Greenbelt Group Briefed on Pittsfield Plan

Also: Salem Twp. board allocates funds for land preservation

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Aug. 10, 2011): Possible partnerships with other local communities – including Pittsfield and Salem townships – were the focus of this month’s greenbelt advisory commission (GAC) meeting.

Paul Montagno, Anissa Bowden

Pittsfield Township planner Paul Montagno helps Anissa Bowden of the Ann Arbor city clerk's staff set up his presentation for the greenbelt advisory commission at its Aug. 10, 2011 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Township planner Paul Montagno briefed commissioners on Pittsfield Township’s updated master plan, which the township board approved late last month. Specifically, he focused on the section concerning open space, natural features and agricultural land use. He described efforts to balance denser development along corridors like State Road and Michigan Avenue while protecting more rural land, especially in the central and southern parts of the township.

Pittsfield Township has partnered with Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program on just one property – the Hilton farm, near the township’s large Pittsfield Preserve nature area. However, Montagno indicated that township officials are open to future land preservation deals with the greenbelt.

Also during the Aug. 10 meeting, Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund, which manages Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program, reported that the previous day, the Salem Township board had approved an ordinance that created a purchase of development rights (PDR) program, and allocated $200,000 annually for land preservation. GAC is considering possible expansion of the greenbelt boundaries, including an expansion in Salem Township. The boundary proposal was discussed at the commission’s July meeting, and will be on the agenda again in September.

The commission took one formal vote on Wednesday, after emerging from a closed session to discuss land acquisition. Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution recommending that city council move forward with application 2010-09 if at least 50% matching funds are secured. Properties are identified only by application number at this stage, and the resolution did not indicate what type of land acquisition this would entail. Typically, greenbelt monies are spent on the purchase of development rights (PDR).

There is currently one vacancy on GAC. Shannon Brines, owner of Brines Farm and a member of the city’s public market advisory commission, attended Wednesday’s meeting and expressed interest in applying for the seat. Nominations to GAC are made and approved by the city council.

Pittsfield Township Land Preservation

Paul Montagno, a planner for Pittsfield Township, gave a brief presentation about land preservation efforts in the township, primarily as reflected in its recently updated 2010 master plan. Township supervisor Mandy Grewal had been scheduled to attend, but could not because of an unexpected conflict, he said.

The township’s final plan was adopted by the township board at its July 27, 2011 meeting. Among several components is a category for open space, natural features and agriculture. [.pdf of master plan section on open space, natural features and agriculture]

The township has its feet in many worlds, Montagno said. It’s near urban areas like Ann Arbor to the north, Saline to the southwest, and Ypsilanti to the east. But in many areas, Pittsfield Township is a rural community, and shares borders with other rural townships. There are a variety of land uses in the township – areas of density along corridors like State Road, Carpenter Road and Michigan Avenue, as well as rural areas that should be preserved. “Ultimately, what we’re looking at is a balance,” he said.

Pittsfield Township density heat map

A "heat map" of development in Pittsfield Township – red and orange areas indicate denser commercial and residential development. Areas in the center and southern parts of the township include more open space, natural features and agricultural land. (Links to larger image)

The goal is to alleviate pressure on rural areas by focusing development along existing commercial and residential corridors – areas that already have water/sewer access and transportation, or that would be logical extensions of those existing corridors. The inverse of that is to look at agricultural and natural areas – primarily in the center and southern parts of the township – and find ways to preserve that land.

For each of the master plan’s key concepts, the plan identifies specific goals and then more detailed objectives to achieve those goals, Montagna said. Now that the plan has been officially adopted, he added, “the real work begins.”

Montagna reviewed the goals for the key concept of open space, natural features and agriculture:

  • Encourage the protection of agricultural lands that are most productive and suited to agricultural operations, and implement policies that provide additional protection.
  • Create connections between natural areas and protect significant viewsheds.
  • Promote natural resources protection on a local and regional level in a planned and strategic manner.
  • Ensure that development decisions support, protect and enhance the natural environments and ecosystems in the township.

As part of the plan’s implementation, updating the township’s zoning ordinances is a major project. The township will be looking for ways to support and promote agriculture, Montagno said. That might include things like allowing for a greater number of farm stands or activities like corn mazes. While not directly agricultural land use, he said, these uses would help make farming more economically viable.

Montagno concluded his presentation by noting that the final version of the master plan would be posted on the township’s website later in the week.

Pittsfield Township: Commissioner Discussion

Peter Allen asked if the Ann Arbor greenbelt program had partnered with Pittsfield on any land preservation efforts. Just one, Montagno said – the Hilton farm, about 90 acres at the corner of Morgan and Platt roads, near the township’s large Pittsfield Preserve. Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund, which manages the greenbelt program, confirmed that there are no other potential deals in the pipeline.

Mike Garfield asked whether the township envisioned having funds for a purchase of development rights (PDR) program in the future. Montagno said the township would look at possible tools, like the PDR, to pursue land preservation. They had no specific plans now, he said, but those are among the implementation goals of the township’s master plan.

Garfield followed up by asking whether the township would consider making a financial contribution to a deal, if a project were presented. Montagno indicated that budgets are tight, but said he didn’t want to say no. As a policy, the township would work with programs like the greenbelt or Legacy Land Conservancy on land preservation projects, he said.

Saying he’d heard rumors that some people in the township want to see currently protected property open for development, Garfield also wanted to know if there was any truth to that. Montagno said he wasn’t aware of that, although during the process of updating the master plan, he said township officials felt pressure to change some areas that were zoned for lower density uses – some people wanted areas rezoned for more commercial uses.

Garfield praised the township for its land preservation work over the last 10-20 years, especially in the center of the township. The township has created a remarkable buffer between the rural areas and the cities of Ann Arbor, Saline and Ypsilanti, he said. The greenbelt commissioners had been happy to partner on the Hilton property, Garfield said, and if there are other opportunities, GAC would like to participate.

Montagno responded by saying that a major part of the master plan had been an emphasis on connectivity. While Garfield had characterized it as a buffer, the township doesn’t want to create barriers, Montagno said. So township officials are also looking for ways to connect residents to the preserved land – things like low-intensity roads through some of the preserves and gravel parking lots with bioswales for stormwater management. Providing a certain amount of access will enhance the popularity of land preservation, he said.

Tom Bloomer, a GAC member and Webster Township farmer, noted that one of the objectives listed under the goal of protecting agricultural lands is to balance the rights of farmers and adjacent residential property owners. What did that mean? Bloomer asked.

Montagno said the township wants to make sure that property uses next to agricultural lands are appropriate. There can be tensions between residential developments and farms, he said. A farm’s dust, odors and hours of operation might conflict with residents of a housing development, for example, and whenever possible there should be a natural buffer between the two types of land uses.

With no further questions from commissioners, Montagno wrapped up by saying the township definitely wanted to partner with Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program in the future.

Misc. Communications

Ginny Trocchio told commissioners that Shannon Brines, an Ann Arbor resident and owner of Brines Farm in Dexter, had come to the meeting after expressing interest in a vacancy that’s available on the commission.

Shannon Brines

Shannon Brines, owner of Brines Farm, is interested in the vacancy on the greenbelt advisory commission, and attended its Aug. 10 meeting.

Brines came to the podium and spoke briefly, telling commissioners that he kept up with their work by reading minutes as well as Ann Arbor Chronicle meeting reports. The commission’s work is important, he said: “You have followers.”

Brines said he started working at the University of Michigan in 1998 – he is manager of the environmental spatial analysis (ESA) lab at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. He does a lot of work with GIS mapping, helping researchers and students on land use and other issues. Brines also is a lecturer at UM, and said there might be some occasions when his courses conflicted with GAC meetings.

Brines started his farm in 2004. It’s located outside the greenbelt boundary, he noted, and also would fall outside of the proposed expansion of its boundaries. Though he sells produce year-round at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, Brines said he’s best known for his hoop house produce, selling greens from November through May.

This was not mentioned at the meeting, but since 2007 Brines also has served on the city’s public market advisory commission, which handles issues related to the farmers market. His current term on that commission ends in 2014.

Peter Allen encouraged Brines to apply for a position on GAC, saying his point of view and background would be a valuable addition.

Two vacancies opened on GAC earlier this year. Liz Rother was appointed by the city council in June to replace term-limited Jennifer Santi Hall. The remaining vacancy is an at-large slot, held by former GAC member Gil Omenn. For most city commissions, members are nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council. However, greenbelt commissioners are both nominated and confirmed by the city council.

Misc. Communications: Salem Township

Trocchio reported that on Tuesday, the Salem Township board had approved an ordinance that created a purchase of development rights (PDR) program, and allocated $200,000 annually for land preservation. She said she looked forward to partnering with the township in the future.

GAC is considering possible expansion of the greenbelt boundaries, including an expansion in Salem Township. The proposal was discussed at the commission’s July meeting, and will be on the agenda again in September. Any changes recommended by GAC would need approval by the Ann Arbor city council before taking effect. Since the Open Space and Parkland Preservation millage was approved by voters in 2003, the council has expanded the boundaries once, in August 2007, by bumping out the boundary by a mile.

Closed Session: Land Acquisition

Commissioners voted to enter into closed session to discuss land acquisitions, and emerged after about 40 minutes. Land acquisition is one of the few exceptions under the Open Meetings Act that allow for discussion out of public view. Commissioners then voted on a resolution to recommend that the city council move forward with application 2010-09 if at least 50% matching funds are secured. The resolution did not indicate what type of land acquisition this would entail. Typically, greenbelt monies are spent on the purchase of development rights (PDR).

Properties are identified only by application number at this stage. The location of the properties and their owners aren’t revealed until the resolutions are voted on by the city council.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the land acquisition recommendation.

Present: Peter Allen, Tom Bloomer, Mike Garfield, Catherine Riseng, Liz Rother, Laura Rubin. Also: Ginny Trocchio.

Absent: Dan Ezekiel, Carsten Hohnke.

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 4:30 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]

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  1. By Allan Feldt
    August 15, 2011 at 9:52 am | permalink

    While I am very impressed with the success of Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt program including its positive effect on the rest of the county, it seems a shame that there is so little support for the effort to place a small spot of greenery in downtown An n Arbor to recreate the green space we lost when the old county court house was demolished in the 1950s.

    We have the chance to add some green downtown by developing a rooftop green space on top of the underground parking structure being build on Fifth Avenue. It can be call the Library Green. Admittedly, we probably cannot afford a full fledged park like the Boston Commons above our parking structure but certainly if Big George’s Appliances can put a green roof on their structure, Ann Arbor should be able to pupt a green roof on top of its newest parking structure – and put it at ground level where we all can see and enjoy it.

  2. By Leah Gunn
    August 16, 2011 at 7:00 am | permalink

    That piece of property, located where the County Building is now, at the corner of Huron and Ann, was called “A Little Park for a Little While”. It had a path and a picnic table and a lawn. However, the county had to fence it off because it became a haven for drug deals and other unacceptable behavior. It may seem like a good idea, but it won’t work. The parking structure has a very large storm water retention system buried below it, which serves not only the structure, but any future development surrounding it. So it is already “green”. The top of the structure will be, temporarily, surface parking, by resolution of City COuncil.

  3. By abc
    August 16, 2011 at 8:56 am | permalink

    @2 (sort of)

    Huron and Ann are parallel. Might you mean the corner of Main and Ann; there is a lot there. Actually there are two parking lots on that corner but one is private.

    But then maybe you meant Fourth and Ann, again there is a big one and a little one and again the little one is private.

    Or maybe you meant Huron and Ashley. Now that corner has lots of parking lots. As does Huron & 1st, and 1st & Washington. But then again you could have meant 5th & Huron where yet another corner lot exists.

    It sure seems that Ann Arbor has a lot of corner parking lots. And I clearly need to find that guide to urban planning that suggests that the key to a successful downtown is to provide asphalt parking on most corner lots.

  4. By Tom Whitaker
    August 16, 2011 at 9:34 am | permalink

    @2: There is nothing “green” about building a massive underground car warehouse and installing huge plastic tanks beneath it to collect, and eventually drain rainwater (and possibly groundwater) to the stormwater system. “Green” would be allowing this rainwater to be directly absorbed by plants and trees which would provide at least a little oxygen production that might put a small dent in the huge greenhouse gas emissions being vented out of this concrete monolith.

    Honestly, the scare tactics being used against any consideration of a public space at this location are ridiculous. Even the most ardent supporters of a huge development on top of this structure are calling for a significant portion to be dedicated to a public plaza of some kind. Will this plaza not have the same potential to attract undesirable behavior if not designed and managed properly?

  5. By Tom Whitaker
    August 16, 2011 at 9:39 am | permalink

    For that matter, won’t a surface parking lot also require security to ward off crime, panhandling, and other issues? In fact, there are many more places to hide and misbehave among the vehicles in a surface parking lot than there are in a wide-open plaza or park.

  6. By Allan Feldt
    August 16, 2011 at 9:40 am | permalink

    Before the current county court house was built, there was an older courthouse with a fairly spacious front lawn which served as a gathering place for various community events, speeches etc. When the new courthouse was built during the 1950s, it was built around the old courthouse, out to the sidewalks. As the new building was completed, furniture and equipment from the old courthouse was transferred directly to the new one, sometimes through adjacent windows. Then the old courthouse was torn down leaving what was is now an interior parking lot. Thus the last public green space in downtown Ann Arbor disappeared.

    A number of citizens would like the roof of the fifth avenue parking lot to become some kind of public space gracing the center of Ann Arbor once again. By “green” we mean both ecologically green in terms of water retention, carbon footprint etc. as well as the color green as in vegetation, etc. It seems to some of us that Common Council is being short sighted in throwing away this unique opportunity to enhance our downtown in exchange for a few additional parking spaces and more asphalt and concrete, however well drained.

  7. August 16, 2011 at 10:07 am | permalink

    The “little park for a little while” was at the corner of Main and Ann, where the newish county building (the Clerk, Treasurer, etc.) stands. The old Salvation Army thrift store was bought by the county and demolished to leave that space. It was the site of a homeless tent city (as a demonstration, I think) briefly before the county landscaped it to make a very pleasant little park with benches and small trees. That was used for several years by the African-American celebration and I don’t recall vagrants being a major problem.

    We have a task force and other programs to deal with panhandlers and the homeless. I think that some allergic reaction remains from the way Liberty Plaza was taken over at one point, and the Library had some problems when there was a very large population of needy people housed in the old Y. But I’m getting tired of the knee-jerk response that any open space immediately becomes a hazard because of undesirables. Unfortunately, the director and some AADL board members have taken this position. The key is to have a space that all of us use. Traffic is what makes open places safe. People traffic, I mean, not cars. An open space with opportunities for both organized and individual activities is characteristic of all great cities.

  8. By Eric Boyd
    August 16, 2011 at 11:00 am | permalink

    Although I otherwise always support the development of parks in Ann Arbor, the argument for a “downtown park” has never resonated with me, even though I used to live and work downtown. Even when I worked across the street, I never felt the need to use Liberty Square.

    In trying to figure out why, I think the reason is that I think of the Diag and area in front of Rackham as “Ann Arbor’s downtown greenspace.” As such, the argument for increased density and downtown development resonate much more strongly with me then the proposal for greenspace next to the library.

  9. August 16, 2011 at 1:08 pm | permalink

    The University of Michigan campus does not belong to the residents of Ann Arbor. They are entitled to limit access to it at any time and it is not a place to picnic, for example, or to play an impromptu game, hold a group meeting, or any one of many activities that one might use open space for. (UM students, of course, do all those things, but it is their campus.)

    Whatever the disposition of the Library Lot, the UM campus should not be offered as our downtown greenspace. It is not downtown, and it is not ours.

  10. By Eric
    August 17, 2011 at 9:35 am | permalink

    @9: Vivienne, all good points.

    I was mostly trying to figure out my own reaction in hopes that might be useful for clarifying the messaging.