County Natural Areas Tax Up for Renewal

At briefing, some Washtenaw commissioners express concerns

A resolution to hire Verna McDaniel as the next county administrator is on the Feb. 3 agenda for the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, and commissioners gave her a round of applause on Wednesday when that agenda item was announced at their administrative briefing.

But it was an item not on the agenda that yielded the most animated discussion on Wednesday: A countywide millage for Washtenaw County’s Natural Areas Preservation Program. The tax, which was first approved by voters in November of 2000 and took effect in 2002, will expire in 2011 and would need to go back to voters this year for renewal. Based on comments at Wednesday’s briefing, the millage renewal might face resistance from some commissioners.

County Parks and Natural Areas: Too Much Money?

The discussion began as a point of confusion. Commissioner Ken Schwartz had seen a meeting notice for the Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee (ALPAC), and wondered if it was a new group created after the recent dissolution of the county’s planning advisory commission. It was not new, said Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel – ALPAC had been formed years ago as part of the county’s purchase-of-development-rights (PDR) program, and the group makes recommendations on possible PDR actions.

ALPAC differs from the Natural Areas Technical Advisory Committee (NATAC), which advises the county on its Natural Areas Preservation Program. When someone asked about the status of NAPP’s millage, Hedger said he’d just spoken about it earlier that day with Bob Tetens, the county’s director of parks and recreation. The tax – at 0.25 mills – would need to go on the ballot this year. Commissioners commented that it wasn’t a good time to be doing that, given the economy, which prompted commissioner Jeff Irwin to say, “Better than after it expires.”

Commissioner Wes Prater then brought up two concerns. He said NAPP had amassed millions of dollars in its fund balance “that’s just laying there, not being used.” Secondly, he said, the general public doesn’t have sufficient information about the program. People need to know how to apply for it, he said, and the county needs to invest those dedicated funds “and not pile up a huge surplus.” Prater said he was also troubled because he felt the fund balance for parks and recreation was also too high.

Schwartz said he’d talked to officials in Northfield Township, who didn’t know how NAPP worked. “Nobody does,” said Prater.

Prater added that he wouldn’t advise putting a NAPP renewal on the ballot with such a high fund balance.

Commissioner Barbara Bergman said that notwithstanding the fund balance, she couldn’t see asking citizens to support a natural areas millage when human services are in need. Bergman has previously said she favors a millage for human services, an idea floated last year by several elected county officials. In its efforts to deal with a projected $30 million, two-year deficit in 2010 and 2011, the county cut its funding for nonprofits in the human services and children’s well-being sectors by 20%, to $1.015 million.

Funding for NAPP, Parks & Rec

Reached by phone on Thursday, Tetens said that NAPP’s current fund balance stands at $6.019 million. Since the program began, the county has acquired 17 properties, he said, including 44 wooded acres in Superior Township purchased just last week. (This land is not connected with the property at the heart of a settlement deal recently in dispute in Superior Township, he clarified.)

NAPP is an initiative of the county’s board of commissioners, Tetens said. Though managed by his department, it’s up to the board to decide whether to ask voters for a renewal of the millage.

Strategizing over the millage renewal began months ago. From the minutes of the June 2009 meeting of the Natural Areas Technical Advisory Committee:

The Committee returned to their discussion concerning the potential for renewal of the millage which supports the Natural Areas Preservation Program. [Deputy parks director Tom] Freeman reported on the results of the Preserve Washtenaw meeting, held May 19th at the Augusta Township Hall. A significant portion of that meeting was devoted to discussion of possible approaches to support renewal of the millage. Preserve Washtenaw members voiced their conviction that it would be important for each of the member organizations to pass a resolution supporting renewal of the millage. Those resolutions could be forwarded to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and would hopefully contribute to a decision to place the millage on the ballot for consideration by county residents.

The Committee discussed the idea voiced by Preserve Washtenaw. It was agreed the approach would generate valuable support and provide necessary encouragement to the Commissioners. The Committee further determined that it would be valuable to develop a larger list of organizations that could be contacted to solicit resolutions of support. A significant collection of organizations expressing their support – recognizing the value of the Natural Areas Preservation Program and recommending placement of the millage on the ballot for renewal – could provide the influence necessary to convince the Board of Commissioners.

Tetens said that NAPP has a very robust marketing effort, with staff speaking regularly to civic organizations, local officials and other groups countywide, and hundreds of parcels have been considered for the program. Because some of the acquisitions take years to complete, money in the fund balance is earmarked accordingly. And now, with 17 preserves covering more than 1,800 acres, they’ll also need to ensure there are sufficient funds to maintain those properties, Tetens said. If the millage isn’t renewed, he said, some of the remaining fund balance might need to be reserved to take care of future upkeep.

Separately, the county’s parks and recreation department is funded through two millages, at 0.2367 mills each. The combined fund balance from those millages is currently $21.5 million, Tetens said. Of those two, the millage for land acquisition and development, first approved by voters in 1976, was most recently renewed in 2008 for a 10-year period, starting this year. The parks operations millage runs through 2016.

Though the fund balance level is over $21 million now, Tetens said, the department has plans to use that money for upgrading facilities over the next five years. Projects at the 363-acre Rolling Hills Park are expected to cost nearly $14 million, for example – other projects are planned at County Farm Park, Independence Lake, the Pierce Lake Golf Course and the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center.

What’s more, Tetens said, the revenues from those millages will likely decline in coming years, due to lower property values.

The department’s annual budget is about $8.5 million – it does not receive support from the county’s general fund. There are about three dozen full-time employees in the department, but as many as 400 seasonal employees during the summer.

Back to the Briefing: Next Week’s Agenda

As discussed at Wednesday’s administrative briefing, the main item on the agenda for the Feb. 3 Ways & Means Committee – on which all commissioners serve, and which meets immediately prior to the board meeting – is a resolution regarding the county administrator’s job. The resolution would authorize negotiations to begin with Verna McDaniel, current deputy administrator, to fill the position vacated by Bob Guenzel, who is retiring in May. The goal would be to complete negotiations by mid-March.

Typically, items are considered at the Ways & Means Committee, then taken up at the board meeting two weeks later for a final vote. However, Rolland Sizemore Jr., the board’s chair, told commissioners on Wednesday that he plans to bring this resolution to a vote at the Feb. 3 board meeting as well. There are issues coming up soon, he said, including decisions involving the Detroit Region Aerotropolis and Ann Arbor SPARK. “She needs to be in place,” Sizemore said.

Ann Arbor SPARK, which is funded in part by the county, is on the agenda for the board’s Feb. 4 working session, where commissioners will get an annual report from the economic development agency’s CEO, Mike Finney. Tony VanDerworp, the county’s director of the department of energy and economic development, will also make a presentation on that new department. He’ll also give updates on the Ann Arbor Success project and the Eastern Leaders Group – SPARK is a partner in both of those efforts.


  1. By Bob Martel
    January 29, 2010 at 11:34 am | permalink

    With property values low, now is a good time to use the funds in the NAP Program to preserve land. In ten years, when things turn around, the pressure for more development will make this much more difficult.

    Even though it may look like the ship is sinking and the world is going to hell, and it is very tempting to use all resources to plug the current leak, we should not be short sighted. What good is it to “destroy the village in order to save it” by being short sighted?

    I am confident that Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County will still be here in ten years, twenty years and even in one hundred years. On this particular issue, our leaders need to think ahead beyond the current crises and prepare our community for the long term.

    Let’s put the millage renewal on the ballot and educate the voters about this and let them decide.

  2. January 29, 2010 at 1:01 pm | permalink

    NAPP has protected some great properties, all of which are open to the public to visit. Here’s a list: [Link]

    In map format: [Link]

    Leonard Preserve in Manchester is particularly neat, on the River Raisin (factoid: apparently the ‘crookedest river’ in the world!)

    For landowners who’d like their property to be considered for acquisition, there’s a wealth of information and an application form on the County website: [Link]

  3. By Brian
    January 29, 2010 at 1:22 pm | permalink

    My guess is that the NAPP renewal could be a hard sell to voters. Especially since many townships, even some of the more urban townships with many natural areas in need of protection, have not had any support from NAPP whatsoever. If these taxpayers have also been paying for NAPP over the past decade, they will want to see some benefit closer to home before they support it for another ten years.

    It is a great concept, however, and has done a lot to help preserve sensitive lands throughout the county. These are lands that would otherwise have been sold for other uses (though not in this economy).

  4. January 29, 2010 at 4:23 pm | permalink

    Looking at the map, I always thought the opposite, actually, that many of the NAPP dollars had been going to the more urban townships – Ann Arbor, Scio, & Superior especially. All in all, it’s a pretty good mix of townships. Since the program focuses on high-quality natural ecosystems, it could be that parcels in certain areas end up ranking more highly. And of course, all townships are eligible.

    I encourage anyone who knows of property that’s a good fit for the program to see if the landowner will sign & submit the form to be considered – they don’t even have to fill out all the details, but they do need to give their permission to be considered.

    (I know here at Legacy Land Conservancy, we’ve mailed the NAPP packet out to landowners if we thought they might consider it.)

    Now’s the time to protect the most sensitive lands, not when we have to fight over it with developers.

  5. By VelhoSorriso
    January 29, 2010 at 5:17 pm | permalink

    I agree with the sentiment: With property values low, now is a good time to use the funds in the NAPP to preserve land. Let’s do it! Wise move.

  6. By Dan Ezekiel
    January 29, 2010 at 8:43 pm | permalink

    I couldn’t agree more. The county’s natural area program is a huge success. I know several of the commissioners, and they work passionately and sincerely to select and preserve the very best of the nominated parcels.
    Two of my personal favorites among the county preserves are the Burns Stokes Preserve, where Zeeb Rd. crosses the Huron River, and the DeVine Preserve, on W. Liberty Rd.
    The Burns Stokes property is the only place in Washtenaw County where I have seen the signs of beaver. So far, I’ve seen only the gnawed trees and the chips, never the creatures themselves.
    The DeVine Property is a wonderful place to watch birds, in a very diverse habitat. On a May morning, you will see and hear lots of migrating warblers, and I have seen and heard the fairly unusual Sedge Wren far in the back of the property (in the wet field away from the road) every year for several years. :ast year, I also heard an Olive-Sided Flycatcher there, surely on its way to more northerly climes.
    The county commission would do well to put this millage back on the ballot for renewal and allow the voters to judge its merits. The voters would then do well to approve it. As previous commenters have noted, now is the time to buy natural areas, while the prices are relatively low. They are a legacy we will leave to those who live in the county far into the future.

  7. By David Lewis
    January 29, 2010 at 8:57 pm | permalink

    Like with the city’s greenbelt program, now is the time to buy. There is probably a 3 year”window” in which to pick up land on the cheap before the pressure to sprawl returns.

    These programs will leave a legacy that lasts for generations. It is so much better to spend it on buying land and development rights instead of day-to-day expenses.

  8. By Bob Martel
    January 30, 2010 at 4:11 pm | permalink

    Re: [7], I fear that the window of relatively “cheap” land values in our fair county may last a bit longer than 3 years, but still no excuse not to push the pedal to the metal!

  9. January 30, 2010 at 6:10 pm | permalink

    Dan Ezekiel makes a good point. While the City of Ann Arbor has focused on PDRs of agricultural land (a good objective in itself), the county’s program has actually preserved “wild ness” that we can all visit. It has had an excellent board and good technical follow-through so that generations from now, we’ll still have some of the unique plant and animal communities that are our heritage. It is hard to focus on the long view when you are having trouble paying tomorrow’s bills, but it must be done.

  10. By Alan Goldsmith
    January 31, 2010 at 10:13 am | permalink

    I agree, the county’s program, preserving areas people can actually enjoy and visit, is the model the City of Ann Arbor’s ‘greenbelt’ program should be using. I suggest we abolish the A2 tax and redirect 100% of it to the seemingly well run county efforts.

  11. By Cosmonican
    January 31, 2010 at 11:16 am | permalink

    #10, Alan I disagree. The programs serve different, though similar, purposes. The greenbelt should be concentrated nearer Ann Arbor, not diluted by buying a swamp in Manchester; we have no business interfering with townships that far off. Renew both taxes, and let them do their job within the chosen mandates.