Greenbelt, County Look to Partner on Farms

Also, Ann Arbor's role in county grant application debated

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (March 9, 2011): Changes to Washtenaw County’s natural areas preservation program (NAPP) now allow the county to buy development rights for farmland – a land preservation strategy also pursued by Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program.

Ginny Trocchio, Tom Freeman

Tom Freeman, deputy director of Washtenaw County parks & recreation, and Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund distribute handouts to the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission at GAC's March 9, 2011 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Tom Freeman, deputy director for the county’s parks & recreation department, gave commissioners an update on this new aspect of NAPP, which is funded by a 10-year millage that voters renewed in November 2010. He discussed with commissioners areas of overlap between the two programs, and the potential for future partnerships as NAPP’s farmland protection efforts ramp up.

Prompted by a question from GAC chair Jennifer S. Hall, Freeman also updated commissioners about the county’s plans to apply for a grant from the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Trust Fund. The grant would help the county buy a parcel in Ann Arbor Township now owned by a subsidiary of Domino’s Farms. The land, which has water and sewer hookups that make it prime for development, is near three other parcels of already preserved property: the county’s Goodrich Preserve; the University of Michigan’s Horner-McLaughlin Woods; and the city-owned Marshall Nature Area. Freeman explained some complicating factors in the acquisition, including two widely divergent appraisals – for $1.9 million and $3.25 million – and the fact that the land is at the center of ongoing litigation between the township and the landowner.

When Hall floated the idea that the greenbelt commission could send a letter of support for the county’s application, Carsten Hohnke cautioned against it. Hohnke, who serves on both GAC and city council, said the city also plans to apply to the trust fund for two projects. [He didn't identify the projects during the meeting. In a follow-up email to The Chronicle, Colin Smith, the city's parks & recreation manager, reported that the applications would be for a skatepark and upgrades to the Gallup canoe livery and park.]

Hohnke felt the county’s application could dilute the city’s chances for success, though it was pointed out to him that the county and city would be applying to two separate pools of funding – the county plans to ask for a grant available for land acquisitions, while the city’s projects are in the category of project development grants. Ultimately, commissioners voted to recommend that the city council consider sending a letter of support for the county’s application. Councilmembers would need to act at their next regular meeting on March 21 – the deadline to apply is April 1.

Also at GAC’s March 9 meeting, commissioner Tom Bloomer – who owns Bur Oaks Farm in Webster Township – reported on a plan to eliminate state tax credits for farmers. It’s part of a broader budget proposal by Gov. Rick Snyder to cut many of the tax incentives currently offered by the state – the most high profile of which is for the film industry. Eliminating the credits for farming could make it unprofitable to farm in this area, Bloomer said.

Washtenaw County Natural Areas Preservation

Most of Wednesday’s meeting focused on a presentation by Tom Freeman, deputy director of Washtenaw County parks & recreation, about the county’s natural areas preservation program (NAPP) – its history, as well as recent changes to the program that could foster more collaboration between the county and the city’s greenbelt program.

A 10-year countywide millage to fund the county’s NAPP was initially passed by voters in 2000. Just last fall, voters approved a renewal that extends funding another 10 years. [The 0.2409 mill tax is expected to raise roughly $3.5 million in annual revenues.]

Freeman noted that prior to the millage renewal, the county board of commissioners approved changes to Natural Areas Ordinance No. 128, which governs the program. [See Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw Natural Areas Tweaked for Ballot"] The changes were made to reflect two broad strategic goals: (1) incorporating farmland into NAPP’s land preservation efforts; and (2) clarifying the county’s use of the purchase of development rights (PDR) to preserve land, in addition to outright acquisition.

In NAPP’s first nine years, the county acquired nearly 2,000 acres of land, Freeman said. Active farming was done on about 25% of that land. One of the first examples of that is the 226-acre Brauer Preserve, which was purchased in 2003. About 80 acres of the land was farmed at the time, he noted. They worked with the farmer to develop a conservation management plan – the farmer continues to work the land under contract with the county, using practices like crop rotation and a minimum of fertilizer and pesticides. The farmer also maintains one of the public trails on the property.

Freeman explained that the NAPP program has been overseen by the county’s natural areas technical advisory committee (NATAC), which reviews nominations for land acquisitions and makes recommendations to the Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission. It’s similar to the role of the greenbelt advisory commission, which makes recommendations to the Ann Arbor city council about possible additions to the greenbelt program.

Members of NATAC have expertise in natural areas, Freeman said, so when the county revised its ordinance to include a stronger emphasis on agricultural land, it also designated the agricultural lands preservation advisory committee (ALPAC) to make recommendations regarding farm properties. Rather than outright acquisition, it’s more likely that farmland will be preserved through the purchase of development rights – which is the primary mechanism for protecting greenbelt properties as well.

Freeman said that when NATAC was formed 10 years ago, the group spent its first few months developing bylaws, a mission statement and working on other governance issues. ALPAC would need to do the same, he said – its first meeting is set for March 22. Members are Julie Frost, Charlie Koenn, Joseph Luellen Jr., county commissioner Yousef Rabhi, Sue Shink, Steve Solowczuk, and Dale Weidmayer.

One of the more significant changes to the NAPP ordinance relates to how revenues from the millage will be allocated, Freeman said. The relevent section [changes in italics]:

The revenues from the deposit and/or investment of the Acquisition Fund along with the revenues from the sale of any natural areas property purchased pursuant to this Ordinance shall be applied and used solely for the purchase of natural areas land (75%) and agricultural development rights (25%) under this Ordinance, provided, however, that no more than 7% of increased millage funds used to purchase land under this Ordinance may be used annually to administer a land preservation program or maintain lands purchased under this Ordinance.

The county hasn’t previously purchased development rights for farming property, Freeman said, so this is new territory. The ordinance gives guidance on the amount of emphasis the county should give to that aspect of the program.

Freeman concluded by saying that these changes to NAPP might provide additional opportunities to partner with the greenbelt program.

NAPP: Commissioner Discussion

Commissioners had several comments and questions for Freeman. Laura Rubin, who’s also executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, noted that for the greenbelt program, the city sets aside funds to manage oversight of the properties in the greenbelt. How does the county handle that?

Freeman replied that the NAPP ordinance allows up to 7% of the millage proceeds to be set aside for stewardship. They’ve done that since the start of the program, he said, even though at the time there were no properties to manage. The idea was to build up a reserve so that if the millage hadn’t been renewed in 2010 – or if it’s not renewed the next time it’s on the ballot – they’ll have the funds to maintain the program. The goal is eventually to have an endowment, he said, with earnings from the endowment used for stewardship.

Mike Garfield

Mike Garfield, a greenbelt commissioner and director of The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor.

Mike Garfield, a greenbelt commissioner and director of The Ecology Center, praised the NAPP program, and thanked Freeman for helping build it. He asked what plans the county had for promoting this new farmland component.

Freeman said they were concerned about promoting it too soon – ALPAC is just starting to gear up, and they don’t want to get ahead of themselves by promoting something that’s not ready. They still need to develop an application form and process, for example.

Garfield noted that when the greenbelt program started, it was difficult to get the word out to the farming community, and to convey that the purchase of development rights was a viable transaction. He said that it might be challenging for NAPP to communicate to people, because that county program has been around for 10 years without the farmland component, and people might not know about the new focus on farmland. He encouraged Freeman to think about what kind of outreach would be effective.

Freeman acknowledged that it will be a challenge. People think about the program as buying undeveloped land, and purchasing it outright, he said. The purchase of development rights is a more complicated process.

Dan Ezekiel, GAC’s vice chair and a science teacher at Forsythe Middle School, said he considered Freeman to be his personal hero in the land preservation movement. He said he uses the county’s preserves quite frequently, and he wondered whether public access would be an element of the farmland preservation as well.

The county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, reviewed the ordinance changes, Freeman said, and determined that while public access doesn’t need to be provided at all times, there does need to be some provision for it. That might take the form of an annual open house, for example, or programs that would invite the public to see how a functioning farm works, and how it contributes to the local economy.

Freeman said he was glad that Ezekiel uses the county’s nature preserves, adding that the programs offered by the county’s naturalists are popular.

That comment prompted Gil Omenn to ask how many people attend such programs. It varies, Freeman said, but typically between 15 to a few dozen. You can also gauge usage by seeing cars in the parking lots – most of the preserves have a small gravel parking lot with about six spaces. That might not seem like a lot, Freeman said, but these natural areas aren’t designed like traditional parks. There aren’t restrooms, playgrounds or areas to picnic. The uses are more solitary, or for small groups to enjoy the natural land.

Omenn then asked about the two advisory groups, NATAC and ALPAC – was there overlapping membership? No, Freeman said. Each group has seven members, but there are none in common. Omenn then asked how communication would be coordinated. Freeman noted that this is still fairly new, but that county staff and the Legacy Land Conservancy will serve as a bridge between the groups. The Legacy Land Conservancy, based in Ann Arbor, is under contract with the county to provide support for ALPAC.

Ezekiel observed that the city’s greenbelt program and NAPP have had successful coordination over the years. In the past, Sylvia Taylor had served on both GAC and NATAC, he noted. [Taylor is a current member of NATAC, but no longer serves on GAC. Other NATAC members are Rane Curl, David Lutton, Tony Reznicek and John Russell.] Ezekiel said that a couple of positions on GAC will be opening soon as terms expire, and perhaps they could consider people who also serve on NATAC or ALPAC.

Freeman said they have two open positions now on NATAC – for a professional in land use planning, a slot formerly held by Peter Pollack, who died last year; and for an aquatic biologist, a category that Freeman said has been unfilled for quite a while.

Ezekiel noted that the greenbelt program has been a partner with the county in several properties, including the Fox Science Preserve, Meyer Preserve and Scio Woods Preserve. The partnership is a good fit, he said, because the city doesn’t want to hold title for property outside of Ann Arbor’s city limits. However, the greenbelt program can contribute funds, if another entity – like the county – takes ownership and management.

Ezekiel also praised the county’s decision to build an endowment for future stewardship needs, calling it critically important. All the literature on managing conservation easements indicates that the easement is just a piece of paper unless you have the funds to enforce it, he said. Ezekiel also said that greenbelt commissioners would be happy to attend a NATAC or ALPAC meeting to discuss their common issues and potential for collaboration.

Jennifer S. Hall, GAC’s chair, said the commission had several applications for the greenbelt program that might offer partnering opportunities with the county. She felt saw some urgency from the city’s perspective in talking with the county about these properties, before the county’s farmland program is publicized more broadly.

Freeman said his only concern is in communicating the program’s timeline to property owners – it was important to set realistic expectations about when the county would be soliciting applications. He recalled that when NAPP first started, landowners would call and expect to get an answer over the phone about whether the county would buy their property. It’s not that easy.

Carsten Hohnke, who also serves on Ann Arbor city council representing Ward 5, noted that there’s a lot of overlap between NAPP and the greenbelt program, including its mission and geography. Are there any administrative efficiencies that haven’t yet been explored between the two entities?

There might be some limiting factors to that, Freeman said. NAPP is a program authorized by the county board of commissioners, and from the board’s perspective, it’s useful to have county staff implementing their goals. Right now, their administrative costs are lean, he added. There might be opportunities for efficiencies in the review process, he suggested, as well as in long-term stewardship and management of the protected land. Freeman also said the Legacy Land Conservancy might have an expanded role with NAPP in the future.

Hohnke recommended having staff from the county and city explore those opportunities.

DNR Trust Fund Grants

Following Tom Freeman’s presentation and the discussion by commissioners, GAC chair Jennifer S. Hall asked him to talk about the county’s planned application for a Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Trust Fund grant.

Freeman reported that the grant would be for a 54-acre parcel now owned by DF Land Development, a unit of Domino’s Farms. The property, located in Ann Arbor Township, was nominated in 2009 as a potential addition to the county’s natural areas preservation program (NAPP). It’s attractive for several reasons, he said, including its proximity to three other areas of preserved land: the county’s Goodrich Preserve, a 36-acre parcel; the University of Michigan’s Horner-McLaughlin Woods, a 90-acre site that’s adjacent to Goodrich; and the 79-acre Marshall Nature Area at the northwest corner of Plymouth and Dixboro Roads, owned by the city of Ann Arbor. The property owned by DF Land Development is located immediately west of Marshall Nature Area, with frontage on Plymouth to the south and Ford Road to the north.

There are two types of trust fund grants available, Freeman explained – for development of specific projects, and for land acquisition. In this case, the county would be applying for land acquisition grants.

Freeman also noted that the parcel has been the subject of a certain amount of controversy between Domino’s and the township, including ongoing litigation. [At issue is a dispute over the township board's refusal to rezone the property for development.]

The property has water and sewer hook-ups, which makes it more expensive because it’s ready for development, though it’s currently zoned for agriculture. In 2009, the county hired Bosserd Appraisal Services to conduct an appraisal. Bosserd appraised the land at $1.9 million – or about $35,000 per acre – “which is a pretty stiff price,” Freeman said. [Minutes from the April 5, 2010 meeting of the county's natural areas technical advisory committee (NATAC) indicate that the per-acre price would be the highest the county has ever paid, and would be well above the average price of land acquired through NAPP.]

Then in January 2011, the county parks & recreation commission authorized staff to take steps towards applying for a grant through the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Trust Fund. The application process requires a second appraisal from a different firm. That second appraisal came back just last week, Freeman said, and assigned the land a value of $3.25 million. The higher appraisal is based in part on the township’s master plan, which identifies that land as having potential for development at three to six residential units per acre, Freeman said.

Tom Freeman

Tom Freeman, deputy director of Washtenaw County parks & recreation.

In addition, the township assessor recently determined that the property’s market value is $3.4 million – even higher than the second appraisal. The new appraisal and assessment were the subject of considerable debate at Tuesday night’s meeting of the county’s parks & recreation commission, he said.

Calling the valuation process very complicated, Freeman said he’s been involved in getting appraisals for previous trust fund applications, and has never encountered a greater disparity between two appraisals. It’s unclear what the state will do, he said.

At its Tuesday night meeting, the county parks & rec commission authorized the application for the trust fund grant. After it’s submitted, the state will review the application and provide preliminary feedback in June, with the opportunity for the applicant to revise and resubmit the application in August, Freeman said. Awards will be made at the end of the year.

Freeman noted that the county has received letters of support to include in the application from Bob Grese, director of UM’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum; Joan Martin of the Huron River Watershed Council; and Ann Arbor Township, which indicated a willingness to partner with some kind of financial contribution to the purchase. [Ann Arbor Township has a millage-funded land preservation program of its own.] Freeman said that during public commentary at Tuesday night’s meeting, Ann Arbor Township supervisor Mike Moran spoke to the parks & rec commission, and said the township doesn’t have any problem with taking the property off the tax rolls.

DNR Trust Fund Grants: Commissioner Discussion

Hall noted that GAC has previously considered this same parcel for inclusion in the greenbelt program, and commissioners have discussed how the city might be involved in preserving the land. They haven’t made any decisions, she said, but are waiting to see what opportunities there might be.

She then stated that she had a draft of a letter supporting the county’s application for a trust fund grant – she asked whether anyone would move to consider the letter, so that they could discuss it and take a vote.

Gil Omenn asked whether this would be more appropriate to discuss in a closed session. No, Hall replied, because they weren’t saying the city would provide a financial contribution or participate in the project. It was simply a letter supporting the application. She noted that they would need to act at that meeting, if they wanted to include the letter in the county’s application. The deadline to apply is April 1, and GAC’s next meeting is April 13.

Carsten Hohnke, a commissioner who also serves on city council, said that perhaps he missed the meeting when this letter had been drafted – when did that occur? Hall said that the letter had been drafted by staff earlier that day, in response to Tuesday night’s decision by the county parks & rec commission to apply.

So staff made the decision to draft the letter? Hohnke asked.

Freeman jumped in, saying that part of the application process includes soliciting letters of support. The county had contacted several people, including support staff for the city’s greenbelt program. The other letters they’ve received simply indicate that protecting the property is a good idea. The application process has been on a condensed timeline, he said, adding that he didn’t want to put city staff in a bad spot.

Hohnke then asked whether it was a request from the county that prompted staff to draft the letter. Yes, replied Ginny Trocchio, who provides support for the city’s greenbelt program under contract with The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit headquartered in the Washington D.C. area. Trocchio said she drafted the letter and sent it to Hall, as board chair.

Carsten Hohnke

Carsten Hohnke at the March 9, 2011 Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting. Hohnke also serves on Ann Arbor city council.

Hohnke said it was important to get input on this from the city’s planning staff. The DNR trust fund has limited resources, he said, and his understanding is that the number of other grants given within a geographical area is a consideration when funding is awarded. The city plans to apply for trust fund grants on two projects, Hohnke said, and the county’s application will dilute the chance for other projects in this area to get grants. The greenbelt commission needs to ensure that what they do is consistent and aligned with the city’s overall objectives, he concluded.

[Hohnke didn't indicate which projects the city would seek funding for. In response to a follow-up query from The Chronicle, Colin Smith – the city's parks & recreation manager – said they would seek grants for a skatepark and upgrades to the Gallup canoe livery and park.]

Hall noted that this isn’t the first time the commission has discussed this property. She said Hohnke made a good point, that the city should weigh this project against other city applications. But based on previous conversations, it seemed clear that this was a land preservation project they’d likely consider at some point.

It’s true that they’ve discussed this property, Hohnke said, but they hadn’t discussed a letter of support for the county’s grant application.

Dan Ezekiel clarified that the county needed all letters of support by March 31. He suggested that GAC make a recommendation to the city council to produce a letter of support at council’s next meeting, on March 21. Hall asked whether there’d be any problem getting that on the council’s agenda – Hohnke said if there were, he could bring it from the floor.

Ezekiel then moved a resolution recommending that the council produce a letter of support for the county’s grant application. Hohnke made a friendly amendment to change the word “produce” to “consider.” Hall noted that the letter would carry more weight coming from the council, and that this approach would address Hohnke’s concerns.

Omenn suggested asking the landowner for a contribution to the acquisition. Ezekiel wondered whether these grants had a requirement for local matching funds. They do, Freeman replied – a minimum requirement of 25%. That could come from the original landowner, individuals, or multiple partners, he said.

Ezekiel asked how the county intended to manage the property. He’d been out there, and had seen subtle differences in how the existing protected land – parcels owned by UM, the county, and the city – was maintained. In the city’s Marshall Nature Area, for example, there’s a path that’s unofficially used by mountain bikers. Freeman said they certainly wouldn’t support mountain biking on the property.

Catherine Riseng had concerns about the land’s cost and management. She noted that the property includes substantial areas filled with invasive species, which would require maintenance. Freeman replied that certain parts of the property would offer a greater return on their maintenance efforts. A top priority, for example, would be to maintain the areas that are pristine. Extending those optimal conditions to the rest of the property would take time and money, he acknowledged. The county has a burn crew, he said, and he noted that the city’s controlled burns in the Marshall Nature Area had been enormously successful.

Jennifer S. Hall

Jennifer S. Hall, chair of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission.

With her eye on the clock, Hall observed that they were simply recommending a letter of support for the grant application, and they could discuss the merits of the property and the greenbelt program’s possible participation at a later date.

Mike Garfield said he still had concerns about the price – he knew the city wasn’t offering financial support at this time, but the state grant funds were still public money. He wanted to hear the argument as to why protecting this property is in the best interest of this community and the county.

Hall agreed that the pricetag could be enormous, and she had reservations about paying that amount to these owners in particular. It doesn’t feel good to give that much money to an entity that’s had such problems with the township. However, the fact that it’s close to three existing parcels of protected land is a factor, she said. It’s also extremely close to the city boundary, and very visible. And the county has deemed it a high priority natural area.

What’s more, with its water and sewer hook-ups and its proximity to the city, the land is prime for development, Hall said. “It doesn’t seem that way now, but things could change very quickly” when the economy turns around, she said. If price weren’t a factor, they wouldn’t be arguing about it, she said. And having multiple partners involved would defray the cost.

Tom Bloomer asked if there were any requirement to pay the appraised value. Freeman explained that the state will pick an amount to award for the project, if it’s selected. At that point, the county will be in a position to negotiate with the landowner. NATAC identified this as a high-priority property, if partners could be found. Yes, the price will be high, Freeman said, but it will yield 275-300 acres connected across the four parcels, with trails through the entire area. “Trying to do that within an urban area is hard,” he said, noting that it took the county four separate purchases to create the 36-acre Goodrich Preserve.

Freeman also noted that Hohnke had raised the issue of the county competing with the city for grant funds, and he again clarified that there are two different pools: for the development of projects, and for land acquisition. The county is applying for land acquisition grant. The city’s two projects would apply for funds in the other category, he said.

Hohnke said that the question is how those two categories interact, when awards are being considered.

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to recommend that city council consider a letter of support for the county’s application for the DNR trust fund grant.

Tax Breaks for Farmers

Tom Bloomer, a greenbelt commissioner and farmer who owns Bur Oaks Farm in Webster Township, gave an update on proposed budget-related legislation that would affect local farmers.

The state’s Farmland Preservation Program – Public Act 116 – provides tax credits to farmers. Bloomer said that the state’s property taxes are “out of whack” and onerous for working farms, and the tax credits help ameliorate that burden.

Tom Bloomer

Tom Bloomer, a greenbelt commissioner and owner of Bur Oaks Farm in Webster Township. He's concerned about a proposal to eliminate tax credits for farms.

As part of his overhaul of the state’s business tax, Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed eliminating most tax credits. The change would not only affect the high profile tax credits for the film industry, but also tax credits for a range of other areas, including brownfield redevelopment, historic preservation, advanced battery production and farmland.

Bloomer said that while he understood the motivation behind the move, the unintended consequence would be that agriculture would be impractical in the urban fringe, because of high property values and high taxes. He said it might shock people to know that in Superior Township, for example, taxes are in excess of $200 per acre. “That makes it unprofitable to farm,” he said.

One of the goals of the Ann Arbor greenbelt is to promote local agriculture through farmland preservation, he noted. Eliminating the tax credits makes it just that much harder to do, he said. “It would set us way back as a state in terms of our promotion of agriculture as an industry.” Bloomer urged fellow commissioners and the public to contact their state legislators about the issue.

Jennifer S. Hall asked Bloomer to consider drafting a few bullet points about the tax credits for commissioners to discuss at their April meeting – they could possibly send a letter to legislators outlining their concerns.

Greenbelt Boundary Subcommittee

Dan Ezekiel gave an update from the subcommittee that’s looking at possible changes to the greenbelt boundaries. The subcommittee was formed at GAC’s November 2010 meeting. Chaired by Ezekiel, other members include commissioners Gil Omenn and Mike Garfield.

The subcommittee met in February, and looked at large maps prepared by Peg Kohring and Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund, which is under contract with the city to staff the greenbelt program. The maps showed the existing boundaries, and highlighted properties that were 40 acres or larger. The group had a wide-ranging, free-wheeling discussion about the location of boundaries in each township, Ezekiel reported, and talked about possible recommendations that might eventually be forwarded to GAC, then the city council.

He said they’d like to meet again and include Carsten Hohnke in the discussion – Hohnke is both a greenbelt commissioner and a city councilmember representing Ward 5. It would be good to get Hohnke’s input, Ezekiel said, since it would be pointless to propose something that the city council would be likely to just throw out.

Closed Session: Land Acquisition

The commission went into closed session to discuss land acquisition. After about 50 minutes in closed session, they returned to open session and immediately adjourned.

Present: Tom Bloomer, Dan Ezekiel, Mike Garfield, Jennifer S. Hall, Carsten Hohnke, Gil Omenn, Catherine Riseng, Laura Rubin.

Absent: Peter Allen.

Next meeting: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 4:30 p.m. at the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners boardroom, 220 N. Main, Ann Arbor. [confirm date]