County Parks OKs More Natural Area Funds

Also: Record-setting summer for many major county facilities

Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission meeting (Sept. 11, 2012): Commissioners took another significant step toward receiving a $2.275 million $975,000 grant from the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Trust Fund to buy land for the Arbor Vistas Preserve natural areas connector – by approving $975,000 in matching county funds for the project. The property is located in Ann Arbor Township.

New entrance to County Farm Park

A new entrance archway to County Farm Park off of Washtenaw Avenue. County parks & rec commissioners were briefed on the status of this and several other improvement projects during their Sept. 11 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

In other action related to natural areas preservation, WCPARC gave initial approval to commit $109,864 to purchase a conservation easement on 124 acres of the Donald Drake property in Lodi Township; and $64,200 toward the purchase of a conservation easement on 73 acres of the Hornback property in Salem Township. Both deals are in partnership with the Ann Arbor greenbelt program.

The commission also approved staff recommendations to increase spending by $522,260 – bringing the total to $1.4 million – on the River Terrace section of the Border-to-Border Trail in Dexter. And the group approved up to $205,587 to replace the pedestrian bridge at Sharon Mills Park, in southwestern Washtenaw County.

Several written financial reports on claims paid and fund balances for parks & recreation functions were approved. The commission also was briefed on a record-setting numbers of users and revenues at the county’s major outdoor parks & recreation facilities this summer – at Independence Lake Park, Pierce Lake Golf Course, and Rolling Hills Park and its water park. However, revenues and attendance for the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center have declined.

During its Sept. 11 meeting, the commission passed a resolution of appreciation for the public service career of Rodney Stokes, former director of the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources. Bob Marans, WCPARC’s president, noted that Stokes has helped Washtenaw County secure millions of dollars in state DNR trust fund grants over the years. Stokes is expected to attend the Sept. 19 meeting of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, when a similar resolution of appreciation is on the agenda.

Michigan DNR Grant

Tom Freeman – a former WCPARC deputy director who serves occasionally as a consultant – described a resolution before the commissioners, which was the result of a successful grant application to the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Trust Fund for $2.275 million. The resolution called for WCPARC to accept the terms of the state grant, which includes providing $975,000 in matching funds. The parcel would connect three existing protected areas: Ann Arbor’s Marshall Park; the University of Michigan’s Horner Woods; and WCPARC’s Goodrich Preserve.

The money will be used to acquire 54.17 acres in Ann Arbor Township for the Arbor Vistas Preserve Natural Areas Connector. In addition to matching the grant, the resolution requires WCPARC “to maintain satisfactory financial accounts, documents, and records; and to regulate the use of the property to assure the use by the public on equal and reasonable terms.”

Commissioner Barbara Bergman asked Freeman to clarify the last requirement. It means, Freeman replied, that access cannot be denied based on the user’s age, sex, race, or other protected characteristic. Freeman explained that after WCPARC passes the resolution, it will go to the state for signing, and then return to WCPARC to complete the purchase.

Outcome: The resolution passed unanimously.

Parks Improvement Spending

Commissioners were updated on several ongoing projects at their Sept. 11 meeting.

Parks Improvement Spending: Border-to-Border Trail

Deputy director Coy Vaughn gave a verbal report on the Border-to-Border Trail to supplement the written material in the commissioners’ meeting packets. [.pdf of Border-to-Border Trail written report]

At their July 24, 2012 meeting, WCPARC had approved modifying the contract for Phase IB of the River Terrace Trail section of the Border to Border Trail by adding $877,740 to the existing contract with the Anlaan Corp. Now, staff recommended paying an additional $522,260, bringing the total cost to $1.4 million. The September change would have Anlaan “pave the entire length of the trail and construct all the boardwalks before leaving the site,” Vaughn said. He presented slides to show the site, and described advantages of expanding the contract.

The advantages that were cited include: (1) avoiding the risk and expense of a deteriorating trail base if construction is not done all at one time; (2) providing a usable trail segment immediately upon completion; and (3) reducing costs by “eliminating remobilization costs,” if a second contractor had to be hired to complete the project. Vaughn anticipates a 25% cost savings, based on allowing the current contractors to complete the project “without remobilizing and reestablishing access to the site.” Vaughn reported that he had consulted with staff of the Huron Clinton Metropark Authority, a partner in this project, and found they were happy with Anlaan’s work: the firm had finished the first phase of the project ahead of schedule with a cost $15,000 below their bid amount, according to the report.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the recommendation to expand contract with Anlaan.

Park Improvement Spending: Sharon Mills Park Pedestrian Bridge

Coy Vaughn made a presentation to commissioners about a project to replace the pedestrian bridge at Sharon Mills Park, in addition to a written report that was part of the Sept. 11 meeting packet. [.pdf of Sharon Mills Park report] The bridge, west of Sharon Hollow Road, is in need of repair or replacement, as directed by the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Sharon Mills Park pedestrian bridge

The Sharon Mills Park pedestrian bridge is shown at the left side of this image, which was part of a presentation at the Sept. 11 meeting of the Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission.

According to Vaughn’s report, the bridge was originally built when Henry Ford owned the mill in the late 1920s. It was partially rebuilt when WCPARC purchased the property and opened it for public use in 2002. That year, an DEQ report recommended that repairs be done within five years to address spalling on the two reinforced concrete piers now supporting the bridge. WCPARC hired the engineering consultant Mannik & Smith (M&S) to inspect and report on the condition of the bridge in 2010.

Based on the M&S report, WCPARC issued a request for proposals (RFP) in August 2011 to rehabilitate the bridge. Because only one bid was received, the project was revised and rebid earlier this year. The lowest bid to remove the bridge was $147,000 and the lowest to rehabilitate the bridge was $152,684. WCPARC staff, seeing the small difference between removal and rehabilitation, considered the usefulness of the bridge as a park amenity, and pursued the possibility of replacing the existing bridge with a new single-span bridge. The contractor, Brock and Associates, offered to replace the bridge for a cost not to exceed $205,587, including removing the existing piers, which interfere with the movement of water through the dam spillway. This had been an important concern noted by the DEQ report. The bridge will match the pedestrian bridge elsewhere on the site.

Staff recommended approval of Brock and Associates for the pedestrian bridge replacement, not to exceed $205,587. Vaughn noted that MDEQ had seen the proposal and approved it.

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the staff recommendation to replace the pedestrian bridge.

After the vote, commissioner Jan Anschuetz said “I wish we could utilize that land we purchased behind Sharon Mills, but haven’t opened up yet. It is not used and it is just beautiful. We put a lot of money into renovating the mill. Isn’t there a way to promote it and have it used more?”

WCPARC director Bob Tetens said that the site is “used for a lot of weddings and other events. We own 118 acres on the west side of the road. Canoes come down and portage, so it is used.” He said the site is popular enough that they had to limit reserved use so there could still be adequate public access. Food Art provides catering services there, and can serve several hundred people, he said, adding that neighboring farmers allow valet parking on their land.

Vaughn added, “We can keep it open more because the neighbor, Sharon Craig, calls me when people want to get in, and I let her open it up.” Tetens reported that the WCPARC staff is working on plans to develop the adjacent property, but they do not yet have anything ready to propose.

Parks Improvement Spending: Ongoing Projects

The meeting included a variety of written and verbal reports about continuing improvements to other parks properties. [.pdf of project updates]

A portion of the Chelsea boardwalk

A portion of the new boardwalk between Pierce Lake Village and Old US-12, as part of WCPARC’s Connecting Communities program.

At Independence Lake, a new spray/play zone, and new bathroom/office/concession structure are on schedule for completion in early 2013 to be open on Memorial Day. DTE has begun to install three-phase electrical service to the park.

The water park expansion at Rolling Hills began on Sept. 6, and the ring road project is in its final stages, with designs of planting plans for the park underway: the entry drive, traffic circle, and throughout the road and paved paths. [For more details on that project, see Chronicle coverage of WCPARC's July 24, 2012 meeting.]

At the County Farm Park, the new archway marking the Washtenaw Avenue entrance is in place. Construction of a paved pathway between the picnic pavilion and the new archway will start in mid-September. New information kiosks are also being installed. Tetens mentioned that staff are considering where to add entrances from the residential neighborhood to the west of the park.

At Cavanaugh Lake Park, a picnic pavilion was destroyed by a large oak tree that blew over in a recent storm. The tree and pavilion are both gone now, and staff are considering what action to take. Osborne Mill’s landscape planting replacements will be done this fall, and Park Lyndon has new interpretive signs, as does Parker Mill.

The Connecting Communities program also continues, with the most recent work being done along Old US-12 in Chelsea, where WCPARC is helping to build a combination boardwalk and sidewalk between Pierce Lake Village and the highway. The boardwalk connects to the Pierce Lake Nature Trail, and provides new views into Pierce Lake.

Natural Areas Preservation Program

Several items on the WCPARC agenda related to the county’s natural areas preservation program (NAPP).

Natural Areas Preservation Program: Report from Legacy Land Conservancy

Tom Freeman made a verbal presentation to support the written report from Susan Lackey of the Legacy Land Conservancy on proposed conservation easements for high priority properties that WCPARC had authorized staff to pursue at its February 2012 meeting. [.pdf of Lackey's written report] Lackey’s report indicated that WCPARC will be presented with requests to finalize conservation easements on these properties in October.

Specifically, LLC staff anticipate recommending acquisition of conservation easements on three properties: (1) about 215 acres in Salem Township (Bailo property); (2) 161.25 acres in York Township (the Kendall Rogers property); and (3) 40 acres in Webster Township (Alexander property). According to the report, all of these purchases have received partial funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP).

Lackey wrote that the NAPP program is benefitting from better-than-anticipated finances, as well as from a reduction in the value of the development rights. From her report:

The development rights are calculated as follows: total value of unprotected land – value of land restricted to farming = value of development right. As land values in general have continued to decline, but the value of farmland has increased, the value of the development rights have shrunk accordingly. However, we continue to see farmers who are aging and concerned about their ability to realize the value of their land while passit it on to a new generation of farmers, making them willing to accept these reduced values in many instances. Your timing in advancing this program has been excellent, and will benefit the resisdents of Washtenaw County for generations to come.

Natural Areas Preservation Program: Drake Property

Commissioners were asked to approve the purchase of a conservation easement on 124 acres in Lodi Township, owned by the Donald Drake family. [.pdf of written report on Drake property]

This property, on the south side of West Waters Road west of Zeeb, is part of a large farm – one of the larger and very few dairy farms in the county, which has additional acreage on the north side of the road. About half the nominated property is in active agricultural use. The undeveloped portion includes a high quality woodlot with a diversity of tree types and ages, including a number of mature beech trees, according to Tom Freeman, who gave a presentation to commissioners. The property also contains a large button bush swamp.

According to a written report provided to commissioners, a collaborative approach is being proposed with Lodi Township, the Ann Arbor greenbelt program, and NAPP participating. The owner has offered a 10% reduction in the price of the conservation easement. An appraisal established a value of $549,320 for a conservation easement on the 124 acres. The Ann Arbor greenbelt program has offered to contribute 80% of the price, or $439,456, and would hold the conservation easement. NAPP would contribute 20%, or $109,864, and “ensure the property is protected and guarantee public access,” according to the report.

Freeman pointed out that the county’s Brauer Preserve is located to the west of the Drake property, and the Devine Preserve is on West Liberty north of the Drake land. The three preserves are in three different townships, said Freeman, and spreading preserves among townships is a WCPARC goal.

In response to questions from commissioners about maintenance costs for this property, such as building a parking lot, Freeman said that the only members of the public who could enter would be those participating in WCPARC programs. There would be no maintenance cost for WCPARC.

Commissioner Jimmie Maggard asked for clarification of the meaning of a conservation easement. Freeman explained it results in the land owner not being able to use the land for anything except agricultural uses – it can not be developed.

Outcome: The commission approved the initial recommendation for this deal by a vote of 7-1, with Jimmie Maggard opposed.

Natural Areas Preservation Program: Hornback Property

WCPARC considered a second proposal to purchase a conservation easement, this time on 73 acres in Salem Township owned by the Hornback family, on the north side of Brookville Road. [.pdf of written report on Hornback property]

The odd-shaped parcel also has frontage on Pontiac Trail, in the western portion of the township. The land has a mixture of features, according to the written report and a presentation by Tom Freedom at the Sept. 11 meeting. Those features include mature woodlands, wetlands, and about 30% of the land that’s in active agricultural use. The owners hope to put more of the land into agriculture, Freeman said.

A conservation easement on the property is appraised at $321,000. The present proposal is for the Ann Arbor greenbelt program to contribute $160,500, or half the cost, and hold the easement. Salem Township and NAPP would each contribute $64,200, or 20% of the cost. The final 10% would be met “through the reduced price offered by the property owner,” according to the report. NAPP’s contribution would “ensure the property is protected and also guarantee public access.

Freeman showed photos of desirable plants and trees, as well as butterflies, on the property. Commissioner Jimmie Maggard asked for clarification: how long does the owner have to keep the land in agriculture? Freeman’s response: “In perpetuity, although he could let it go back to all natural. Even if he sells it, the new owner has to keep it in agriculture.”

Outcome: Commissioners voted 7-1 in favor of the initial recommendation for this deal, with dissent by Jimmie Maggard.

Update on Major Park & Rec Facilities

Commissioners received written reports for both July and August, since there was no August meeting. The reports are cumulative, so August is more important in that it provides end-of-summer results. Excluding the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center, all of the county’s major facilities reported record-setting attendance and revenues.

At Independence Lake Park, 2012 revenue was $204,392, up from $195,895 in 2011 and $195,682 in 2010. Attendance reached 16,803 visits, compared to 15,856 in 2011 and 16,034 in 2010. Pierce Lake Golf Course saw revenue of $510,179 compared to $413,991 in 2011 and $434,991 in 2010, and attendance of 15,862, up from 13,100 in 2011 and 14,663 in 2010.

Bob Marans, the commission’s president, asked director Bob Tetens whether he had anticipated the revenue increase at  the golf course. Yes, Tetens replied, for two reasons: The course was opened two weeks earlier than the previous two years, and this year it had a liquor license. Commissioner Dan Smith noted that some of the special memberships offered at the golf course – such as the early bird discount – did not attract many purchasers. He suggested that WCPARC review and revise the membership categories early in 2013.

Rolling Hills Park did not see increases as strong as the other two facilities. Revenues were $256,938 compared to $254,995 in 2011 and $252,817 in 2010, and attendance was 32,862 – up slightly from 32,858 in 2011 and 32,586 in 2010.

But the Rolling Hills Water Park, which charges separate admission in addition to the cost of entering the main park, recorded larger increases in revenue: $760,764 compared to $$751,811 in 2011 and $737,275 in 2010. Attendance was 111,944 compared to 114,440 in 2011 and 111,617 in 2010.  It was, said Tetens, “a very, very, very good summer at Rolling Hills.”

Commissioner Barbara Bergman asked whether people were ever turned away. “Yes,” said Tetens, “that happens when the parking fills up. It happens at Independence Lake as well as Rolling Hills. People have to wait for a place to park.” Tetens further explained that improvements at Rolling Hills (discussed above) will increase the capacity of the Rolling Hills Water Park by about 200 people.

Bergman asked about the day camp counts, and whether they include programs given at sites other than county park facilities. Tetens explained that they do not; the counts are only those at county facilities. That attendance too is up. The Rolling Hills day camp had 1,107 attendees in 2012, up dramatically from 834 in 2011 and 226 in 2010. Independence Lake’s day camp had 928 campers in 2012, up from 580 in 2011 and almost double 2010’s 495.

The warm weather in 2012 was the main cause for higher use of the outdoor parks, Tetens told commissioners, and the corollary effect on the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center was for lower attendance. In 2012, only 2,980 memberships were sold, down from 3,353 in 2011 and 3,222 in 2010. Daily passes dropped in two years by about half: 13,229 in 2012 compared to 21,432 in 2011 and 27,094 in 2010. Total attendance in 2012 was 217,852, down from 234,162 in 2011 and  234,036 in 2010. Revenue was also down, $750,034 in 2012 compared to $764,410 in 2011 and $760,959 in 2010.

Financial Reports

The commission dealt with a range of financial reports during their Sept. 11 meeting.

Financial Reports: Claims

The commission considered reports of payments for both August and September.

A total of $676,189 claims were made August, including $640,068 for parks & recreation and $36,120 for the county’s natural areas preservation program. [.pdf of August 2012 claims report]

In his report to the commission, director Bob Tetens explained that the bulk of the expenses are in capital improvements, which totaled $361,575 – including the new spray/play zone at Independence Lake Park. In addition, he said, WCPARC paid the city of Ann Arbor $112,500 to help improve Argo Cascades, one of the funding partnerships to which WCPARC is committed.

Responding to a question about expenses for NAPP acquisitions, Tetens said that money spent on due diligence, such as surveys and environmental inspections, is part of the cost of acquiring property. Commissioner Jimmie Maggard asked about the $47,905 spent on the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center. That, said Tetens, was used to replace the pool pump as well as a “big one” – $20,000 for repairs on the compressors for air conditioning chillers. It is, Tetens added, “always a struggle with 20-year-old equipment.”

Outcome: The commission unanimously approved the claims report for August.

September’s claims report showed even greater expenditures: a total of $1,430,073. Of that, parks & recreation spent $1,131,124, with expenditures by NAPP totaling $298,949. [.pdf of September 2012 claims report]

Again, Tetens explained that the bulk – $961,123 – was spent on capital improvements: the bridge in Dexter-Huron Metropark; excavation for the new road at Rolling Hills Park; creating and installing the new entrance arch to the County Farm Park on Washtenaw Avenue; and construction at Independence Lake Park.

Outcome: The commission unanimously approved the claims report for September.

Financial Reports Fund Balance

Fund balance statements for July and August were part of the WCPARC meeting packet, but neither required action and neither generated questions.

The August statement contained an “updated” line item for funding commitments (partnerships), dropping from $1,624,400 to $962,400. In response to a query from The Chronicle, WCPARC director Bob Tetens explained that partnership expenses were: $400,000 for the Ann Arbor Skate Park; $112,000 for Argo Cascades in Ann Arbor; $100,000 to Pittsfield Township for Connecting Communities; and $50,000 for the Lakeside boathouse. Those items account for the $662,000 difference between the original funding commitments in the fund balance statement, and the updated total. [.pdf of August fund balance statement] [.pdf of July fund balance statement]

Resolution of Thanks: Rodney Stokes

Director Bob Tetens introduced a resolution honoring Rodney Stokes, an East Lansing resident who until this summer served as director of the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources. In July, Stokes was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to lead a new “placemaking” initiative for the state’s urban areas. [.pdf of Stokes' bio and WCPARC resolution]

Bob Marans, president of the WCPARC, noted that Stokes is now “the governor’s key person in Detroit, and has been very helpful to us in getting millions of dollars in [DNR] trust fund grants.” Marans spoke of Stokes’ special fondness for Washtenaw County and Ypsilanti, and said that Stokes would attend the Washtenaw County board of commissioners next meeting, on Sept. 19.

Outcome: The commission unanimously approved the resolution. A similar resolution is on the agenda for the Sept. 19 meeting of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

Present: President Robert Marans, vice president Patricia Scribner; secretary Nelson Meade; Jan Anschuetz; Barbara Bergman; Janis Bobrin; Jimmie Maggard; and Dan Smith.

Absent: Fred Veigel, Rolland Sizemore, Jr.

Staff: Director Robert Tetens, deputy director Coy Vaughn, consultant Tom Freeman.

Next regular WCPARC meeting: The next meeting will be Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 at 7 p.m. at the parks and recreation commission administrative offices, 2230 Platt Road in Ann Arbor.

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  1. September 19, 2012 at 7:41 am | permalink

    What’s wrong with the spray zone and building at Independence Lake? Too small? It would be nice to have a new building with a bit of indoor space.

  2. By Rod Johnson
    September 21, 2012 at 4:53 pm | permalink

    I wonder if a lot of people don’t realize that Rolling Hills includes a lot more than the water park? It’s really a terrific park, with hills and miles of trails, disc golf and lots of other stuff. The water park is just one little corner of it.