County Seeks Input on Parks Master Plan

Investments planned for Rolling Hills, Staebler Farm, others

Donald Staebler was without question the oldest resident to show up at a Jan. 26 public meeting on the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation master plan. And the 99-year-old farmer had a very specific reason why: He sold his farm to the county nearly 10 years ago, and he wants to see what they’re going to do with it.

The barn and out buidlings at Staebler Farm, on Plymouth Road in Superior Township. Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation bought the farm in 2001, will be developing master plan for the property in the coming years.

The barns and out buildings at Staebler Farm, on Plymouth Road in Superior Township. Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation bought the farm in 2001, and will be developing a master plan for the property in the coming years. (Photos by The Chronicle.)

“I’m open to suggestions,” Staebler told The Chronicle, “and willing to give up plenty of what I know.”

During their presentation about a five-year master plan for the parks system, county staff outlined plans for the Staebler Farm – a proposed $2.3 million investment – as well as for several other county parks, recreational facilities and preserves. It was one of three public meetings to get input on the master plan; the next meeting will be on Wednesday, Feb. 3, at the Dexter Library, starting at 7 p.m.

A draft of the master plan – which is also available online – includes items in an extensive capital improvement program that was approved last year by the county’s Parks & Recreation Commission. Several of the largest projects are planned for Rolling Hills Park, including the addition of a dog park, an expansion of the water park and construction of softball fields and an amphitheater. The county also plans to invest nearly $12 million in greenway and non-motorized trails over the next five years.

Shaping the Master Plan

The Washtenew County Parks & Recreation department manages 3,654 acres of land, including more than 1,800 acres protected through the Natural Areas Preservation Program. The parks system has 35 permanent employees who work as park planners, administrators, supervisors and field workers, among other positions. The department also hires as many as 400 seasonal workers throughout the year to provide services such as life guarding and facilities staffing.

The parks system receives most of its funding from two county millages, each levied at 0.2367 mill. One millage, which runs through 2020, pays for capital improvements and park development; the other goes to park operations, and expires in 2016. Other funding sources include fees, federal and state grants, concessions and private donations.

In addition, a third millage – at 0.25 mills – funds natural areas preservation, bringing in about $3 million annually, according to Bob Tetens, the county’s parks director. That millage expires in 2011, and would need to be put on the ballot for renewal this year. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Natural Areas Tax Up for Renewal"]

The department, with a budget of about $8.5 million, does not receive support from the county’s general fund. It has a fund balance of $21.5 million for parks and recreation, and another $6 million fund balance for the natural areas program.

Those fund balances will be used for some of the projects in the pipeline, as laid out by the master plan. The parks system updates its master plan every five years – for the current plan, the county hired the private consulting firm URS Corp., which in turn enlisted the planning firm JJR. The process of drafting the plan included examining state and national recreational trends, reviewing the county’s demographics and meeting with county recreation staff and officials.

In addition to the public meetings on Jan. 26 and Feb. 3, the master plan will be open for public comment at the March 9 meeting of the Parks & Recreation Commission. That meeting runs from 7-9 p.m. at the parks administration office at County Park Farm, 2230 Platt Road in Ann Arbor. Park planner Richard Kent said the commission will likely adopt the master plan at its regular monthly meeting in April, at the earliest. Then the plan will be sent for approval at the state level – a requirement necessary in order to be eligible for state recreation funding.

Parks Projects through 2014

Within its broad goals – such as preserving the county’s natural resources and promoting an active lifestyle for community residents – the parks system has a range of specific projects outlined in the master plan over the next five years. [.pdf file of complete parks capital improvement program budget] Here’s a sampling.

Rolling Hills Park, Ypsilanti Township

Just over $13 million in projects – or about 40% of the park’s five-year capital improvement program – have been identified for this 363-acre park off of Stony Creek Road, between Bemis and Merritt in Ypsilanti Township. Proposed actions over the next few years include continued upgrades to the playground, tree house, pavilions, dock and fishing pier. About $3.2 million is earmarked for work on paved trails and the main road. Another big-ticket item is $3.6 million to expand the water park and build a promenade and new bath house.

In addition, the master plan for Rolling Hills calls for expanding a disc golf course, constructing a mountain bike course, putting in a dog park, and building an amphitheater and softball facilities. The department also has allotted $50,000 to conduct a feasibility study for a new recreation center. Other projects include installing soccer fields, expanding the park’s prairie acreage, installing interpretive signs in natural areas and gardens, and forming a trail connection with the adjacent Hewen’s Creek Park.

County Farm Park and Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center, Ann Arbor

The 141-acre County Farm Park is located on Ann Arbor’s east side, at the southwest corner of Washtenaw and Platt – behind the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center. For the park, proposed projects include ongoing playground improvements, renovation of the Platt Road entrance, renovation of the Platt Road pavilion restrooms, adding restrooms and water service at the Medford Lot entrance, reconstructing the Platt parking lot, replacing signs at the entrances, renovating the trail system and replacing the fitness trail equipment.

The Platt Road entrance to County Farm Park, where the administrative offices for Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation are also located.

The Platt Road entrance to County Farm Park, where the administrative offices for Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation are also located.

Other anticipated projects in the master plan include expanding natural areas in the park, reducing the acreage of mowed lawn, renovating the perennial gardens and pergola, collaborating with stakeholders on creek restoration, increasing programming related to horticultural gardens and creating a system of signs for the park’s planting areas.

Action items for the recreation center include making improvements and updates to the building, investigating solar applications, and improving connections to County Farm Park and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Independence Lake Park, Webster Township

Located northwest of Ann Arbor, Independence Lake Park is slated for $3.3 million in proposed projects over the next few years. That includes a new nature center, a new boardwalk and observation deck, and a new access drive, among other projects.

Other facilities and parks included in the master plan are Parker Mill in Ann Arbor Township; Sharon Mills Park in Sharon Township; Pierce Lake Golf Course and Park in Chelsea; Park Northfield in Northfield Township; Park Lyndon of Lyndon Township; the Osborne Mill Preserve in Scio Township; and Cavanaugh Lake Park in Sylvan Township.

Greenways and Non-Motorized Trails

The county park system is looking at investing nearly $12 million over the next five years in greenways and non-motorized trails – or 34% of the total capital improvement program. That includes ongoing development of the county’s Border-to-Border Trail system, as well as $600,000 each year made available to local municipalities for connecting their parks with the Border-to-Border network.

Staebler Farm

And, of course, there’s Donald Staebler’s farm in Superior Township. The master plan calls for improving the entrance drives, possibly renovating the farm house and coming up with other projects in a master site development plan. Nearly $2.3 million is allocated for this project.

Mary Staebler, Donald Staebler’s sister-in-law and caretaker who also attended the Jan. 26 meeting, seemed to have faith in the county’s ability to take care of the farm.

“They have done such an excellent job on everything they’ve done,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll do equally as well with the Staebler Farm.”

About the author: Helen Nevius, a student at Eastern Michigan University, is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.