Meeting Watch: Greenbelt Advisory Commission (5 Nov 2008)

Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund talks to members of the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Advisory Commission, as commissioners Gil Omenn and Peter Allen (far right) look on.

Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund talks to members of the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Advisory Commission on Wednesday, as commissioners Gil Omenn and Peter Allen (far right) look on.

The Greenbelt Advisory Commission met Wednesday, spending about 45 minutes in their public meeting before going into a closed session to discuss land preservation proposals.

Field trip: The first major item on the agenda was a presentation by Peg Kohring, Midwest director of The Conservation Fund, which manages the city’s greenbelt program. She gave a brief talk about the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, describing it as a think-and-do tank focused on local land use and food systems. Kohring said that she, city staffer Ginny Trocchio and Susan Lackey of the Washtenaw Land Trust made a trip to northeast Ohio to take an up-close look at this organization, and glean ideas that might be applicable to the Ann Arbor area.

The conservancy has five main initiatives:

1) The Countryside Initiative partners with the National Park Service to rehabilitate historic farms and farm buildings, then make them accessible for local farming. The conservancy oversees the RFP (request for proposal) process, which includes a long-term lease and a business plan to produce food locally, among other things. Farms leased under this program produce a range of goods, from herbs to goats whose milk is used for cheese.

2) The conservancy operates two farmers markets, but Kohring didn’t spend much time discussing these since Ann Arbor already has a robust market.

3) The conservancy offers several public education programs, such as cooking demos at the farmers market, farm tours, festivals and other activities aimed at highlighting the local food system.

4) FarmLink is a program that Kohring described as “speed dating for farmers.” The idea is to pair up existing farmers who are looking to retire with “farm seekers” who are interested in being farmers. At a gathering of people from both categories, participants pair up and talk for 15 minutes, then switch to a new partner and repeat the cycle. These kinds of connections can lead to deeper conversations, with the ultimate aim of facilitating farm transfers.

5) The FoodWorks initiative includes a guide to locally grown and produced food for consumers, a similar guide for chefs and restaurants, and a guide to certified commercial kitchen facilities for use or rent.

Joint working session with market commission: A discussion of the conservancy programs quickly led to a report on last month’s joint working session with the Ann Arbor Public Market Advisory Commission. Greenbelt commissioner Mike Garfield, who’s also director of the Ecology Center, said that the groups discussed ways they could collaborate to promote local farms, and that they had mentioned the conservancy as a possible model. Commissioner Sylvia Taylor, who also attended that meeting, said the general sense was that neither commission could play the role of the conservancy, but they could both support such an agency if it existed locally. One example might be to support a local farm incubator, she said.

Greenbelt commissioner and local developer Peter Allen said he’d been surprised at the meeting to learn that some farmland owned by the county through its natural areas preservation program was going fallow. That’s an extraordinary resource that could be used, he said.

Garfield noted that the market for local food is booming right now, and that the greenbelt commission has the potential to provide a missing link – namely, the ability to contribute money for preservation purposes that could also be used for farmers to grow food for the local market. It could be a great additional benefit for the community, he said.

Kohring said that the Waterloo State Recreation Area has buildings and farmland that they might be willing to rent, similar to the Cuyahoga model. That prompted a question from commissioner Dan Ezekiel, who wondered whether the state was involved in meetings with Preserve Washtenaw, a coalition of local land preservation groups. When Kohring said no, he suggested that Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation for the state’s Department of Natural Resources, would be a good point person since he used to play a similar role for the city of Ann Arbor.

Brainstorming: At this point, Kohring said she expects some properties will be coming up for consideration that include farm buildings, and that the commission needs to think strategically about what kind of model it wants to use. The PDR (purchase of development rights) model doesn’t have legs, she said, because the value of farmland is rising while the value of land for development is falling. The PDR model only makes sense when there’s a wide gap between the two values. Kohring suggested a brainstorming session to discuss possible options.

Garfield noted that this might be a great time to buy land, but that the way they’ve been purchasing land might no longer be the best approach. He supported a brainstorming session, but urged Kohring and the other commissioners to be well-prepared beforehand. (Garfield and others alluded to a retreat last year that apparently wasn’t productive.) However, commissioner Tom Bloomer worried that too much structure might force them into a mental straightjacket: “We need to be able to say stupid things and not worry about it.”

To which Garfield replied, “I do that regardless.”

Pause … “Agreed,” Bloomer said.

Kohring said the greenbelt fund might be allocated differently than in the past. Instead of cash transactions, farmers might prefer payouts over time. This is the kind of strategic change that the commission needs to discuss.

Since Kohring had earlier described the meeting as one in which people could put their feet up on a coffee table and brainstorm, Omenn asked a pertinent question: “Who has a big enough coffee table?” To which Kohring replied, “I think you might.”

Everyone laughed, though it was actually a quasi-serious gambit – Kohring thought Omenn’s home might be a good place for the kind of informal discussion they’d be having, and hoped that he might serve as host.

“I’d be happy to,” Omenn said.

The extended meeting is set to replace the commission’s regular meeting on Feb. 11, with a time to be determined.

RFP process: Garfield asked Kohring for an update on a draft of the RFP process that had been crafted. She reported that the commission was already over its allocation of the city’s legal staff time, due in large part to the 10 land closings that were under way, including two that are going before council on Thursday. So the draft is still a draft, not yet reviewed by city attorneys.

Bus tours: In a report from the communications committee, Dan Ezekiel reminded commissioners that he’d emailed them a link to a Chronicle article about last month’s Washtenaw Land Trust bus tour. He said this kind of tour was something the commission might consider doing itself, or cooperatively with others in Preserve Washtenaw, perhaps as early as next summer. Sylvia Taylor said that at the joint meeting with members from the public market commission, they had also discussed doing a bus tour, perhaps as an event to launch information about driving tours of farms and preserved land that people could take independently.

At 5:15 p.m., the group voted to go into closed session to consider land preservation proposals.

Present: Peter Allen, Tom Bloomer, Dan Ezekiel, Mike Garfield, Gil Omenn, Sylvia Taylor

Absent: Laura Rubin, Jennifer Hall, Chris Easthope

Next meeting: Wednesday, Dec. 3, 4:30 p.m. in the council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave.

Relevant coverage in other media: The Ann Arbor Business Review, Concentrate