Greenbelt Commission Backs County Tax

Also, new appraisals hike city's cost for two properties

Ann Arbor Greenbelt Advisory Commission meeting (Feb. 10, 2010): Citing benefits to the city’s own greenbelt program, members of the greenbelt commission at their Wednesday meeting voiced support for a county land preservation millage, which is up for renewal this year.

The commission passed a resolution urging the city council formally to endorse the millage, though it’s up to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to decide whether to put the millage on the ballot. It’s not yet clear the board will do that.

Greenbelt commissioners also discussed the implications of new, lower appraisals that had just been received on the Braun and Gould properties in Ann Arbor Township. The city already has binding purchase agreements with the owners based on older, higher appraised values, but recently learned that new appraisals will result in fewer federal matching funds for the acquisitions. The city could be on the hook for more money than was anticipated to close these deals.

Related to that, some commissioners raised concerns over information they’d received last month from the city attorney’s office, which appeared to be in conflict with what they were being told by staff at Wednesday’s meeting.

Support for Natural Areas Millage

The county’s Natural Areas Preservation Program (NAPP) is funded by a countywide millage that voters approved in 2000, taking effect in 2002. At 0.25 mills, it raises about $3 million annually, and expires next year.

At an administrative briefing last month, some county commissioners expressed reservations about whether to put the millage renewal on the ballot. Barbara Bergman, a commissioner representing District 8 in Ann Arbor, said she’d be reluctant to do so, given the need for funding to support human services nonprofits. Commissioners and other elected county officials have discussed putting a new human services millage on the ballot this year, though no formal proposal has been made. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Natural Areas Tax Up for Renewal"]

At Wednesday’s meeting of the greenbelt commission, there was some discussion about whether the millage renewal was considered likely to pass, if it were on the ballot. “I think any millage is controversial right now,” said Laura Rubin, who chairs GAC and co-sponsored the commission’s resolution urging the city council’s support, along with vice-chair Jennifer S. Hall.

Peter Allen asked whether anyone knew what else is on the ballot at this point. Carsten Hohnke, a greenbelt commissioner who also represents Ward 5 on city council, said there were a number of possibilities, but it wasn’t clear what would ultimately be put before voters. He asked Ginny Troccio of The Conservation Fund, a consulting firm that’s managing the greenbelt program for the city, whether the county board had taken any action related to the millage. She said they hadn’t, and that the county need to act by June or July to get it on the November ballot.

Dan Ezekiel expressed his strong support for the millage renewal. He noted that Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program had partnered with the county to buy three high-quality properties: the Fox Science Preserve on Peters Road and Scio Preserve on Scio-Church Road, both in Scio Township, and Meyer Preserve on Prospect Road in Superior Township. He said he hoped council would endorse the millage.

Mike Garfield, who’s also director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, said NAPP has been terrific for the county. When it first launched, he noted, there was some talk about the possibility of the program including farmland preservation. So Garfield proposed a friendly amendment to the resolution, asking that council consider urging the county to enlarge the scope of the program to include that type of acquisition. [The city's greenbelt program already includes farmland preservation – see Chronicle coverage "Frederick Farm in Line to Join Greenbelt"]

Commissioners discussed whether someone from the greenbelt staff or commission should talk with representatives from the county before voting on the resolution. Gil Omenn felt that the resolution might blindside the county. He could imagine that, in general, there would be fears about putting millages on the ballot, and that the idea of expanding the program’s scope might make county commissioners uneasy. Rubin said it might be wise for someone from the greenbelt commission to speak at an upcoming county board meeting, to talk about the value of the county’s natural area preservation efforts.

Ezekiel weighed in with the view that they should vote on the resolution now. The county board is going through some very serious deliberations regarding its budget, he said, and it’s important to show support for the millage. “The voters will decide,” he said.

After further discussion, commissioners agreed to support Garfield’s amendment. The amended resolution passed unanimously.

Later this week, Trocchio told The Chronicle that commissioners subsequently requested more information about the millage. The issue will likely come up again at the greenbelt commission’s next meeting, she said, perhaps in the form of an additional or further amended resolution.

Appraisals Increase City’s Share of Funding

The final item handled at the meeting was a report from Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund. New appraisals for two properties – the 286-acre Braun farm and 51 acres of Gould land, both in Ann Arbor Township – had been requested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, or FRPP. The city is requesting FRPP funds to help pay for the purchase of development rights to those properties, but previous appraisals were more than a year old by the time the federal program accepted all of the application paperwork, according to Kohring. [The city council has already approved the purchases, but the deals haven't yet closed, pending FRPP funding.]

At its January meeting, the greenbelt commission had recommended that the city council authorize the new appraisals. On Wednesday, Kohring reported that the Braun farm, which originally appraised for just over $4 million, was now appraised at $2,107,500. For the Gould property, the appraisal was lowered from $691,000 to $385,000.

In response, the available FRPP funds dropped from $1.43 million for the Braun farm to just over $1 million, Kohring said. For the Gould land, FRPP funds fell from $256,000 to $192,500. To cover the difference, an additional $377,000 is needed for the Braun property, and an additional $63,500 for the Gould property – those costs could be split with Ann Arbor Township, if township officials agree, Kohring said. The city had previously committed to paying $1,363,500 for Braun and $269,000 for Gould.

Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund said that the next steps would be to ask city council to approve the additional funds. It takes the FRPP between three months to a year to process the federal portion, she said, adding that she’s been told the FRPP would expedite this application because the deals need to close by Sept. 30, 2010.

Peter Allen asked what the implications would be if the commission postponed action until its next meeting. Trocchio said they’ve been working with the landowners since 2007, and both owners are “pretty antsy.”

Jennifer Hall confirmed with Trocchio and Kohring that the city had binding purchase agreements with the landowners. Allen said the commission was hearing for the first time that the financing contingency in the agreements wasn’t valid. “What we’re hearing tonight is the reverse of what we were told by the attorney at the last meeting,” he said, referring to Mary Fales from the city attorney’s office. He suggested scheduling another meeting – perhaps an emergency meeting – to bring back someone from the city attorney’s office to clarify the situation.

Gil Omenn, describing the news as a “pretty unexpected turn of events,” said he couldn’t imagine the need for such urgency, given that they had until Sept. 30 to close the deal. However, Kohring cautioned that given the time it takes for FRPP to process an application, the commission would need to act in March in order to be done by September.

Omenn wondered whether the city would be required to pay the full purchase price, if the FRPP funds don’t come through. Trocchio deferred that question to the city attorney’s office.

Hall said that they wanted to do right by the landowners, but they also needed to do right by the city’s taxpayers, given the very different land values. It was important to have all the relevant information before making a decision, she said.

Carsten Hohnke clarified that if Ann Arbor Township didn’t agree to pay half of the extra funds, the city would be obligated to pay the entire additional amount. Kohring confirmed that was correct, but noted that preserving the property was a top priority for township officials.

The commission agreed to delay a decision, and directed staff to have someone from the city attorney’s office come to their next meeting. Omenn suggested getting written advice from the attorney’s office in advance of the meeting. Calling that a great idea, Hohnke asked Trocchio to request a written opinion clarifying the issues in the existing contract. There is a general view, he said, that the city’s exposure is different than what they’d previously understood it to be.

Present: Laura Rubin (chair), Jennifer Santi Hall (vice-chair), Mike Garfield, Peter Allen, Dan Ezekiel, Gil Omenn, Carsten Hohnke, Tom Bloomer, Catherine Riseng

Next meeting: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 at 4:30 p.m. at the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners boardroom, 220 N. Main, Ann Arbor. [confirm date]


  1. By Alan Goldsmith
    February 13, 2010 at 7:58 am | permalink

    “At Wednesday’s meeting of the greenbelt commission, there was some discussion about whether the millage renewal was considered likely to pass, if it were on the ballot. “I think any millage is controversial right now,” said Laura Rubin, who chairs GAC and co-sponsored the commission’s resolution urging the city council’s support, along with vice-chair Jennifer S. Hall.”

    Great, yet MORE mismanagement, bungling and wasting tax dollars by our government officials. Nearly two million dollars in overpayment because of poor planning and a broken process that doesn’t take into account the possibility of falling land values. I guess it’s perfectly ok because it’s for something GREEN.

    Though the county millage hasn’t nothing to do with the incompetent management of the green belt funds, for once Ms. Rubin is right. There IS a bit of controversy about the lack of faith taxpayers have about the greenbelt fiasco and now the apparently well run and above board county program is going to take the hit.


  2. February 13, 2010 at 2:46 pm | permalink

    @1: A bit harsh, Alan. I think the land value issue is something that blindsided everyone. For example, did you see it coming in time to protect your savings and investments? Bad luck–yes, incompetence–no.

    However, you’re thrust that increased taxes would not be well received is on target. I suspect that the only way to preserve the green belt initiative is to sell something else to pay for it. If we sold something with high maintenance costs we might even come out ahead.

  3. By Alan Goldsmith
    February 13, 2010 at 4:32 pm | permalink

    I think you make your own luck and to sign an agreement to purchase something without all the backup funding in place and not sign an OPTION to buy something is kind of Business 101. A two million dollar mistake the taxpayers, who in good faith passed the Greenbelt millage and expected to have their money spent wisely, aren’t going to appreciate and likely will take it out on the county renewal. That is, if it even gets to a vote now.

    Either way, bad luck or incompetence, it’s just this kind of waste of tax funds than makes people skeptical of voting in any tax increase. Like a city income tax.

    Greenbelt mistakes, taking skimming operating funds to sink into the Court-Police Building, the $800K ‘artwork’, putting the city at risk for the Library Parking Lot project with the bond issue. At a certain point, it crossed the line from bad luck to incompetence.

  4. By PeteM
    February 15, 2010 at 8:53 am | permalink

    This is a nice story, but I think it also buries the lede. The fact that the Feds are reducing their contribution and the City may have no out isn’t raised until the end

    While I agree that no one can predict the future, the city should have made its financing a contingency on all of these agreements. It sounds like the City could end paying an additional $500,000.00 (while overpaying significantly).

    I would want policies in place to ensure that financing is absolute airtight contingency on all future agreements before a renewal is proposed.

  5. By David Lewis
    February 16, 2010 at 12:19 am | permalink

    If I remember right the federal ranch lands program requires a binding agreement before they consider the application.

    The program was put in place in large part to help farmers, it was not intended to be a huge help to taking land out of development the way the green belt does.

    The city may not be able to specify that the purchase is contingent on financing if they want to go after the federal money.

    In any event the city and A2 Township should buy the development rights to this land right outside of town.

    Alan I have to say that it is difficult to accept anything you say without a giant grain of salt. The city administrator and council could announce a huge tax cut while preserving everything and you would complain about how much Fraser was making or how silly the council looked at the press conference.

  6. February 16, 2010 at 2:21 pm | permalink

    Hey! Let’s bite the bullet and get on with it. The “woulda, shoulda, coulda” kind of backward thinking just impedes progress. And I think that the lawyers will just love the “airtight” agreement strategy–if you can find anyone who will sell you anything under those terms at a reasonable price (the seller pays lawyers too). Let’s just do our best and get on with it.

  7. By Alan Goldsmith
    February 17, 2010 at 7:30 am | permalink

    Gary, you’re right. It’s only $2 Million and just taxpayer money. Not a big deal, let’s just “get on with it”.

  8. February 17, 2010 at 11:35 am | permalink

    Alan, where do you get $2 million? It appears that the additional cost that would result is $440,500 ($377,000 + $63,500), and part of that could be covered by AA Township.

  9. February 17, 2010 at 12:52 pm | permalink

    @7: No one said it was not a “big deal”, Alan. Just that it is a sunk cost. If there is nothing you can do about it, why would any sane person want to dwell on it? At least for me, reveling in past errors does not appear to be a productive use of time. But I guess we’re all different.

  10. By Tom Whitaker
    February 17, 2010 at 6:25 pm | permalink

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the City to insist on financing (and, in turn, appraisal) contingencies to be included in purchase agreements or “options to purchase” made for development rights. These are standard contingencies in any real estate sales transaction. So standard in fact, they have simple check boxes on the Realtor forms.

    What I really wonder is what could be done to shorten the time between signing and closing? A lot can happen in real estate in two years and it can’t be good for either side to have these transactions take so long to close.

  11. By Alan Goldsmith
    February 18, 2010 at 8:51 am | permalink

    “On Wednesday, Kohring reported that the Braun farm, which originally appraised for just over $4 million, was now appraised at $2,107,500. For the Gould property, the appraisal was lowered from $691,000 to $385,000.”

    Steve, my two million was based on the payment for decrease in actual current value of the properties.

    And Gary, if you are fine with multi-million dollar errors in the purchasing process, then we ARE different. Fortunately, most other taxpayers who will be asked to renew this county millage probably won’t be as free with tossing around cash for mistakes as you are.

    The problem with local government is that past errors just keep continuing.

  12. February 18, 2010 at 10:06 am | permalink

    @11: Steve–The way to get somewhere is to look out of the windshield at the road most of the time and look in the rear view mirror only on occasion. It strikes me that you spend too much time worried about where you’ve been and too little on where you are going. The outcome of your strategy appears to be a lot of complaints and very few new ideas. A bit more time offering options for the future instead of criticisms of the past actions of others who are actually TRYING TO DO SOMETHING would seem to be useful.