Ann Arbor Greenbelt Advisory Commission meeting (June 9, 2010): Under typical agreements crafted for the city’s greenbelt program, only 2% of land protected by a greenbelt conservation easement is allowed to be covered by an impervious surface – a house, for example, or roads.
To date, that hasn’t been an issue for most parcels in the program, which are fairly large – more than 40 acres. But as the greenbelt advisory commission (GAC) considers ways to support small farms – in the 15-20 acre range – some challenges have emerged. A farm of that size with hoop houses, for example, might easily result in covering more than 2% of the land.
During the public portion of this month’s GAC meeting, commissioners discussed how to address this and other issues that might require modifying the language in conservation easements for the city’s greenbelt program. Also addressed were strategies to ensure that the land stays in agriculture for future generations.
No action was taken at the June 9 meeting, and comments from commissioners indicate there’s also no clear consensus yet for how to handle this relatively new greenbelt focus.
Conservation Easement: Tailored to Small Farms
A subcommittee on small farms has been working on these issues for about a year. That group includes GAC commissioners Tom Bloomer, a Webster Township farmer; Dan Ezekiel, an Ann Arbor teacher and environmentalist; and Mike Garfield, director of the Ecology Center, an Ann Arbor nonprofit.
At GAC’s November 2009 meeting, commissioners addressed the topic as well, and heard from Jennifer L. Hall, housing manager for the joint city/county office of community development, who outlined some ideas for how federal funding might provide resources to retain land for the farming community.
This month, Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund, who serves as staff for the greenbelt program under a contract with the city, presented more detailed options for possible conservation easements designed for small farms. In general, conservation easements limit the amount of development that can be done on the site, in exchange for certain tax benefits.
The farmland that’s been protected under Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program has consisted of fairly large parcels, in order to qualify for matching funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, or FRPP. Easement agreements stipulate that no more than 2% of the land can be covered by impervious surfaces. Hoop houses – structures covered with plastic that allow farmers to extend their growing seasons by farming under the shelter – are considered impervious surfaces, Trocchio said. Because hoop houses are often used by smaller farms, the small farms subcommittee has been exploring ways that the easement agreements might be changed to accommodate them.
The subcommittee met with several owners of small local farms, Trocchio reported, including Shannon Brines of Brines Farm in Dexter and Tomm Becker of Sunseed Farm, northwest of Ann Arbor. Based on their feedback, one possible approach is to separate out permanent and non-permanent structures, and to allow non-permanent structures – such hoop houses – to cover up to 20% of the acreage. That would allow the easement to keep the permanent impervious percentage at 2%.
The general goal is to protect the soil, Trocchio said. With that in mind, non-permanent structures could be defined as “structures where the soil surface is not disturbed, including, but not limited to, hoop houses and farm structures without a floor or alterations to the soils such as gravel or concrete paths.”
Another possible concern centers on what happens if a small farm is sold to a new owner who isn’t interested in farming. Easements limit what can be done on the land, Trocchio noted, but don’t currently require that certain types of activities – like farming – must be done. So it would be possible for a new owner to simply use the land as an estate, rather than a small farm. The land would continue to be protected from development, but it wouldn’t serve the greenbelt program’s original goal – namely, supporting small farms.
Trocchio described some research done by the American Farmland Trust, which evaluated agricultural easement programs nationwide. The nonprofit reported that in some regions, farmland with conservation easements was being resold at rates that weren’t affordable for farmers. However, the land would often be kept in farming anyway, with the owner leasing it to farmers for specialty crops or for horse farms.
Trocchio also outlined the work of a Massachusetts nonprofit called Equity Trust, which has been exploring options to help land trusts keep farmland affordable for farmers. One possibility – a very new option for land trusts, Trocchio noted – would be to include language in the conservation easement stating that the land must be sold to a qualified farmer. The definition of a qualified farmer is someone who earns a certain stipulated percentage of their income from farming. If such a buyer couldn’t be found, then the entity holding the easement would have the right to purchase the land, and sell it to a farmer at a later date.
The advantages to this approach would be that there’s more control to keep the land in farming, Trocchio said. But there are several possible disadvantages too. For one, it would create an increased responsibility for the entity that holds the easement – for the greenbelt program, that entity is the city of Ann Arbor. If GAC was interested in pursuing this option, they’d need to check state statutes, to make sure it would be possible. Trocchio also pointed out that it might be too soon to know what the future of farming will be in this area, so it’s hard to say if this is even a concern.
There were several other options discussed by GAC’s small farm subcommittee that could be used to support small farms, Trocchio said. The commission could choose to give priority to greenbelt applications for small farms, prioritizing either by the length of time that the farmer has been on the land, or by the length of time that the land has been used for farming. Trocchio said another option is to give priority to small farms adjacent to larger farms that are already protected under the greenbelt program.
Trocchio said the subcommittee wasn’t making a recommendation at this point. She said the staff could start working with the city attorney’s office to check state statutes and craft easement language that would give the city the option to purchase farmland, but that wouldn’t make it mandatory. They could then bring back a proposal for the subcommittee and GAC to review. Trocchio also noted that there’s an amendment clause in the conservation easement agreements that would allow the city to change easements in the future.
Commissioner Questions & Comments: Keeping Land as Farmland
Jennifer S. Hall began by saying she wasn’t sure she understood the issue related to small farms being transferred to new owners in the future. Why would they be concerned more about small farms going out of production, compared to large farms?
Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund said that small farms, because of the size of the parcel, would be more attractive to someone who just wants to have a home with a lot of land. And because of the conservation easement, which limits development, the land would be available at a relatively low price, she said. In general, smaller parcels sell more easily than larger parcels.
Hall asked whether that was a fact, or just an assumption. Kohring responded that if there’s a small parcel available at lower-than-market rates, because of the easement, she couldn’t imagine that it wouldn’t be attractive for someone interested in having an estate, given this community and the desire to have land.
But once the easement is in place, Hall said, it wasn’t clear what the risk was, compared to any other property in the greenbelt. With an easement, it wouldn’t be available for development.
Tom Bloomer jumped in, saying that the concern is that the land would no longer be meeting the original goal of contributing to local food production. For those parcels, it’s not simply the preservation of the land, he said. The first owner would meet that goal, because they’d apply to the greenbelt and be accepted in virtue of their farming operation. But if the farmer later decided to sell the land to a homeowner who simply wanted a big yard, then the city would have squandered its resources to buy a conservation easement that no longer met its goals.
Hall said it seemed like they were adding another layer of difficulty, and she didn’t understand why. Bloomer replied that the smaller parcels might be susceptible to different kinds of pressures than large farms are. That could be especially true if they’re located in areas where there’s already residential development. He added that there was uncertainty, however, because the greenbelt didn’t yet have experience in protecting small farms.
Trocchio pointed out that current easements stipulate what can’t be done, not what must be done. They’re not saying that small farms are more likely to go out of business, she added. They’re just trying to protect the land for the next generation.
Kohring suggested that the staff provide more information to commissioners about these options. Laura Rubin, GAC’s chair, clarified that the commission wouldn’t be taking any action at this time.
Gil Omenn asked Trocchio to share more details about the feedback they’d heard from local farmers. Trocchio said that representatives from Ann Arbor Township had also attended the subcommittee meeting. The township has its own small farm initiative. From the township’s website:
The Township’s Small Farm Initiative (SFI) endeavors to link landowners, producers and markets, and can utilize its Purchase of Development Rights program to assist in reducing the cost of land acquisition. Support for the project is provided by a three-year grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.
The primary outcome of the SFI is to establish small farms producing for regional markets using purchase of development rights (PDR) to reduce land costs, improve farm profitability and preserve farmland in a near-urban setting. Ann Arbor Township, with its proximity to the City of Ann Arbor and its ample open space and farmland, is an ideal location for this initiative.
In the short term, the SFI has identified interested landowners and can introduce them to prospective farmers so that both can learn about opportunities to work together and establish small farming operations. In the intermediate term, those relationships will be established and farmers will be encouraged to seek guidance in formulating sound business plans to meet market demands. The long-term outcomes (third year and beyond) will be to have established several operations and to share the results and lessons of our work with others in the immediate region, before reaching out to southeast Michigan, the entire state and beyond.
This project is being viewed as a demonstration for other communities interested in agricultural profitability, land use at the urban/rural interface and local food production. It is expected that new relationships will be created, small farm operations will be established, more local food and other produce will enter the marketplace and lessons will be learned to provide insight and establish the area as a center for innovative approaches to preserving farmland.
Trocchio said that the township’s program is proposing that farmers provide a business plan, and notify the township if there are any changes to that plan. The local farmers who attended the GAC subcommittee meeting expressed concern about sharing proprietary information that might be in a business plan. They were also concerned about the township’s level of involvement in their business, she said.
Dan Ezekiel said that there was pretty wide consensus among both growers and land preservation agencies that there should be a business plan to look at. He said he was struck by the fact that small farmers had the same concerns as large growers regarding easements – they were concerned about restrictions.
Trocchio said the Vermont Land Trust has been using “softer” language in its easements, giving the trust the option to buy land in order to keep it as active farmland, but not making the purchase mandatory. Omenn said that buying land wasn’t attractive to him – the city isn’t in the business of purchasing property, he said. Trocchio clarified that it wasn’t the intent to keep the property, but rather to provide a way to hold the land temporarily until a buyer who’d be interested in farming can be found.
Bloomer said his own view is that restrictive language isn’t the best approach, in terms of putting the city in the position of buying property. He said the subcommittee’s parting thoughts had been that they might try two or three deals with small farms, realizing that they might make some mistakes along the way. But since they wouldn’t be huge deals, he said, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they didn’t get it quite right the first time.
Hall said it seemed like an easement on a small farm might create a new type of market for small growers. So the greenbelt program might be helping that type of business in the future, because the land already has an easement and is set up for that type of agriculture. Anyone who invests in setting up a small farm would likely want to see that same type of business exist there in the future, she said. Has that been true in other areas?
Trocchio said that this approach is very new, and there aren’t many examples of areas that are trying it. Those that are, she said, are grappling with the same issues.
Commissioner Questions & Comments: Impervious Surfaces
Rubin asked whether the subcommittee wanted GAC to take action related to impervious surfaces and non-permanent structures. Had there been consensus on the subcommittee that allowing 20% for non-permanent structures was a good move? Bloomer said there was far more consensus on that than on the other issue.
There was some discussion about whether to act on the suggestion to change the easement language for small farms to include the 20% stipulation for non-permanent structures. Bloomer noted that for large farms that are eligible for FRPP funding, easements can’t include that language because of federal requirements. Instead of making it specific to small farms, he suggested that the language regarding non-permanent structures could be optional, and added to the easement when appropriate. He also said he’d be more comfortable if they worked on a draft of the wording and brought it back for consideration at GAC’s July meeting. Other commissioners agreed to that approach.
Kohring had indicated that there was one farmer waiting for a decision from GAC on these issues before applying to the greenbelt program. Rubin asked her to convey GAC’s intention to act at the July meeting.
In addition to the small farms discussion, the commission spent nearly an hour in closed session to discuss issues related to land acquisition.
Present: Laura Rubin (chair), Jennifer Santi Hall (vice-chair), Peter Allen, Dan Ezekiel, Tom Bloomer, Gil Omenn
Absent: Mike Garfield, Carsten Hohnke, Catherine Riseng
Next meeting: Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 4:30 p.m. at the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners boardroom, 220 N. Main, Ann Arbor. [confirm date] In addition, a greenbelt bus tour is scheduled for Saturday, July 17, 2010, departing from the Ann Arbor Farmers market at 11 a.m. and returning at 1 p.m. The cost is $15 and pre-registration is requested by July 10. To register, contact Ginny Trocchio at 734-794-6000 ext. 42798 or email email@example.com.