrance to Scio Woods Preserve, part of the Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission’s natural areas preservation program. The 91-acre property, off of Scio Church Road, is protected in partnership with Scio Township and the Ann Arbor greenbelt program. (Photo by M. Morgan)

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. [Full Story]

How Low Can Argo Flow Go?

The full flow to the Argo Cascades was restored on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, according to a city of Ann Arbor press release, and the city is again renting kayaks and inner tubes for the series of pools and drops that offer an alternative boatable channel around the Argo Dam. Dry conditions had led the city to reduce the flow to the cascades during the previous week, on July 26.

View looking north through Argo Cascades entrance

View looking north through the entrance to the Argo Cascades on Aug. 3, 2012. (Photos by the writer.)

Because the flow to the new recreational amenity was reduced, but not shut off completely last week, some confusion ensued about what measures, if any, the city had taken and why, and what the impact of those measures was.

At issue is the flow through two different channels – Argo Cascades on the one hand, and the stretch of the Huron River immediately below the Argo Dam on the other. The two channels are parallel and are separated by an earthen embankment, until they join together at a point just upstream of the Broadway bridge.

Downstream from that confluence, and near the Maiden Lane bridge, a U.S. Geological Survey gauge measures the total river flow.

Ostensibly, the planned reduction in flow to the cascades was to allow more water to flow through the dam-side channel, instead of passing through the Argo Cascades.

Based on a telephone interview with Molly Wade, unit manager for the city of Ann Arbor’s water treatment plant, here’s a summary description of what happened last week.

During the morning of July 26, city staff inserted a partial wooden stoplog at the entrance to the Argo Cascades. That evening, The Chronicle verified by visual inspection that the wooden stoplog was inserted in the slot. An intuitive “bathtub physics” expectation would have been to see no change in the gauge reading as a result of the partial stoplog insertion. That’s because whatever flow was previously going through the Argo Cascades would be expected automatically to flow through the dam-side channel.

That intuitive expectation was not met for two reasons. First, the Argo Dam is not a “spillover” dam, where the water flows over the top of the dam. So reducing the flow to the Argo Cascades would not “automatically” – in the bathtub physics sense – cause any additional flow through the dam-side channel. In order for the flow to increase through the Argo Dam, the dam’s gates – which are keyed to a pond-level gauge – would need to open wider.

So why didn’t the Argo Dam gates respond to what should have been a tendency for the Argo Pond level to increase? Ordinarily, you’d expect the Argo Dam gates would balance the lost flow downstream from the cascades with additional flow through the dam-side channel, thus maintaining the USGS gauge reading where it was – around 75 cfs (cubic feet per second). Instead, the gauge showed a drop to around 50 cfs.

That’s because upstream from Argo, at Barton Dam, the city staff was concurrently decreasing the opening to Barton Dam’s gates, in order to match the extremely low flow into Barton Pond. And reducing the flow at Barton ultimately reduced the flow to the river overall. A few days later, the pond levels at Argo and Barton rebounded, and the region enjoyed some, if limited, precipitation. And the flow rate as measured by the USGS Maiden Lane gauge started showing an incremental increase, to around 100 cfs.

By Friday, Aug. 3, the city of Ann Arbor had removed the partial stoplog at the cascades, and was back to renting kayaks for downstream trips through the pools and drops, all the way to the pond at Gallup Park.

The type of pattern for the increased flow in the Huron River, as measured by the USGS gauge, causes some continued concern by staff with the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources and Dept. of Environmental Quality. The pattern is “saw-toothed,” which reflects the opening and closing of dam gates in response to a variation in pond levels.

After the jump, more detail is presented on last week’s events, and the pertinent legal constraints for dam operation. We also cover some related issues – concerning a permit that is currently being sought for construction of a whitewater area in the Huron River, near Argo Dam. That amenity is to be constructed in the dam-side channel at Argo, just upstream from the confluence of the river and the cascades. [Full Story]

Burrowing Under Railroad Berm: Feasible?

On Wednesday, Ann Arbor city staff led a tour of property starting from the city-owned 721 N. Main site, northwards to the entrance ramp of M-14. On the tour were some members of a recently established North Main-Huron River corridor task force.

BirdsEye view of railroad berm

View of Depot Street from the south. The railroad track curves northward as it passes by Argo Dam, visible at the top of this image.

They were briefed on the status of the 721 N. Main property’s status with respect to potential environmental contamination – which is apparently less certain than what’s been portrayed recently by elected officials.

Task force members were also briefed on a related project that’s in its initial stages: a feasibility study for opening up the railroad berm separating the area south of Depot Street (including 721 N. Main) from the Huron River. The railroad tracks run along the top of the berm. The idea is to study the possible impact of replacing the solid berm – which acts as a dam for stormwater flow from the Allen Creek creekshed – with a culvert or a trestled system for suspending the tracks.

The primary impetus behind the berm project is stormwater management and flood mitigation. That’s reflected by the fact that the source of funds for the roughly $50,000 feasibility study would be from the city’s stormwater utility. The feasibility study would move ahead only if it’s approved by the city council, which will likely have the item on its agenda in about two months.

But the railroad berm study also has implications for pedestrian connections and riverside access – which the task force is supposed to study. The task force is asked to create a vision that, among other things, improves pedestrian and bicycle connections to Bandemer Park and increases public access to riverside parks.

So the railroad berm feasibility study has been coordinated with the goal of pedestrian accessibility. The RFP (request for proposals) for the study includes among its tasks a study of the potential for non-motorized access through the railroad berm.

The problematic character of pedestrian movement on the North Main corridor was evident during the July 25 tour. As the tour group made its way northward toward the M-14 entrance ramp, it repeated a pattern of fracturing into smaller clusters and re-grouping. That was partly a function of the size of the group (about 10 people), but also the corridor itself.

The relatively narrow walkable space – between the road to the left, and fences, buildings or vegetation on the right – features sidewalk slabs in need of repair and sections of dirt path that require single-file passage. Noise from rush hour traffic made conversation difficult along the way.

A year from now, on July 31, 2013, the task force is supposed to deliver its report on a vision for the corridor. Earlier than that, by the end of 2012, the task force has been asked to provide a recommendation on the use of 721 N. Main.

For task force members and members of the public, the same tour will be repeated on Aug. 1, starting at 5 p.m. from 721 N. Main. [Full Story]

Greenbelt Group Updated on County Efforts

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (June 7, 2012): Collaboration was a theme that tied together several items at the most recent GAC meeting, starting with a review of farmland preservation efforts by Washtenaw County.

Liz Rother, Mike Garfield

Greenbelt advisory commissioners Liz Rother and Mike Garfield. The June 7 meeting was the last one for Garfield, whose term is ending this month. He is director of the Ecology Center, a nonprofit based in Ann Arbor. (Photos by the writer.)

The county parks and recreation commission is moving toward a decision on the first farm properties to include in its land preservation program. It has about $1.6 million to work with, using a portion of proceeds from the countywide natural area preservation millage, which was renewed by voters in November of 2010. That 10-year, 0.25-mill tax also funds the county’s acquisition of natural areas and land preserves.

Susan Lackey, executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy, briefed the greenbelt commissioners on the first round of deals. The Ann Arbor-based nonprofit is under contract to help manage the county program. Out of 57 applications, seven properties are moving forward for appraisals and final consideration, potentially covering 1,100 acres.

Though the county’s efforts at protecting farmland are relatively new, the greenbelt program has focused on farmland preservation since Ann Arbor voters approved a 30-year 0.5 mill tax in 2003. Lackey described the county’s efforts as complementary to the greenbelt program, noting that there’s more work to be done than any single entity can do.

Later in the meeting – during an discussion about efforts to update the greenbelt program’s strategic plan – Mike Garfield suggested that it might be time to shift more of the greenbelt’s efforts to natural areas or recreational projects like the Border-to-Border trail or RiverUp, and scale back the amount of farmland preservation.

One difficulty in this shift relates to matching funds. Ginny Trocchio, who serves as support staff for the greenbelt program, told commissioners that while the greenbelt has been very successful in securing grants through the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Preservation Program (FRPP), there are far fewer options for non-farmland properties. Partnerships with other local entities, like the county parks and recreation department, is one of the main ways that non-farmland land preservation dollars can be leveraged.

Another general challenge for all types of land preservation was cited by Lackey: A mild resurgence of development pressure as the economy improves, which is starting to drive up land values. She urged all groups to get as much preservation work done as possible in the next three to five years.

This month’s meeting was the last one for Garfield, who was instrumental in helping pass the city’s open space and parkland preservation millage, which funds the greenbelt program. He is term-limited. His potential replacement, Archer Christian, was introduced at the meeting. She is development director at the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center, where Garfield serves as director.

At the end of the meeting, commissioners held a closed session to discuss potential land acquisitions. When they emerged, they voted unanimously to recommend action by city council on the purchase of development rights for four parcels within the greenbelt boundaries, if FRPP grants can be secured. [Full Story]

County Parks: Options for Staebler Farm

Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission meeting (June 12, 2012): This month’s meeting concentrated on Staebler Farm, a 98-acre WCPARC property on Plymouth Road in Superior Township.

Corn crib at Staebler Farm

A corncrib at the Staebler Farm in Superior Township. The farm isn't yet open to the public, but plans are underway to develop the site for educational and recreational use. (Photos by the writer.)

The parks and recreation commission bought the farm in 2001 and set aside more than $2 million to develop it for eventual educational and recreational uses. Possibilities include children’s gardens, a farm market, fishing, and demonstrations of farm activities.

Donald Staebler, who turns 102 in August, has lived there since he was two and has a life lease to stay in the 140-year-old farmhouse. The property is not yet open to the public.

At the June 12 meeting, commissioners heard from a consultant who described the use of similar property in three other communities: Ambler Farm in Wilton, Connecticut; the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vermont; and Luscher Farm in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Commissioners discussed possible uses for the land, and decided on the next steps in creating a master plan for the farm. Dan Smith, a WCPARC member who also serves on the county board of commissioners, noted that this project fits with other efforts supported by the board, including community gardens on the former juvenile detention center site and the Washtenaw Food Policy Council that was created earlier this year.

In addition to their discussion of Staebler Farm, the commission carried out its usual business of approving expenses, reviewing the budget, and getting updates on its parks, recreation facilities and natural areas. Among those updates was a report that a design team for a proposed WCPARC recreation center in Ypsilanti held its first meeting to review a possible schematic design. The team consists of faculty and students from the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. [For more details on this project, see Chronicle coverage: "More Planning for Rec Center in Ypsilanti."] [Full Story]

County Parks: Stewardship Fund an Option?

Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission meeting (May 8, 2012): This month’s meeting of the county parks and recreation commission had three themes: starting new projects, planning for the future of the natural areas preservation program (NAPP), and updating commissioners about ongoing and completed projects.

Entrance to Washtenaw County's DeVine Preserve

The entrance to Washtenaw County's DeVine Preserve on West Liberty Road in Scio Township, part of the natural areas preservation program. It is adjacent to other property that the county parks and recreation commission might buy with NAPP millage proceeds. (Photos by the writer.)

Much of the discussion related to NAPP, including a proposed ordinance change to increase the proportion of funds that can be used for maintaining (as opposed to purchasing) property for natural areas or land preserves. The change would allow the county to set aside up to 25% of annual millage proceeds for stewardship, a significant increase from the 7% currently allowed under the NAPP ordinance. NAPP is funded by a 10-year, 0.25 mill tax that voters first approved in 2000 and renewed in 2010. It generates about $3.2 million in annual revenues.

Commissioners authorized staff to pursue the NAPP ordinance change, which would need to be approved by the county board of commissioners. A June 7 board working session is scheduled on the topic. If approved, WCPARC staff estimate they could set aside enough to build a $6 million fund by 2020, when the current NAPP millage ends.

The commission also approved two new NAPP purchases: (1) $75,000 for the Malikah Muhammad property, 20 acres in Scio Township adjacent to the county’s existing DeVine Preserve; and (2) $245,250 for 33 acres in Northfield  Township owned by J.A. Bloch, contingent on partnering with the Ann Arbor greenbelt program for a portion of the cost.

Related to a project on the east side of the county, commissioners approved a $10,000 payment toward planning for the Eastern County Recreation Center on Ypsilanti’s Water Street site. WCPARC had been briefed on the project at its April 2012 meeting. The planning will be guided by faculty at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, who will lead a team of six students in developing a conceptual plan for the rec center by the end of December. A grant from UM will pick up $30,000 of the estimated $40,000 in planning expenses.

The commission also got updates on a range of projects, including completion of the extensive Malletts Creek bank stabilization at the County Farm Park, and the receipt of bids for design of the Ann Arbor skatepark, which WCPARC is helping to fund. [Full Story]

Webster Gives Ground for Civil War Days

At a special meeting held on April 24, 2012, the Webster Township board of trustees voted unanimously to approve a festival permit for the Dexter Area Historical Society’s Civil Wars Days to be held this year at historic Gordon Hall on June 8-10.

Webster greenbelt properties

The pink arrow marks the location of the Gordon Hall property, where Civil War Days will be held on June 8-10, 2012. Green blocks are properties protected in part through the city of Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program. The green line with red dots is the Ann Arbor greenbelt program boundary for eligible properties. As the map shows, several protected properties lie within Webster Township. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

Host for the re-enactor units will be the 4th Michigan Regiment, Company A, led by captain Russ Paul. Also expected at Gordon Hall for Civil War Days this year are the following units: 17th Michigan, Company E; 21st Michigan, Company H; U.S.S. Michigan Marine Guard Battery B; 1st Michigan Light Artillery; and the Confederate Bledsoe’s Battery.

The decision to grant a festival permit came after the board had turned down the permit at its previous meeting on April 17 by a 4-3 vote. The resolutions considered by the board at its two recent meetings differed in a significant way. The resolution rejected at the April 17 meeting stated that the festival would be granted “… with egress and ingress over Webster Township grounds and conservation easement with no parking on Webster Township grounds only Scio Township.”

The resolution ultimately approved by the board stepped back from trying to describe how parking on and crossing of the property would be handled, and instead simply stipulated that the DAHS had to comply with the conservation easement on the property.

Dan Ezekiel, chair of Ann Arbor’s greenbelt advisory commission, attended the April 24 meeting and addressed the township board on the commission’s behalf. Although the Gordon Hall property lies outside the Ann Arbor greenbelt boundaries, the city of Ann Arbor and Webster Township have partnered on a number of other conservation easements in their collaborative effort to preserve open space. He wanted to encourage the board to defend the easement on the Gordon Hall property and not set a precedent that violating a conservation easement is acceptable.

After the meeting, Ezekiel indicated in conversation that he was, in fact, a history buff and was hoping to attend the Civil War Days – he hoped not as a picketer.  [Full Story]

More Planning for Rec Center in Ypsilanti

Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission meeting (April 10, 2012): Most of this month’s county parks and recreation commission meeting focused on plans for a recreation center in the eastern part of the county. The proposed center would be near downtown Ypsilanti on the northwest corner of the 38-acre Water Street site, located on the south side of Michigan Avenue and east of the Huron River.

Border to Border Trail sign at Water Street property in Ypsilanti

A sign at Ypsilanti's Water Street property indicating that this will be a future segment of Washtenaw County's Border to Border Trail. A portion of the site adjacent to the Huron River is being considered for a possible new county recreation center. (Photos by Mary Morgan.)

The commission heard from faculty of the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, who will lead a team of six students in developing a conceptual plan for the rec center by the end of December. They also heard from deputy parks and rec director Coy Vaughn about the steering committee and working groups that will oversee and coordinate the design team’s work, and ensure adequate participation by community members and other stakeholders, including the Ann Arbor YMCA. Some commissioners indicated that community input was especially important for this project.

Among the meeting’s action items, the commission approved the acquisition of additional land through the county’s natural areas preservation program, in partnership with other governmental entities, including the Ann Arbor greenbelt program. The properties include 23 acres in Ann Arbor Township and 33 acres in Northfield Township – both owned by J.A. Bloch & Co. – and the 35-acre Sloan property in Scio Township.

Additional items included a report from parks and rec director Bob Tetens about the department’s help in cleaning up after the March 15 tornado touchdown in Dexter; an update on improvement projects and activities at park facilities and preserves; and the latest milestones in a project to connect the Border-to-Border Trail in the village of Dexter, including a new bridge.

Other major action in the meeting included a review of the parks and rec budget to date, through the first quarter of the fiscal year. Tetens reported that the unusually warm weather this year had two effects: much less participation and revenue from Rolling Hills winter park compared to the last two years; and much more activity and revenue at the Pierce Lake Golf Course, which was also in part related to the March 15 tornado’s damage to other golf courses in the area. [Full Story]

Planning Group Revisits Huron River Report

Ann Arbor master plan revisions committee meeting (March 8, 2012): At the request of planning commissioner Kirk Westphal, a committee charged with reviewing changes to the city’s master plan is looking at a recommendation related to land near the Huron River.

Ann Arbor master plan revisions committee

Members of the Ann Arbor planning commission, from left: Eleanore Adenekan, Kirk Westphal and Diane Giannola. At the right is Wendy Rampson, head of the city's planning staff. Commissioners were attending the March 8, 2012 meeting of the master plan revisions committee. (Photos by the writer.)

The Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan, known as HRIMP, was completed in 2009. But in large part because of controversy related to Argo Dam – centered on whether or not the dam should be removed – none of the 30 other recommendations were implemented.

Only one of the HRIMP recommendations relates to land use, and is therefore in the purview of the planning commission. That recommendation calls for limited commercial development – such as a restaurant or other publicly-used entity – in the Broadway bridge/Argo area.

Much of the discussion at the March 8 committee meeting centered on the property now owned by MichCon, a subsidiary of DTE Energy, located north of Broadway Street, between the Huron River and the railroad tracks that run past the Amtrak station. A state-supervised cleanup effort is underway at that site, but its future use – including the possibility that it could be acquired by the city and turned into a park – is unclear.

Remediation of the MichCon site was also a topic at the March 12, 2012 Ann Arbor city council work session, where the property’s potential future use was discussed. That presentation also included an update on a whitewater river feature that DTE Energy is paying for. The whitewater section to be built in the Huron River was originally part of the same project as the city’s Argo Dam bypass reconstruction. The bypass, which has been recently named the Argo Cascades, is nearly complete.

This article includes a summary of the council working session related to the MichCon cleanup, as well as a report on the master plan revisions committee meeting. Based on discussions at that committee meeting, it seems likely that a proposal will be forwarded to the full planning commission to add the HRIMP recommendation to the city’s master plan. Any changes to the master plan would also require city council approval. [Full Story]

Land Use, Transit Factor Into Sustainability

How do Ann Arbor’s land use policies affect where people live and work, and the way they get from one place to another? What is the city doing to support sustainable approaches?

Joe Grengs Ginny Trocchio

Joe Grengs, a University of Michigan associate professor of urban and regional planning, and Ginny Trocchio, who manages the city's greenbelt program, were among the speakers at a Feb. 9 sustainability forum.

Issues of land use and accessibility were the topic of a sustainability forum on Feb. 9, the second in a series that’s part of a broader city sustainability initiative. During the forum, city staff also unveiled a set of draft goals for Ann Arbor related to four general sustainability themes: Resource management; land use and access; climate and energy; and community.

Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, told the audience that the 15 draft goals were extracted from more than 200 that had been identified in existing city planning documents. The hope is to reach consensus on these sustainability goals, then present them to the city council as possible amendments to the city’s master plan.

Speakers at the Feb. 9 forum included Joe Grengs, a University of Michigan associate professor of urban and regional planning; Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority; Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager and member of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board; Jeff Kahan of the city’s planning staff; Ginny Trocchio, who manages the city’s greenbelt program; and Evan Pratt of the city’s planning commission.

A Q&A followed presentations by the speakers and covered a wide range of topics, including thoughts on the proposed Fuller Road Station. The following day, Feb. 10, the city and University of Michigan announced plans to halt the initial phase of that controversial project – a large parking structure near the UM medical campus.

The topics of the series of forums reflect four general sustainability themes: Resource management; land use and access; climate and energy; and community. The first forum, held in January, focused on resource management, including water, solid waste, the urban forest and natural areas.

All forums are held at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library and are being videotaped by AADL staff. The videos will be posted on the library’s website. Additional background on the Ann Arbor sustainability initiative is on the city’s website. See also Chronicle coverage: “Building a Sustainable Ann Arbor,” and an update on the project given at the November 2011 park advisory commission meeting. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Restarts Talk on Vehicle Idling

At a work session held on Jan. 17, 2012, the Ann Arbor city council picked up on a conversation it started back in 2004, when it asked the city’s staff and environmental commission to craft an ordinance regulating the unnecessary idling of vehicles. Last summer, the environmental commission forwarded a draft idling ordinance and a white paper to the council, which was attached to the council’s Aug. 15, 2011 meeting agenda.

exhaust-from-idling-brick anti-idling ordinance

"Please do not leave engines idling. Exhaust damages historic properties." A private property owner has placed this sign in a downtown Ann Arbor alley to discourage delivery drivers from leaving their trucks running. It's advisory only. If an ordinance were enacted by Ann Arbor's city council, the city would post signs alerting drivers to the local law. (Photos by the writer.)

The council got a more detailed briefing on Tuesday, when the city’s environmental coordinator, Matt Naud, and two members of the city’s environmental commission addressed the council. The draft ordinance covers all engines, from heavy-duty trucks to passenger vehicles to generators. It would limit idling to 5 minutes in any given one-hour period. The draft ordinance includes a number of exceptions – for public safety vehicles and for cold weather, for example.

The goal of the ordinance is not to improve overall air quality in Ann Arbor, but rather to improve conditions in very specific localized contexts – school drop-off zones, for example. And the idea is not to create legislation that would then be aggressively enforced. Naud drew an analogy to the city’s ordinance regulating phosphorus-based fertilizers – no citations have ever been issued for ordinance violations, yet the city has achieved a measurable reduction in phosphorus loading in the Huron River since enactment of that ordinance.

Reaction from councilmembers was mixed. Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) seemed more interested in exploring the possibility of changing drivers’ behavior through educational outreach than through enacting an ordinance.

Responding to the presentation and summarizing council commentary, mayor John Hieftje ventured that the council was interested in hearing about an educational program. He described that approach as a wiser course than talking about enforcement. Margie Teall (Ward 4), who until recently served as one of two city council representatives to the environmental commission, was more supportive of at least enacting an ordinance, in order to give the educational effort some “backbone.”

Any councilmember could choose to place the ordinance on a future meeting agenda. The council would then need to vote to give it initial approval, and a public hearing would be held, before a final council vote enacting a new ordinance. [Full Story]

Sustaining Ann Arbor’s Environmental Quality

Ann Arbor city staff and others involved in resource management – water, solid waste, the urban forest and natural areas – spoke to a crowd of about 100 people on Jan. 12 to highlight work being done to make the region more environmentally sustainable.

Matt Naud

Matt Naud, Ann Arbor's environmental coordinator, moderated a panel discussion on resource management – the topic of the first in a series of four sustainability forums, all to be held at the Ann Arbor District Library. (Photos by the writer.)

It was the first of four public forums, and part of a broader sustainability initiative that started informally nearly two years ago, with a joint meeting of the city’s planning, environmental and energy commissions. The idea is to help shape decisions by looking at a triple bottom line: environmental quality, economic vitality, and social equity.

In early 2011, the city received a $95,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation to fund a formal sustainability project. The project’s main goal is to review the city’s existing plans and organize them into a framework of goals, objectives and indicators that can guide future planning and policy. Other goals include improving access to the city’s plans and to the sustainability components of each plan, and to incorporate the concept of sustainability into city planning and future city plans.

In addition to city staff, this work has been guided by volunteers who serve on four city advisory commissions: Park, planning, energy and environmental. Many of those members attended the Jan. 12 forum, which was held at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library.

The topics of the forums reflect four general themes that have been identified to shape the sustainability framework: Resource management; land use and access; climate and energy; and community. The Jan. 12 panel on resource management was moderated by Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator. Panelists included Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council (and a member of the city’s greenbelt advisory commission); Kerry Gray, the city’s urban forest and natural resource planning coordinator; Jason Tallant of the city’s natural area preservation program; Tom McMurtrie, Ann Arbor’s solid waste coordinator, who oversees the city’s recycling program; and Chris Graham, chair of the city’s environmental commission.

Dick Norton, chair of the University of Michigan urban and regional planning program, also participated by giving an overview of sustainability issues and challenges that local governments face. [The university has its own sustainability initiative, including broad goals announced by president Mary Sue Coleman last fall.]

The Jan. 12 forum also included opportunities for questions and comments from the audience. That commentary covered a wide range of topics, from concerns over Fuller Road Station and potential uses for the Library Lot, to suggestions for improving the city’s recycling and composting programs. Even the issue of Argo Dam was raised. The controversy over whether to remove the dam spiked in 2010, but abated after the city council didn’t vote on the question, thereby making a de facto decision to keep the dam in place.

Naud said he’s often joked that the only sure way to get 100 people to come to a meeting is to say the topic is a dam – but this forum had proven him wrong. The city is interested in hearing from residents, he said: What sustainability issues are important? How would people like to be engaged in these community discussions?

The forum was videotaped by AADL staff and will be posted on the library’s website. Additional background on the Ann Arbor sustainability initiative is on the city’s website. See also Chronicle coverage: “Building a Sustainable Ann Arbor,” and an update on the project given at the November 2011 park advisory commission meeting. [Full Story]

Local Food Activist May Join Greenbelt Group

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Oct. 12, 2011): Local farmer and food activist Shannon Brines could become the next member of the city’s greenbelt oversight group, if Ann Arbor city council acts on a recommendation made on Wednesday.

Catherine Riseng, Liz Rother

From left: Greenbelt advisory commissioners Catherine Riseng and Liz Rother. (Photo by the writer.)

The greenbelt advisory commission (GAC) voted unanimously to recommend Brines for the appointment, which would fill the one open position, an at-large seat. Brines owns Brines Farm in Dexter but lives in Ann Arbor’s Fifth Ward – which GAC member Carsten Hohnke represents on city council. Hohnke, who did not attend Wednesday’s meeting, will likely be the councilmember to put forward Brines’ nomination to council.

Brines also works for the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE), as does GAC vice chair Catherine Riseng. At Wednesday’s meeting, Riseng told commissioners that she’s been appointed to an advisory committee for the county’s natural areas preservation program, and hopes to serve as a liaison between the two groups.

In other action, the commission voted to write a letter of support for continued funding of a federal program for farmland preservation. As Congress hammers out the 2012 farm bill, funds for the program could be at risk. The city received nearly $2.8 million in federal dollars for greenbelt properties during the last fiscal year.

At Wednesday’s meeting the commission also discussed forming a committee to develop a communications plan for the greenbelt program. The intent is to get the word out about the program’s achievements in a consistent, coordinated way.

One of the program’s ongoing efforts at communication is coming up later this month. On Saturday, Oct. 22, a two-hour bus tour will highlight some of the farmland and other properties that are being preserved by the greenbelt program. The tour runs from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and starts from the Ann Arbor farmers market. Boxed lunches are included in the $15 fee. [Full Story]

Greenbelt Boundary Expansion in the Works

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Sept. 14, 2011): Boundaries of Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program will expand in Lodi and Salem townships, if the city council approves a recommendation passed by the greenbelt advisory commission at its most recent meeting.

Ginny Trocchio

Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund, which has a contract with the city to manage the greenbelt program. She's showing the greenbelt advisory commission a map of proposed boundary changes. (Photos by the writer.)

The recommendation also calls for allowing the city to acquire development rights on property adjacent to (but outside of) the greenbelt boundary, if it’s under the same ownership as an inside-the-boundary property that’s being considered for the program.

The recommended “bump-outs” in Lodi and Salem townships – in the southwest and northeast corners of the greenbelt, respectively – reflect increased support for the program from those townships. The Salem Township board, for example, recently voted to earmark $200,000 annually for land preservation.

A separate resolution was voted down, with support only from the commission’s chair, Dan Ezekiel. It would have recommended that the council consider properties adjacent to the greenbelt for acquisition, and create a one-mile buffer surrounding the current boundary. Properties within that buffer would have been considered for acquisition with greenbelt funds, but with stricter selection criteria.

Several commissioners were reluctant to increase the boundaries with a mile-wide buffer zone, citing concerns that land in that area is too far from Ann Arbor, and noting that opportunities for land preservation are still available within the existing greenbelt boundaries.

In other business, the commission got a review of the greenbelt program’s finances and activities for the 2011 fiscal year. A 30-year open space and parkland preservation millage, which voters approved in 2003, funds both the greenbelt program as well as land acquisition for parks. During the year, the greenbelt program spent $8.3 million on 12 deals – by far the most transactions since the greenbelt’s inception.

Those 12 deals protect 1,472 acres of farmland from future development. In total, more than 3,200 acres are now part of the greenbelt. To put that into perspective, Ezekiel noted that those 3,200 acres are roughly equivalent to 80 parks the size of Veterans Memorial Park in Ann Arbor.

Three more greenbelt acquisitions were recommended by commissioners at the end of their meeting. The properties were identified only by application number  – the location of the properties and their owners aren’t revealed until the resolutions are voted on by the city council. [Full Story]

Work Planned at Ann Arbor’s Riverside Park

Five residents showed up to the Island Park shelter on Tuesday evening to give input on planned renovations at nearby Riverside Park, which has experienced flooding and other problems.

Eliana Moya-Raggio, Amy Kuras

Ann Arbor park planner Amy Kuras, right, shows maps of Riverside Park to neighbors who came to an information meeting on Tuesday evening at the nearby Island Park. Sitting next to her is Eliana Moya-Raggio, a resident of Wall Street. The smaller map is an overlay showing how a lot of the park, which is located next to the Huron River, is in a floodplain. (Photos by the writer.)

Park planner Amy Kuras described the park’s entrance off of Wall Street as “falling apart,” and talked through some of the proposed changes of the project. The two main changes involve relocating a parking lot and repaving Canal Street, a narrow lane that runs parallel to the park and leads to the back of the University of Michigan’s new Kellogg Eye Center building.

The project is one of many slated for fiscal year 2012 and outlined in the recently updated Parks & Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan.

Residents generally expressed support for the project, and gave suggestions for improvements. During the hour-long discussion they also raised other concerns not directly tied to the park, including increased traffic along Wall Street, additional parking lots planned by UM, and noise from delivery trucks traveling along Canal Street to Kellogg Eye Center. Similar concerns had been raised by some of these residents nearly three years ago, at a December 2008 meeting with university officials regarding planned parking along Wall Street.

Tuesday’s conversation also touched on topics that affect the surrounding area, including the need for better connections to the Border-to-Border trail system, and the status of changes planned at the Argo headrace. The city had expected to receive a state permit earlier in the day so that work could begin on the headrace, but Kuras reported that by late afternoon, it still hadn’t arrived. [Responding to a follow-up email from The Chronicle, parks & rec manager Colin Smith reported that the permit has now been received, and work on the headrace will begin on Thursday, Aug. 25. For details of that work, see Chronicle coverage: "Action on Argo Headrace, Trails Near Fuller" ]

The Riverside changes are among several slated for the city’s current fiscal year, paid for out of the parks millage and outlined in the PROS plan. Another forum is planned for Tuesday, Aug. 30 at Cobblestone Farm to talk about proposed improvements at Buhr Park. [Full Story]

Greenbelt Group Briefed on Pittsfield Plan

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Aug. 10, 2011): Possible partnerships with other local communities – including Pittsfield and Salem townships – were the focus of this month’s greenbelt advisory commission (GAC) meeting.

Paul Montagno, Anissa Bowden

Pittsfield Township planner Paul Montagno helps Anissa Bowden of the Ann Arbor city clerk's staff set up his presentation for the greenbelt advisory commission at its Aug. 10, 2011 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Township planner Paul Montagno briefed commissioners on Pittsfield Township’s updated master plan, which the township board approved late last month. Specifically, he focused on the section concerning open space, natural features and agricultural land use. He described efforts to balance denser development along corridors like State Road and Michigan Avenue while protecting more rural land, especially in the central and southern parts of the township.

Pittsfield Township has partnered with Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program on just one property – the Hilton farm, near the township’s large Pittsfield Preserve nature area. However, Montagno indicated that township officials are open to future land preservation deals with the greenbelt.

Also during the Aug. 10 meeting, Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund, which manages Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program, reported that the previous day, the Salem Township board had approved an ordinance that created a purchase of development rights (PDR) program, and allocated $200,000 annually for land preservation. GAC is considering possible expansion of the greenbelt boundaries, including an expansion in Salem Township. The boundary proposal was discussed at the commission’s July meeting, and will be on the agenda again in September.

The commission took one formal vote on Wednesday, after emerging from a closed session to discuss land acquisition. Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution recommending that city council move forward with application 2010-09 if at least 50% matching funds are secured. Properties are identified only by application number at this stage, and the resolution did not indicate what type of land acquisition this would entail. Typically, greenbelt monies are spent on the purchase of development rights (PDR).

There is currently one vacancy on GAC. Shannon Brines, owner of Brines Farm and a member of the city’s public market advisory commission, attended Wednesday’s meeting and expressed interest in applying for the seat. Nominations to GAC are made and approved by the city council. [Full Story]

Proposal Would Expand Greenbelt Boundaries

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (July 13, 2011): After discussing several options to expand the boundaries of Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program, members of the greenbelt advisory commission (GAC) ultimately voted to postpone action until their next meeting. Several commissioners expressed a desire to give the proposal more thought. One issue raised was whether extending the boundaries would cause Ann Arbor taxpayers to feel that their dollars are being spent to preserve land too far away from the city.

Liz Rother

Liz Rother attended her first meeting as an Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commissioner on July 13. Her appointment was approved by the city council in June – she replaced Jennifer S. Hall, whose term had expired and who was term limited.

A subcommittee of GAC has been evaluating a potential greenbelt boundary change since November 2010. Options included expanding in Salem Township and Lodi Township to “square” off the boundaries, and allowing properties adjacent to the greenbelt to be eligible for the program. Another option would be to create a one-mile “buffer” around the existing boundaries, and include properties within that buffer if they met stricter criteria. Whatever recommendation GAC eventually makes would require Ann Arbor city council approval.

Also at July’s meeting, commissioners got an update on Scio Township’s land preservation efforts from Barry Lonik (a consultant who works with the township) and Bruce Manny (a member of the township’s land preservation commission). Lonik noted that the township’s 10-year, half-mill land preservation millage expires in 2014. The land preservation commission would like to get a renewal on the November 2012 ballot, to coincide with higher voter turnout for the presidential election.

It was the first meeting for GAC’s newest commissioner, Liz Rother, who was appointed by the city council in June to replace term-limited Jennifer Santi Hall. Another position, held by former GAC member Gil Omenn, remains vacant. Dan Ezekiel – who was elected GAC’s chair at the meeting – urged anyone who’s interested in serving on the commission to contact their city councilmember.

During his communications to fellow commissioners, Ezekiel noted the recent death of “Grandpa” Don Botsford, calling him a real pioneer and champion of land preservation in this area. Botsford was man who lived in poverty rather than sell his land to developers, Ezekiel said. He eventually sold part of his property’s development rights to Scio Township, in partnership with Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program – it’s now known as the Botsford Recreational Preserve, near M-14 and Miller Road. Botsford introduced thousands of people to the natural environment, Ezekiel said, so it was fitting to note his contribution and his passing. [Full Story]

Park, Greenbelt Advisory Groups Share Goals

Joint working session of the Ann Arbor park and greenbelt advisory commissions (June 7, 2011): Even with a fan blowing, the meeting room at Gallup Park was hot and stuffy. But members of the city’s greenbelt and park advisory commissions toughed it out for about 90 minutes to hold their second-ever joint working session earlier this month.

Peter Allen, Julie Grand, Ella and Jennifer Santi Hall, Dan Ezekiel

From left: Peter Allen, Julie Grand, Ella and Jennifer Santi Hall, Dan Ezekiel. Grand is chair of the park advisory commission. Allen, Hall and Ezekiel are greenbelt advisory commissioners. Jennifer Hall has served as GAC chair, but her term is ending on the commission – this was her last meeting. Ella Hall also had attended the first GAC meeting with her mother seven years ago – she was three weeks old at the time. (Photo by the writer.)

They covered many of the same topics that they’d discussed at their first joint meeting in April 2010 – funding issues, land preservation and acquisition strategies, as well as specific projects like the Allen Creek greenway and support for small farms.

Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund, which has a contract to manage the greenbelt and park land acquisition programs, gave commissioners an overview of finances, projects and goals. Both programs are funded by a 30-year, 0.5 mill tax for land acquisition, called the open space and parkland preservation millage, which Ann Arbor voters approved in 2003. Two-thirds of the millage proceeds are used for the greenbelt program, and one-third is allotted to park land acquisition. To get money upfront for land acquisition, the city took out a $20 million bond in fiscal 2006 that’s being paid back with revenue from the millage. Current combined fund balances for the two programs total nearly $9 million.

Trocchio also highlighted an upcoming event to celebrate the greenbelt program. On Thursday, June 16, an open house will be hosted at the Braun farm – one of the program’s protected properties in Ann Arbor Township. The event is free and open to the public, and starts at 5:30 p.m. – parking is available at 4175 Whitmore Lake Road.

At the end of the June 7 meeting, commissioners congratulated two GAC members for their service – it was the final meeting for Gil Omenn and Jennifer Santi Hall, who has served as chair. Their terms expire June 30, and it’s not clear when appointments to replace them will be made. [Full Story]

Photos: Two Barns, One Gets Second Life

Last fall, architect Chuck Bultman wrote a remarkable piece for The Chronicle about the preservation of barns. Near the end of that article, Bultman describes a pair of barns on Scio Church Road, west of Zeeb. And he speculates that they might have been built around the same time.

Scio Church Two Barns

Scio Church Road: Two Barns (Images by Chuck Bultman, link to higher resolution file.)

Bultman also wrote that he’d noticed a hole in the roof of one of the barns: “So I tried to reach the owners to let them know that their asset is at risk. And so far, I have not heard back – maybe something is being planned and workers are lining up to repair it or salvage it, but I do not know, and it is not for me to decide.”

But over the spring, a decision was made – which a week ago led to a Friday evening gathering of Bultman’s friends and associates at the site of those barns. One of the barns stood with its siding removed, its frame laid bare. Wrote Bultman in an email to me: “It is our plan to toast this barn’s first life, and consider its second.”

Its second life will begin in the Pittsburgh area, where Bultman will help transform the re-assembled timbers into a home for one of his clients. The disassembly of the frame and restoration of the wood will be handled by Rudy Christian and his wife Laura, whose shop is in Burbank, Ohio.

Although Bultman had speculated that the two barns on the property were built at the same time, Christian estimated that the barn he’s dismantling dates to the 1830s, while the other one is post-Civil War.

Chronicle publisher Mary Morgan and I took a break from writing about local government to join Chuck on that Friday, and documented the occasion with some photos. [Full Story]

Column: Chevy Volt – Private Transit Choices

Last week The Chronicle received a cold-call from Suburban Chevrolet out at Wagner and Jackson roads with an offer to test-drive a Chevy Volt.

Chevy Volt

Even if you don't know me, this photo is a dead give-away that I am not a car guy. I deliberately shot that photo from an angle that would include Suburban Chevrolet's sign in the background, And I thought I'd nailed it – because the sign said "Suburban." (Photos by the writer.)

The sales consultant was keen to point out that Suburban Chevrolet was the first area dealership to have a vehicle available for test drives. But test-driving a car is pretty remote from The Chronicle’s mission, and even more remote from my personal transportation choice.

I share a membership in Zipcar with my wife, but don’t even remember the last time I’ve sat behind the wheel of a car myself. Zipcar, a car-sharing service, is like an insurance policy – a backup plan I never use. I get around by bicycle.

Still, in the Chevy Volt, I spotted a chance to write about a major public works construction project in downtown Ann Arbor – the Fifth Avenue underground parking structure, which will feature around 640 parking spaces on a lot that previously offered 192 spots.

Twenty-two of those new spots will be equipped with electric car charging stations. Dave Konkle, former energy coordinator for the city of Ann Arbor who now consults for the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority on its energy projects, identified the federal grant that’s helping to pay for the stations. The grant is worth $264,100 and will also pay for photovoltaic panels that will provide the energy for two of the spots – it was obtained through the Clean Energy Coalition’s Clean Cities Program.

That public project is closely tied to the assumption that visitors to downtown Ann Arbor will continue to make a personal choice for private transportation in the form of an automobile, and that some of those people will choose electric cars like the Volt.

The idea I want to think about in this column is that public choices depend on the sum of many private, independent choices made by actual people. It’s an idea that was driven home to me at a public transportation forum hosted earlier this week by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority at SPARK East in Ypsilanti.

At that forum, Bob Van Bemmelen – recent Republican candidate for the Washtenaw County board of commissioners – had this advice for the AATA as it pitches to the public the idea of countywide public transit: You have to make it personal, he said.

So I’ll begin by telling you a little bit more about the Suburban Chevrolet sales guy who gave me a ride in the Chevy Volt – who is as much a car guy as I am a bicycle guy: Nic Allebrodt. [Full Story]

Residents Frustrated by Dioxane Decision

About 50 residents gathered at Ann Arbor’s Abbot Elementary School late last month to get an update – and raise concerns – over a new consent judgment that changes the cleanup requirements of 1,4 dioxane contamination caused by the former Gelman Sciences manufacturing plant in Scio Township.

Matt Naud

Matt Naud, the city of Ann Arbor's environmental coordinator, points to his home on a 3D map of the Pall-Gelman 1,4 dioxane plume. The map was constructed by Roger Rayle, a leader of Scio Residents for Safe Water, who brought it to the March 30 public meeting about a new consent judgment related to the plume. (Photos by the writer.)

Mitch Adelman, a supervisor with the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality’s remediation division, began the March 30 meeting by acknowledging the crowd’s reaction to the new agreement, which was issued earlier in the month without opportunity for public input. “I don’t expect anything I say or do tonight to alleviate your anger or frustration,” he said.

But Adelman noted that if a company like Pall – which owns the former Gelman Sciences site – proposes a remediation plan that complies with state law, “we’re obligated to accept it.”

For nearly three hours, Adelman and Sybil Kolon, MDEQ’s project manager for the Pall site, gave an update and answered questions about the new consent judgment, the history of the cleanup, and what residents might expect in the coming years. They were challenged throughout the evening by people who’ve been following this situation closely – most notably by Roger Rayle, a leader of Scio Residents for Safe Water and member of the county’s Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane (CARD). Rayle has been tracking the dioxane plume for many years, and presented his own graphical renderings of data to the group.

The meeting was attended by several elected officials: Ann Arbor city councilmembers Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5); Ann Arbor Township supervisor Mike Moran; county commissioner Yousef Rabhi (District 11); and Sarah Curmi, chief of staff for state Sen. Rebekah Warren, whose district covers a large portion of Washtenaw County, including Ann Arbor and Scio Township, where the plume is concentrated. [Full Story]

PAC Supports Grants for Skatepark, Gallup

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (March 15, 2011): A meeting packed with presentations also included a last-minute addition to the agenda: Resolutions recommending support of the city’s application for grants from the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Trust Fund. The grants – for $300,000 each – would help fund the Ann Arbor skatepark and upgrades to the Gallup canoe livery and park.

Julie Grand, Sam Offen

Julie Grand, chair of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission, talks with PAC member Sam Offen before the start of Tuesday’s meeting. Offen was the only commissioner to vote against support of a state grant application for the Ann Arbor skatepark. (Photos by the writer.)

The resolution for Gallup passed unanimously, but commissioner Sam Offen – without comment – cast a vote against the resolution for the skatepark grant.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, commissioner Gwen Nystuen suggested forming a committee to look more closely at the Fuller Road Station project – she felt that as stewards of the city’s parkland, PAC should take a more active role in examining the proposed parking structure, bus depot and possible train station. The project, a joint effort between the city and the University of Michigan, would be located on land that’s previously been designated as parkland, though it’s been leased to the university as a surface parking lot since the early 1990s. Nystuen did not put forward a formal resolution, and commissioners took no action on the idea.

The meeting included five presentations from various groups, including updates on the city’s two golf courses, the new Give 365 volunteer program, and a restoration project for a stretch of Malletts Creek near Huron Parkway. Commissioners also heard a proposal for a new Wednesday night farmers market, and got a mid-year financial report on the open space and parkland preservation millage. [Full Story]

Greenbelt, County Look to Partner on Farms

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (March 9, 2011): Changes to Washtenaw County’s natural areas preservation program (NAPP) now allow the county to buy development rights for farmland – a land preservation strategy also pursued by Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program.

Ginny Trocchio, Tom Freeman

Tom Freeman, deputy director of Washtenaw County parks & recreation, and Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund distribute handouts to the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission at GAC's March 9, 2011 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Tom Freeman, deputy director for the county’s parks & recreation department, gave commissioners an update on this new aspect of NAPP, which is funded by a 10-year millage that voters renewed in November 2010. He discussed with commissioners areas of overlap between the two programs, and the potential for future partnerships as NAPP’s farmland protection efforts ramp up.

Prompted by a question from GAC chair Jennifer S. Hall, Freeman also updated commissioners about the county’s plans to apply for a grant from the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Trust Fund. The grant would help the county buy a parcel in Ann Arbor Township now owned by a subsidiary of Domino’s Farms. The land, which has water and sewer hookups that make it prime for development, is near three other parcels of already preserved property: the county’s Goodrich Preserve; the University of Michigan’s Horner-McLaughlin Woods; and the city-owned Marshall Nature Area. Freeman explained some complicating factors in the acquisition, including two widely divergent appraisals – for $1.9 million and $3.25 million – and the fact that the land is at the center of ongoing litigation between the township and the landowner.

When Hall floated the idea that the greenbelt commission could send a letter of support for the county’s application, Carsten Hohnke cautioned against it. Hohnke, who serves on both GAC and city council, said the city also plans to apply to the trust fund for two projects. [He didn't identify the projects during the meeting. In a follow-up email to The Chronicle, Colin Smith, the city's parks & recreation manager, reported that the applications would be for a skatepark and upgrades to the Gallup canoe livery and park.]

Hohnke felt the county’s application could dilute the city’s chances for success, though it was pointed out to him that the county and city would be applying to two separate pools of funding – the county plans to ask for a grant available for land acquisitions, while the city’s projects are in the category of project development grants. Ultimately, commissioners voted to recommend that the city council consider sending a letter of support for the county’s application. Councilmembers would need to act at their next regular meeting on March 21 – the deadline to apply is April 1.

Also at GAC’s March 9 meeting, commissioner Tom Bloomer – who owns Bur Oaks Farm in Webster Township – reported on a plan to eliminate state tax credits for farmers. It’s part of a broader budget proposal by Gov. Rick Snyder to cut many of the tax incentives currently offered by the state – the most high profile of which is for the film industry. Eliminating the credits for farming could make it unprofitable to farm in this area, Bloomer said. [Full Story]