Park, Greenbelt Advisory Groups Share Goals

Allen Creek greenway, small farm issues discussed

Joint working session of the Ann Arbor park and greenbelt advisory commissions (June 7, 2011): Even with a fan blowing, the meeting room at Gallup Park was hot and stuffy. But members of the city’s greenbelt and park advisory commissions toughed it out for about 90 minutes to hold their second-ever joint working session earlier this month.

Peter Allen, Julie Grand, Ella and Jennifer Santi Hall, Dan Ezekiel

From left: Peter Allen, Julie Grand, Ella and Jennifer Santi Hall, Dan Ezekiel. Grand is chair of the park advisory commission. Allen, Hall and Ezekiel are greenbelt advisory commissioners. Jennifer Hall has served as GAC chair, but her term is ending on the commission – this was her last meeting. Ella Hall also had attended the first GAC meeting with her mother seven years ago – she was three weeks old at the time. (Photo by the writer.)

They covered many of the same topics that they’d discussed at their first joint meeting in April 2010 – funding issues, land preservation and acquisition strategies, as well as specific projects like the Allen Creek greenway and support for small farms.

Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund, which has a contract to manage the greenbelt and park land acquisition programs, gave commissioners an overview of finances, projects and goals. Both programs are funded by a 30-year, 0.5 mill tax for land acquisition, called the open space and parkland preservation millage, which Ann Arbor voters approved in 2003. Two-thirds of the millage proceeds are used for the greenbelt program, and one-third is allotted to park land acquisition. To get money upfront for land acquisition, the city took out a $20 million bond in fiscal 2006 that’s being paid back with revenue from the millage. Current combined fund balances for the two programs total nearly $9 million.

Trocchio also highlighted an upcoming event to celebrate the greenbelt program. On Thursday, June 16, an open house will be hosted at the Braun farm – one of the program’s protected properties in Ann Arbor Township. The event is free and open to the public, and starts at 5:30 p.m. – parking is available at 4175 Whitmore Lake Road.

At the end of the June 7 meeting, commissioners congratulated two GAC members for their service – it was the final meeting for Gil Omenn and Jennifer Santi Hall, who has served as chair. Their terms expire June 30, and it’s not clear when appointments to replace them will be made.

Greenbelt Program: Overview

Trocchio began with an update on the greenbelt program. To date, $17.86 million has been spent on the program – she noted that three greenbelt deals have closed in the last few weeks. [The deals are for the Lee and Lori Maulbetsch property in Northfield Township, and two properties – in Northfield Township and Salem Township – owned by Nancy and Rose Geiger.] Subtracting $769,580 that’s been earmarked for pending projects, that leaves an unallocated fund balance of $4,826,465.

Trocchio reviewed the greenbelt program’s strategic plan, which provides a framework for reviewing applications. [.pdf of strategic plan] Key elements include:

  • Targeting properties that: (1) help form 1,000-acre blocks of protected land; (2) work with partners whenever possible; (3) protect land along the Huron River; and (4) support local foods.
  • Leveraging the city’s greenbelt funds by partnering with other governments or land preservation groups. Trocchio noted that the city is part of Preserve Washtenaw, a consortium of land preservation groups that meets monthly.
  • Focusing on the purchase of development rights (PDR). The millage funds can only be used for acquisition, not land management or development. By buying development rights, the city doesn’t own the land itself, but prevents it from being developed.
  • Partnering with Washtenaw County. The city has done three deals with the county, via the Washtenaw County natural areas preservation program (NAPP): the Fox Science PreserveMeyer Preserve and Scio Woods Preserve. It’s a good partnership, Trocchio said, because the county takes on the role of managing the land, and provides public access to the properties. The greenbelt program contributes funds for acquisition.

In outlining the program’s accomplishments, Trocchio said that they’ve achieved a 1,000-acre block of protected land in two locations: Webster and Ann Arbor townships. Each deal has included contributions from partners or grant funding – amounting to at least 20% of the PDR price. And while so far, none of the greenbelt properties are along the Huron River, land protected under the program does include tributaries of the river, she said.

Since the program started, 27 transactions have been completed and 3,200 acres have protected under the program, Trocchio reported.

Pointing to the fact that about 3,200 acres of land is now protected, Dan Ezekiel, GAC’s vice chair, put the size of these greenbelt properties into perspective, noting that not everyone has an intuitive feel for the amount of acreage being described. One square mile equals 640 acres, he said, so 3,200 acres would be five square miles. Burns Park and Veterans Memorial Park are each about 40 acres – the greenbelt has protected the equivalent of about 80 such places, he said.

The city has spent $17.86 million, but leveraged an additional $18.59 million, Trocchio reported – including $9.38 million in grant funding, $4.1 million in township funds, $2.76 million from Washtenaw County and $2.2 million in landowner contributions.

Now is a great time for farmland preservation, Trocchio said, because land values have dropped, allowing the city to stretch its greenbelt dollars. Because of the economic downturn, there’s also less competition from developers vying for the same properties, which contributes to lower land costs.

There are also increased partnership opportunities with Washtenaw County, Trocchio said. Last year, the county board of commissioners amended its NAPP ordinance to include a stronger emphasis on agricultural land – now, up to 25% of the NAPP millage can be spent on the purchase of development rights on agricultural properties. [For more background, see Chronicle coverage: "Greenbelt, County Look to Partner on Farms"]

In addition, several townships also have land preservation millages, including Webster, Scio and Ann Arbor townships. While much of that funding is already used, it’s likely the township millages be on the ballot for renewal in 2012 or 2013, Trocchio said.

Greenbelt: Commissioner Discussion – Acquisitions

Referring to a map from Trocchio’s presentation, John Lawter of PAC wondered why the greenbelt hadn’t focused on acquisitions on the west side of the county. The map had highlighted areas that GAC views as priorities, and included Webster and northern Scio townships, Northfield and Ann Arbor townships, Salem and Superior townships, a portion of Pittsfield Township, and Lodi Township.

Greenbelt map

This map shows boundaries of the Ann Arbor greenbelt program, in green. The city of Ann Arbor boundaries are in yellow. Sections outlined in pink are viewed as priority locations for land preservation.

GAC chair Jennifer Santi Hall said that some of the townships that were highlighted as a focus were those that had passed land preservation millages – those funds helped leverage greenbelt money in buying development rights. The prioritized areas also reflected interest on the part of landowners, she said.

Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund noted another factor – the size of properties available for the greenbelt. The greenbelt program tries to tap federal funding when possible, and those funds have been limited to deals on property that was a minimum of 40 acres. The focus areas are also in portions of the county that are not densely developed, where it’s feasible to build 1,000-acre blocks.

Dan Ezekiel of GAC pointed out that the greenbelt program has contributed to deals in building a 1,000-acre block of protected land in Salem and Superior townships, in partnership with others. He also noted that Pittsfield Township has protected a significant block of land on its own – known as the Pittsfield Preserve.

Lawter wanted clarification that properties in the west could be considered for the greenbelt program – it’s just that the area isn’t a priority. GAC commissioners assured him that this was the case.

Greenbelt: Commissioner Discussion – Property Values

Sam Offen of PAC wondered what happens to township taxes when properties are added to the greenbelt – do the townships get less tax revenue? Kohring said that in most cases, conservation easements haven’t affected taxable value.

Kohring said the land’s market value does take a dip when a landowner sells the property’s development rights. With development rights, farmland or open space might be valued on the market at $8,000 per acre – that value might drop to $5,000 per acre after development rights are transferred.

Offen wondered if the taxable value increases when property changes hands, even if the development rights have been sold. Peter Allen, a local developer and member of GAC, said that depends on the underlying value of the land itself, which can’t be developed. In general, Allen observed that the value of developable farmland has dropped significantly in recent years, from around $16,000 per acre. He believes some land that was intended for subdivisions might actually revert to farmland, because of market forces. Tim Berla of PAC noted that the land might be more valuable if it’s located next to protected land.

Kohring observed that development values continue to fall: “We have not hit bottom yet.” Allen agreed, citing the oversupply of housing that was built in the boom years. In Superior Township, for example, there’s at least a 15-year supply of housing, he said. That’s coupled with a cultural shift away from home ownership, and excitement about living in an urban area. “I think the American Dream has fundamentally change,” Allen said.

Tim Doyle of PAC said some people might view this situation and say there’s no need for land preservation – it’s being taken care of by market forces. That’s a challenge of perception, he said. Ezekiel noted that the best time to do this kind of preservation work is when land values are low.

Offen asked if there was any financial value to the development rights that the city owns. No, Trocchio said – it’s considered a liability, in part because it requires a certain amount of enforcement by the city.

Greenbelt: Commissioner Discussion – Publicizing the Greenbelt

Doyle asked how property is identified for inclusion in the greenbelt – do property owners approach the city, or does the city staff solicit property owners? Both, Trocchio said. Doyle indicated that it might be time to revitalize public awareness about the greenbelt. Since the millage was passed, there’s been some population turnover, and others who were here at the time might have forgotten about the program, he said.

At the start of the greenbelt program, the farming community wasn’t aware of it, Trocchio said. Now, she’s seen an increase in applications from landowners.

Hall felt there’s a greater awareness of the greenbelt program outside of Ann Arbor, especially since some townships also have land preservation programs now. To raise awareness among Ann Arbor residents, the city held a bus tour of greenbelt properties last summer, and will hold an open house on June 16 at the Braun farm in Ann Arbor Township.

They’re also trying to make the connection between Ann Arbor taxpayers and their local food supply, Hall said. [See Chronicle coverage: "Leveling the Field for Small Farms"] Offen asked if farmers whose land is part of the greenbelt program sell food at the Ann Arbor farmers market. At this point, most of the farmers market vendors own farms outside of the greenbelt boundaries, Hall said. Trocchio added that land values closer to the city are higher, so it’s harder for small farms to make a financially viable business. Some farmers also prefer to sell wholesale to restaurants and groceries. And larger farms typically produce crops like grains and soybeans, which aren’t sold at farmers markets.

Ezekiel pointed to another issue with publicizing the program: Its name. People often confuse “greenbelt” and “greenway,” he said, or they think the “belt” implies a no-development zone encircling the city. He would have preferred the term “emerald necklace.”

There’s also an existential problem, Ezekiel noted. The greenbelt already exists – the program is simply trying to protect it. “When we do our work well, nothing changes, that anyone can see,” he said. “Our work by its nature is under the radar.”

Parkland Acquisition: Overview

In her update to commissioners on the parkland portion of the millage, Trocchio reported that $8,538,304 has been spent as of Dec. 31, 2010, leaving a $4,369,415 fund balance. Of that, $246,000 is set aside for pending projects.

Trocchio highlighted changes related to land acquisition in the city’s Parks & Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan, which was updated earlier this year. Priorities include identifying underserved neighborhoods, where residents aren’t within a quarter-mile walk to a park. After using GIS data to find geographic locations that fit this description, PAC members went out and researched these areas to assess the need, Trocchio said. For example, although Dolph Park is located on the city’s far west side, it doesn’t include a playground area – that’s a need for residents in that part of town. “But for the most part,” Trocchio said, “the city is being very well-served.”

Conversations about parkland acquisition tend to revolve around enhancing what the city already owns, she said – enhancing access, linkages between parks, and greenways. One example is the recent acquisition of a lot on Chapin Street, adjacent to West Park. The house on that property was removed, and now there’s much more visibility of the park from that street.

Another goal is to protect the Huron River and other natural features, Trocchio said. Proposed acquisitions and improvements outlined in the PROS plan show plans for a Huron River greenway, for example.

The parks portion of the shared millage is focused on land within the city limits, Trocchio said. She also outlined several issues that factor into land acquisition decisions, including budget constraints for development and long-term maintenance of parkland, and concerns over taking city property off the tax rolls.

Parkland: Commissioner Discussion – Allen Creek Greenway

Peter Allen asked PAC members what it would take to make the Allen Creek greenway happen. Gwen Nystuen said that as a start, the city needs to designate three parcels that it owns – at 415 W. Washington, First & William, and 721 N. Main – to be part of the greenway. That hasn’t been authorized, she said.

Sam Offen observed that with those anchor properties established as part of a greenway, it would be easier to get momentum for other properties that would connect them. Julie Grand, PAC’s chair, said they’ve prioritized properties for a possible greenway, including some along the river. But until the city decides what to do with the properties it already owns, there’s no point in talking with landowners about a possible sale, she said.

Jennifer Hall asked what it would take procedurally to get things moving. When Nystuen said it would take the city designating its three properties for a greenway, Hall noted that the city council has already done that for the parcel at First and William. [In July 2009, council passed a resolution designating the city-owned parcel at the northeast corner of First and William as open space. And in February 2010, the council passed a resolution to explore a "greenway park and arts center" at 415 W. Washington. Council received an update on that effort at its April 4, 2011 meeting.]

Grand observed that the First and William parcel would require a lot of remediation. [It's now used as a surface parking lot. The 2009 resolution called for the city to seek additional funds for environmental remediation.]

John Lawter said that nothing has emerged as an opportunity for the greenway, but it’s still a priority.

Later in the meeting, Allen returned to the topic. He outlined how easements might be acquired from property owners between 415 W. Washington and the Huron River – he felt that the YMCA, located across the street from 415 W. Washington, would sell an easement to the city for land it owns next to the railroad. Another property owner, who Allen said owns unbuildable land along the railroad from Miller to Felch, might be convinced to sell an easement – just dangle a big check in front of the man, Allen advised.

Hall asked whether the city had ever done PDRs or conservation easements. That’s not an approach they use, Kohring said – landowners in the city don’t want the liability. For city parkland, the city purchases the property outright, she said.

Parkland: Commissioner Discussion – Border-to-Border Trail

The conversation segued into a discussion of the border-to-border trail, an effort to create a contiguous east/west path for bikes and pedestrians across the county. Nystuen said the path still needs work, especially along the Huron River section. Allen asked if anyone had spoken with MichCon about the riverfront property it owns near Argo, which is now vacant. There’s been no movement on that, Nystuen said, noting that it was the most polluted site in the county.

Hall asked whether there was any legal crossing of the railroad tracks in that area for parks users. This has been an ongoing concern, and is highlighted in the PROS plan:

Throughout the City, the railroad tracks cut off access to the river parks. At two locations, Gallup Park and Argo Pond, the City has procured easements from the railroad to construct non-motorized trails; however, access to these trails is limited as the railroad will not allow additional at-grade crossings. Challenges associated with accessing the river and parkland safely are ongoing as the desire to connect trails along greenways adjacent to the railroads and the popularity of these trails continues to increase. As discussion of a high speed rail gains momentum, safe railroad crossings will become more important for park access.

Later in the PROS plan, in the section outlining infrastructure needs, an item on trails and greenways cites a specific location as a priority:

At-grade crossings at railroads have been difficult to secure. A safe, legal, public crossing at Lakeshore Drive into Bandemer Park is a high priority. As discussions to turn the Norfolk Southern rail line into a high speed corridor continue, securing these public crossings is crucial and needs to be addressed in the short term.

At the June joint PAC/GAC meeting, Tim Berla said that various approaches had been explored, such as building a tunnel under the tracks. The pricetag for one crossing was $2 million, he recalled.

Hall expressed frustration that other communities are able to build overpasses or find other ways of traversing railroad tracks. Why does it seem impossible to do in Ann Arbor – is it just the money? That’s much of it, Berla replied. He felt it was possible that a crossing would be built within the next five years, but added that there’s a long list of other projects too, including a skatepark.

Offen noted that often, these kinds of projects get rolled into larger efforts, like road or bridge reconstruction. Tim Doyle observed that other communities might have been able to build their greenways with federal and state transportation funding. “That’s where the really big bucks are – moving cars.”

Allen speculated that the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT) might acquire the Ann Arbor Railroad, which owns the tracks running through the city. He indicated that an ownership change might facilitate future projects.

Parkland: Commissioner Discussion – Stormwater Management

Dan Ezekiel noted that the city recently had a “good rain event.” He recalled that he’d been around in the 1960s when heavy rains burst the Dixboro dam. The rain had also caused flooding in the city’s Old West Side, along the Allen Creek floodway. It seemed there was less flooding this time, he said.

The water features in the newly renovated West Park seem to be working, he said, and the Argo dam held up. The rain has put some of their stormwater management ideas to the test, he said, but things seem to be working.

Parkland: Commissioner Discussion – Future Plans

In looking ahead, Nystuen characterized PAC’s priorities as “more green, and more trees.” She also cited the need for another dog park, completion of trails along the Huron River, and work on a greenway.

Grand noted that while they can’t create a whole swath of land running through the downtown, they might be able to do things to increase access to existing parkland, like building more and better trails between parcels.

Nystuen suggested that the next joint meeting include representatives from the county’s natural areas preservation program, because the city will likely be partnering more with them in the future.

Tenure Ending for Hall, Omenn

This was the last meeting for two greenbelt advisory commissioners – Gil Omenn, and Jennifer Santi Hall, who has served as chair.

At the end of the meeting, GAC vice chair Dan Ezekiel praised Hall and Omenn for their service – they received a round of applause from the group. Ezekiel noted that the commission needs members to take their place, as well as someone to serve as an officer. [GAC members will vote on a new chair at their July 13 meeting, and it's expected that Ezekiel will be elected to that role. That would leave a vacancy for vice chair.]

Hall noted that both she and Omenn are at-large members. Unlike some of the other GAC slots, which are designated for certain professions like a real estate developer or farmer, the at-large members are open to anyone. The term runs for three years, and members can serve two consecutive terms. Hall urged anyone who’s interested in volunteering to contact their Ann Arbor city councilmember. Unlike most other city commissions, in which members are nominated by the mayor and confirmed by council, greenbelt commissioners are nominated by city council. Hall said she hadn’t heard whether any nominations were in the works so far.

Hall’s daughter Ella attended the June 7 meeting as well, and earlier Hall noted that Ella had been in the same room seven years ago when GAC first convened. Ella had been three weeks old at the time, Hall said – she turned seven this month. “She was with me then,” Hall said, “and I’m glad she’s here with me today.”

Present – park advisory commission: Dave Barrett, Tim Berla, Doug Chapman, Tim Doyle, Julie Grand, John Lawter, Karen Levin, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen. Present – greenbelt advisory commission: Peter Allen, Dan Ezekiel, Jennifer Santi Hall, Gil Omenn, Catherine Riseng. Staff: Peg Kohring, Ginny Trocchio.

None of the city council representatives serving on these commissions – Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) on GAC, and PAC ex-officio members Christopher Tayler (Ward 3) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5) – attended.

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One Comment

  1. By Dan Ezekiel
    June 17, 2011 at 11:44 pm | permalink

    Terrific article, Mary. I don’t know how you do it. I read your articles to find out what we did!