Greenbelt Supports Ann Arbor Twp. Deals

Advisory commission also gets update on small farms

Ann Arbor Greenbelt Advisory Commission meeting (March 10, 2010): After hearing from Ann Arbor Township supervisor Mike Moran, and meeting in closed session with Mary Fales of the city attorney’s office, commissioners passed a resolution of support for the acquisition of development rights on the Braun and Gould properties in Ann Arbor Township.

These deals have been in the works for more than two years. The city has binding purchase agreements with the owners based on appraisals taken when land values were higher. New appraisals, required to get funds from a federal program, came in with much lower values. That means fewer-than-expected federal funds will be available, and the city would be required to come up with the difference.

Saying that Ann Arbor Township was their partner, Moran urged commissioners to support the purchase of development rights. He called the Braun farm a “poster child” for the township’s land preservation movement, and said it would be a significant error to reject the deal simply because of the new appraisals.

Later in the meeting, commissioners also got an update on committee work being done to help support small farms in the greenbelt.

Impact: Land Values, Delayed Application Approval

Problems with the Braun and Gould deals came up at the commission’s February 2010 meeting. From The Chronicle’s report:

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.

Fales attended the March 10 meeting, along with Sumedh Bahl, the city’s interim community services director. They joined the commissioners in a closed session that lasted over an hour.

Public Commentary

Just before going into closed session, commissioners heard from Ann Arbor Township supervisor Mike Moran, who spoke during the time set aside for public commentary. The Braun farm is a significant parcel, he said, noting that years ago it was the site of a proposed mobile home development – a project, called Colt Farms, that helped spur residents to mobilize and pass a land preservation millage, both in the township and for the city’s greenbelt.

Initially, Moran said resistance to the greenbelt program came from homebuilders, not surprisingly, but also from farmers. It’s taken a long time to build up significant credibility, he said. Now, however, farmers will take township officials at their word when approached about being part of the greenbelt. “Our word is our bond,” he said, and it’s very important to live up to their commitments.

Moran also expressed concern over the views of some commissioners whom he’d heard are reluctant to close on these deals at a time when the city is facing significant budget cuts. But the city can’t use greenbelt monies for other purposes, he noted, and if purchases aren’t made when land values are low, they won’t be making the best use of taxpayer dollars.

“I hope you’ll be strong in this regard,” Moran said.

He ended by saying that the township is a partner with the city in this matter and is ready “to do what needs to be done” to close the deal. “We will share with you those difficulties that have been occasioned by the delay of time,” he said.

Resolution of Support

About an hour and 20 minutes later, the commission returned from its closed session on attorney-client privileged communication about the land acquisition deal. Laura Rubin, the commission’s chair, said they’d discussed the two properties and had spent considerable time reviewing decisions that were made two years and four months ago. Back then, the properties had first been considered for the greenbelt and had received high scores on measurements used to evaluate potential acquisitions. Rubin said the commission was ready to consider a resolution related to the topic of the closed-session discussion.

Carsten Hohnke, who also represents Ward 5 on city council, said the commission had concluded that the new information they’d received didn’t impact their support for the deal. He moved a resolution stating that the commission “wishes to express its continued support of the acquisition of the Braun and Gould property development rights, in compliance with FRPP requirements and in partnership with Ann Arbor Township and the property owners.”

There was no further discussion.

Outcome: The resolution of support passed with no dissent. The matter will next be considered by city council at an upcoming meeting.

Supporting Small Farms: Working Out the Details

Dan Ezekiel gave an update on the commission’s small farms subcommittee. A recent meeting had included Ezekiel and fellow commissioner Tom Bloomer; Molly Notarianni, manager of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market; local farmers Tomm Becker and Shannon Brines; and Mike Moran and Ray Grew of Ann Arbor Township.

Ezekiel said they kicked around possible language for a conservation easement specifically for small farms. They used the boilerplate easement language required for the FRPP applications (U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program), but considered how it could be adapted without some of the federal requirements. Ann Arbor Township is doing a lot of parallel work, Ezekiel said, and it was good to get their perspectives.

One issue they discussed was impervious surfaces. What would be a reasonable amount of temporary, impervious surface to accommodate hoop houses? The requirement should meet the needs of farmers, Ezekiel said, but also take into account the fact that neighbors probably don’t want to have a collection of hoop houses packed close together and covering the entire property.

They also discussed water needs and drainage issues, and whether the greenbelt program should play the role of “farm police” – that is, how closely should these properties be monitored? Should these small farms be required to submit annual reports? Ezekiel said everyone agreed that requiring a business plan was important. One of the fears is tied to the potential failure of the farm – what would happen to the property in that case? Would it just become someone’s nice yard that’s protected by taxpayer dollars?

Affordable housing was another issue they discussed, Ezekiel reported, including the idea of having housing on the land for an intern or apprentice farmer. What are some creative approaches to fund housing for small farms, and how might that be written into the easement agreement? [This issue was discussed at some length during the greenbelt commission's December 2009 meeting. See Chronicle coverage: "Greenbelt Explores Support for Small Farms: Federal housing grants could offer funding options"]

Ezekiel described the conversation as fruitful, saying it was good to have a lot of stakeholders involved. No decisions were made and it will be a continued discussion, he said, but they had made a lot of progress.

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

Absent: Gil Omenn

Next meeting: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 4:30 p.m. at the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners boardroom, 220 N. Main, Ann Arbor. [confirm date]


  1. By John Kidle
    March 12, 2010 at 11:40 am | permalink

    There’s a lot missing in the “Greenbelt Supports Ann Arbor Twp. Deals” piece. Why are the financing contingencies in the purchase agreements invalid? Who dropped the ball on protecting taxpayer funds by allowing the purchase agreements to become binding before FRPP financing was assured? Based on the new appraisals the value of these properties have dropped by almost half yet the township and the city are on the hook for an extra $440,000 based on the old appraisals? The property owners aren’t the only ones who should be “antsy”.

  2. By Jack 40
    March 12, 2010 at 1:30 pm | permalink

    The taxpayers/city/county might be out the $440K but in reality, the value of the land has dropped by over $2 Million and we are on the hook for twice what the property is worth, because of poor oversite of the program. Why wasn’t the process addressed after the secret, closed door meeting so it doesn’t happen again (and again)? Why can’t OPTIONS be signed and not outright purchase agreements that are openended for up to two years or more?

    Carsten Hohnke, should explain to the taxpayers why he is so comfortable tossing around taxpayer dollars. When the government does this sort of thing, it’s called ‘fraud, waste and mismanagement’. But when the Greenbelt group does it, what do we call it?

  3. By John Q.
    March 18, 2010 at 6:50 am | permalink

    Whatever the appraisals state as the value of the property, if the property owner isn’t willing to sell at that price, the city has to decide if the “extra” cost is worth it to secure the easements over these properties. In my view, it’s a no brainer. The Braun property is the key link in the greenbelt north of the city. At the point that the economy picks up, it will be a prime target for development. Securing those properties today will be worth the price the city is being asked to pay.

  4. By jcp2
    March 18, 2010 at 1:56 pm | permalink

    Are you sure that purchasing the Braun property will affect sprawl? From the story, it seems like the genesis for land preservation was to prevent a mobile home park from being created at the farm. Higher fuel and energy costs in the next recovery may make it economically unfeasible to put low income housing in that location. The location next to US-23 would be a deterrent to putting luxury homes in that location. Blocking development on that lot won’t prevent the same development occurring in the next available parcel in the same location.

  5. March 18, 2010 at 2:36 pm | permalink

    The original plan for the Braun property was for 1,000 unit manufactured housing park and 323 single-family homes. The township denied the rezoning application. The Brauns sued the township and lost. If memory serves, the Brauns appealed and lost.

  6. By jcp2
    March 18, 2010 at 2:56 pm | permalink

    So why buy it?

  7. March 18, 2010 at 3:43 pm | permalink

    The issue, I think, was the trailer park. I think they could put up a low-density sub with big houses on large lots and there is not much the twp could do to stop it.

  8. March 18, 2010 at 4:02 pm | permalink

    Is it known who would be farming the Braun property, assuming that the development rights are purchased?

    If it is located near US-23, I would think that this would enhance its value to the area’s population both in terms of viewshed and its possible use for consumer-oriented agricultural products (vegetables, etc.).

  9. By John Q.
    March 18, 2010 at 4:07 pm | permalink

    The property isn’t next to the freeway. It’s on the west side of Whitmore Lake road. As Tom noted, there’s nothing to stop the future development of that property as something less than mobile home development from happening in the future.

    The goal is to put together a sustainable block of farmland in that area. There’s already one protected property east of Whitmore Lake Road. There’s other farm properties west of the Braun’s that would benefit from not having residential development happen on the Braun property. Go to Google Maps and view the area between Whitmore Lake, Stein, Joy and Mape. It’s all being farmed, as are properties to the north and west. But once residential development encroaches into this area, it makes it much harder to sustain farming operations. That’s an additional benefit of creating that block of protected farmland – it makes sprawl less likely, not more likely, in that area.

  10. March 18, 2010 at 4:49 pm | permalink

    Yes, I think the idea of agricultural preserves makes a lot of sense, aesthetically and functionally. That is also relatively close to Ann Arbor so a good bet for producing food for local consumption.

    Mark McFadden, the former county planning director, kept trying to figure out why I was so committed to agricultural preservation. He finally concluded that it was because I had grown up in a rural area so felt most comfortable there. Maybe he had a grain of sense in that. I now know that I was trying to avoid solastalgia, thanks to an article in the New York Times magazine a few weeks ago. [link] It seems we get connected to a particular landscape and geography and suffer a loss of “heart’s ease” if it is taken away.

    A long way of saying that an agricultural preserve near Ann Arbor enhances our quality of life here, by giving us the availability of a rural landscape nearby. I suspect that was the reason behind most votes for the Greenbelt originally.

  11. March 18, 2010 at 4:57 pm | permalink

    John Q is correct about assembling a block of protected farmland. David Braun (brother of the Braun in question) sold the PDR of his farm on the east side of Whitmore Lake Road across from his brother’s farm to the Washtenaw Land Trust a few years ago.

  12. By Alan Goldsmith
    March 19, 2010 at 6:50 am | permalink

    “Who dropped the ball on protecting taxpayer funds by allowing the purchase agreements to become binding before FRPP financing was assured?”

    I am still waiting for the Greenbelt team to publicly state how they are going to put into place process management procedures that buy options and not sales agreements that are binding years after the initial signing and subject to major drops in value. This meeting would have been a great starting point for addressing this, but apparently the group doesn’t feel this is important.

  13. By John Q.
    March 19, 2010 at 7:42 am | permalink


    Explain how an option would have worked better than the agreements the city had in place.

  14. By Rod Johnson
    March 19, 2010 at 9:22 am | permalink

    Can anyone point to exactly where the Braun parcel is? Maybe a Google maps link?

  15. March 19, 2010 at 10:08 am | permalink


    This link shows the area. The Braun property in question runs from Whitmore Lake Road west, and north from around Stein road. The Ann Arbor Agri-Center noted on the map is a farm supply store run by the Brauns (but they may have sold it). The David Braun farm is north of Warren and east of Whitmore Lake.

  16. By Alan Goldsmith
    March 19, 2010 at 11:24 am | permalink

    It would allow an option to buy land or rights but not lock the Greenbelt into a price that might be 50% or less than the actual appraised value. Of course, it the parties involved are going to say once we want something we’ll pay any price, that won’t result in any better control than we have now. But it would protect taxpayers from being locked in to a price that was two years old in an economic climate of dropping prices. But it sounds like the negotiating team for the Greenbelt aquisitions have already telegramed their lust for this parcel, will pay any price to get it and probably should avoid poker playing in Vegas…

  17. By Rod Johnson
    March 19, 2010 at 11:43 am | permalink

    Thanks, Tom!

  18. By John Q.
    March 19, 2010 at 12:30 pm | permalink


    Many option agreements include a “buy at this price” clause. Even if it does not include that price clause, the city still is on the hook for the cost to purchase the option to buy. If the city walks away from the deal, it loses that money. Under the current agreement, if the city walks away, it loses nothing. Explain again how your suggestion is better?

  19. By jcp2
    March 19, 2010 at 12:37 pm | permalink

    @16: I was thinking about the option option, but it only works in favor of the program if land prices rise, and works against the program if land prices fall (which I think was the assumption when the deal was first proposed). In addition, there is this long lag time between making the deal and getting matching funds. A better option would have been a financing contingency. That would work in favor of the program if land prices rise by locking in a price and if land processes fall, as the source of financing could cancel if the appraisal doesn’t work out.

    @9, 10, and 11: The link to the site and description of desirable rural viewscape has been very helpful. I notice that the major beneficiary of not having a trailer park as a neighbor would be the Village of Barton Hills. Disproportionately greater benefit for disproportionately smaller contribution?

  20. March 19, 2010 at 2:18 pm | permalink

    Another beneficiary is the Huron River. The link is to a pdf announcing a hearing with the MDEQ for an application by the developer for a wastewater discharge permit.

  21. By John Q.
    March 19, 2010 at 3:07 pm | permalink

    “I notice that the major beneficiary of not having a trailer park as a neighbor would be the Village of Barton Hills. Disproportionately greater benefit for disproportionately smaller contribution?”

    How so? Barton Hills taxpayers contribute to Ann Arbor Township’s land preservation millage. The Township has been an active partner matching the city’s Greenbelt projects as well as funding their own PDR efforts in the Township.

  22. March 19, 2010 at 7:58 pm | permalink

    In fact, the city and township contributed equal amounts ($1.3 million each) to purchase the Braun property, and almost equal amounts to purchase Gould property ($230k from the twp, $269K from the city).