Greenbelt, Park Commissions Strategize

Two Ann Arbor groups discuss priorities and goals, get updated on annual finances for open space & parkland preservation millage in FY 2012

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission and park advisory commission’s land acquisition committee – joint meeting (Nov. 1, 2012): Two city advisory groups – for parks and the greenbelt – have a common link, in addition to their land-related focus: Both oversee programs funded by a 30-year millage that voters approved in 2003.

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Staff and members of the Ann Arbor greenbelt and park advisory commissions at a joint meeting on Nov. 1, 2012. From left: Colin Smith, Shannon Brines, Archer Christian, Peter Allen, Tim Doyle, Laura Rubin, Alan Jackson.  (Photos by the writer.)

Earlier this month, members from both commissions met in a joint session to get a financial update from staff and learn more about the roles and priorities of the greenbelt and parks.

The greenbelt program uses about two-thirds of the millage proceeds. By the end of 2012, about 4,200 acres will have been protected around the outskirts of Ann Arbor. When the program began, the expectation was that it would fund protection for between 3,500 to 4,500 over the life of the 30-year millage. But because the economic downturn has lowered the cost of land, the program has protected more land – primarily through the purchase of development rights – than originally anticipated. Land that previously was valued at about $16,000 per acre is now closer to $4,000, with the likelihood of even lower costs in the coming year.

The last joint meeting of these groups was held in June of 2011, but membership on the groups has changed over the last year and a half. The park advisory commission in particular has seen considerable turnover since then. Earlier this year PAC members Gwen Nystuen, David Barrett, Sam Offen and Doug Chapman left the commission, either because they were term-limited or did not seek re-appointment. New members are Ingrid Ault, Bob Galardi, Alan Jackson and Missy Stults. New to GAC this year is Archer Christian, replacing long-time member Mike Garfield, who was term-limited. Both Garfield and Christian are executives at the nonprofit Ecology Center.

The Nov. 1 discussion among commissioners was wide-ranging. Among the topics covered were the need to provide connections between existing parks, potential for recreational use of greenbelt-protected land, farming trends, and protections for both greenbelt property and parkland. For this report, the conversations are summarized and grouped thematically. The meeting began with a staff update – and that’s where this report begins, too.

Annual Update

Ginny Trocchio is a staff member of The Conservation Fund, who manages Ann Arbor’s greenbelt and parkland acquisition programs under contract with the city. She typically gives separate financial and activity reports to the two commissions, but delivered the report to both groups at their joint meeting on Nov. 1. The reports covered the most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2012. [.pdf file of activity report][.pdf file of financial report]

Trocchio also reviewed the greenbelt program’s strategic plan, which was updated earlier this year. [See Chronicle coverage: "Greenbelt Commission Briefed on Strategic Plan"] [.pdf file of 2012 greenbelt strategic plan]

The greenbelt program and park acquisitions are funded through a 30-year 0.5 mill tax that Ann Arbor voters passed in 2003. It’s called the open space and parkland preservation millage, and appears on the summer tax bill as the line item CITY PARK ACQ. The city’s policy has been to allocate one-third of the millage for parks land acquisition and two-thirds for the greenbelt program. The greenbelt advisory commission (GAC) handles the portion for land preservation outside of the city limits, while the city’s park advisory commission (PAC) oversees the funds for parkland acquisition. PAC’s land acquisition committee, of which all PAC commissioners are members, makes recommendations for parkland purchases.

Ann Arbor greenbelt acquisitions through June 2012

Ann Arbor greenbelt acquisitions through June 2012 (Image links to dynamic map)

To get money upfront for land acquisition, the city took out a $20 million bond in fiscal year 2006. That bond is being being paid back with revenue from the millage. Debt service on that bond in FY 2012 year was $1.225 million. [Two debt service payments are made during the fiscal year.]

Trocchio reviewed the major priorities for the greenbelt program: (1) protecting large blocks of farmland, with the target of at least 1,000 acres in a given area, (2) protecting natural areas in the Huron River watershed, (3)  building partnerships to leverage other funding sources – including funding from other local governments, the federal government, nonprofits and landowners, and (4) education and outreach.

Geographically, the greenbelt is focused on five areas of the county:

  • Lodi Township: With several large farms and an increased number of applications from landowners, this township is viewed as a prime area for activity in the coming years, in part because of an expansion of greenbelt boundaries to include more of that township. Acres protected under greenbelt program: 337.
  • Northern Scio Township, Webster Township and east Northfield Township: One of the most active areas, in part because both Scio and Webster townships have their own land preservation millages and frequently partner with the greenbelt program. Land in this area is also considered critical for protection of the Huron River watershed. Acres protected under greenbelt program through FY 2012: 1,484.
  • Northfield and Ann Arbor townships: Over 1,400 acres have been protected in Ann Arbor Township alone – that township also has its own land preservation program. The Tilian Farm Development Center, a local farm incubator, is located there. Acres protected under greenbelt program through FY 2012: 1,415.
  • Salem and Superior townships: This area includes land protected by the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy and Washtenaw County parks and recreation. The greenbelt program has partnered on several properties in that area. Acres protected under greenbelt program through FY 2012: 819.
  • Pittsfield Township: Most of the township lies outside of the greenbelt boundaries, but it’s viewed as an important area for both farmland and natural areas protection. Acres protected under greenbelt program through FY 2012: 89.

Trocchio noted that by the end of this calendar year, about 4,200 acres will have been protected through the city’s greenbelt program. When the millage was approved in 2003, the expectation was that it would fund protection for between 3,500 to 4,500 over the life of the 30-year millage, she said. The economic downturn has helped the program protect more land than anticipated. When the program began, the purchase of development rights cost about $16,000 per acre. Today, it’s closer to $4,000 per acre, Trocchio said, with the likelihood of even lower costs in the coming year.

Annual Update: FY 2012 Financial Report

In her financial update for the year ending June 30, 2012, Trocchio reported that net revenues from the millage for FY 2012 were $2.574 million, with expenses of $3.083 million. In addition to debt service, expenses include $1.65 million in greenbelt projects and $87,230 for parkland acquisition. The greenbelt acquisitions were for:

  • the purchase of development rights on the Thomas/Lobato property ($103,472 plus $23,867 for an endowment) for 30 acres owned by Duane Thomas and his wife Judith Lobato in Scio Township. The property is located near the northwest corner Scio Church and Wagner roads.
  • the purchase of development rights on the Lindemann/Weidmayer property ($657,112 plus $23,867 for an endowment) for 111 acres in Lodi Township, owned by Bill Lindemann and his sister Karen Weidmayer. The property is located along Pleasant Lake Road, about a half-mile from the former Girbach farm, which is also protected through the greenbelt program.
  • the purchase of development rights for the Boike Farm in Northfield Township (about 136 acres for $468,026 plus $23,867 for an endowment).
  • $171,819 toward the purchase of 100.33 acres owned by Lakeside Development in Superior Township, located along the east side of Prospect Road, south of Cherry Hill Road. It’s now called the Jack R. Smiley Nature Preserve, in honor of the founder of the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy. The conservancy and Washtenaw County’s natural areas preservation program were the lead partners on that deal, which became part of the Superior Greenway, a corridor of more than 2,000 acres of protected land between Ann Arbor and Detroit.
  • the purchase of development rights for the Newton Farm property – 58.85 acres in Ann Arbor Township – for $85,226. It’s now under different ownership, and called the Green Things Farm.
  • $15,000 toward a conservation easement for 32 acres owned by Charles Botero in Northfield Township, in partnership with the Legacy Land Conservancy. The land is located on the east side of US-23, north of East Northfield Church Road.
  • $46,750 toward the purchase of two adjacent properties owned by Joe Bloch, in Northfield and Ann Arbor townships. The land was purchased by Washtenaw County parks & recreation, with contributions from the greenbelt program. The 33-acre site in Northfield Township is on the north side of Joy Road east of US-23 and west of Gleaner Hall Road, adjacent to the county’s Northfield Woods Preserve.

Trocchio noted that during the 2012 grant cycle, the city was able to secure $396,900 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) – for the Robert Schultz farm in Superior Township, and the Robbin Alexander farm in Webster Township. Since 2005, the city has brought in nearly $6.7 million in FRPP grants.

In total during FY 2012, the city contributed about 48% – or $19.4 million – to the protection of land valued at $38.76 million. The remaining funds were provided by FRPP grants, landowner donations, or partners like Washtenaw County, townships or land conservancies.

A chart provided in the greenbelt’s strategic plan lists the sources of potential matching funds for the city, and amounts that have been secured to date:

Ann Arbor greenbelt, Ann Arbor open space and parkland preservation millage, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Chart of current and potential greenbelt partners.

For the parks system, there was only one significant acquisition during FY 2012: $74,232 for the purchase of 5 W. Eden Court, located next to the Bryant Community Center. Trocchio noted that the priorities for parks purchases are laid out in the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan, and include geographic distribution, natural resources protection, enhancements and linkages between existing parks, recreational value, protection of the Huron River, and long-term maintenance or development issues. The PROS plan doesn’t generally cite specific properties to target for acquisition, she said, with the notable exception of the MichCon/DTE property near the Argo Cascades.

The millage fund balance stood at $9.587 million as of June 30. Of that fund balance, $4.396 million is designated for parks, while $5.19 million is set aside for the greenbelt program. In addition, there’s $525,761 in an endowment set up to cover legal costs related to monitoring and enforcing the conservation easements held by the city.

Administrative costs of $120,043 in fiscal 2012 equate to 3.9% of total revenues. Administrative costs over the life of the millage are limited by ordinance to be no greater than 6% of revenues.

Connections & Walkability

Peter Allen (GAC) raised the issue of connectivity. He wondered whether PAC members embraced the idea of prioritizing land acquisition that creates linkages between existing parkland, as well as providing ways for people to navigate Ann Arbor – for people who are walking or biking to work, for example. Were acquisitions evaluated with an emphasis on making those linkages more than just a recreational use, creating options for people who don’t want to get in their cars? If so, it’s an approach that would mean the city is aggressively embracing a walkability agenda, he said, with implications for making its residents healthier.

Colin Smith, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Colin Smith, manager of the city’s parks and recreation system.

PAC chair Julie Grand replied that connectivity is one of their top priorities, along with acquiring land along the Huron River. PAC’s primary focus is on maintaining and improving the land that’s already part of the parks system – and connectivity is a piece of that, she said. If it has the added benefit of a potential greenway or increasing walkability, that’s good. But members of PAC need to look at the parkland and facilities that the city already owns, she said, and see how they can better connect people with those existing properties. For parkland along the river, for example, how can the city get people there more easily and safely?

Grand said the city has done a pretty good job in terms of neighborhood access to parks. In most neighborhoods, you can walk to a park that’s within a quarter mile without having to cross a busy street. So now it’s about improving safety and improving the quality of that walking experience. When improvements were done at Argo Cascades, it connected with the county’s Border-to-Border Trail, she noted – that was a big selling point for that project.

She also reported that she serves on the North Main/Huron River corridor task force, and on the technical committee for 721 N. Main – a city-owned property in that corridor. That group is  looking at connectivity issues, Grand said, “but we don’t want to build a path to nowhere.”

John Lawter (PAC) added that when connectivity is a piece of a potential acquisition, “that’s a big plus.”

Grand also observed that if the MichCon/DTE property is donated to the city, then the money that’s been set aside for that potential purchase would be freed up to make other acquisitions.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, noted that park-to-park or trail-to-trail connections are important. But Allen was also talking more broadly about getting around town, Smith said. A lot of people don’t realize that maintenance and funding of the the bike paths that aren’t within parks are not the responsibility of the parks system, Smith said. He thinks there’s opportunity for better collaboration between parks and alternative transportation staff, to figure out how to tie together transportation and parks initiatives.

Connections: Crossing Streets

Allen wondered if PAC had discussed getting better connections to the river across North Main and the railroad tracks, other than using sidewalks. Grand replied that they’d had lots of discussions about it. Smith added that those discussions have been going on for at least a decade.

Grand felt it made more sense for the North Main/Huron River task force to deal with those issues, rather than PAC, because North Main Street is under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT). But PAC should be involved in conversations about how all these pieces fit together, she said.

Tim Berla (PAC) described the issue of connectivity as an expensive problem to solve. The Allen Creek greenway – from the river to Michigan Stadium – has been discussed, but having the land isn’t the entire solution, he said. He felt the biggest advance that the city had made in developing a greenway was the installation of the HAWK (high intensity activated crosswalk) signal at the intersection of Huron and Chapin, near the YMCA. But obviously, installing traffic signals isn’t in the purview of the city’s parks system, he said, so it’s a difficult problem.

Peter Allen noted that several transit issues will be moving forward in the next 6-12 months. He cited a connector study between Plymouth and South State, commuter rail, the sale of railroad tracks from Norfolk Southern to MDOT – which Allen said could open the possibility of having “a little more reasonable person at the table to negotiate crossings” – and countywide transit. “I think the park agenda will need to be aggressively at the table,” Allen said.

[The countywide transit project, known as The Washtenaw Ride, was effectively halted a week later when the Ann Arbor city council voted to opt out of that project at its Nov. 8, 2012 meeting. Some councilmembers and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority have indicated a desire to encourage other ways of expanding public transit.]

Celebrating Successes

Dan Ezekiel, the chair of GAC, said it was good to discuss difficult issues that the two commissions have faced, but he also wanted to pause and celebrate the successes that they’ve had. Since the two groups last met, the new Argo Cascades has been completed. He described it as the biggest positive thing to happen in town in a decade. That’s a huge step forward in connectivity, he said. It brings the Huron River to the forefront of people’s minds as being part of the city. Until the cascades opened, he hadn’t canoed from Gallup to Argo since his college days – “all because of the dumb little portage.” He gave the parks system kudos for that project, and he hoped the same kind of connectivity can be found for the Border-to-Border Trail.

Tom Bloomer, Dan Ezekiel, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Tom Bloomer and Dan Ezekiel of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission.

These projects show that intractable issues eventually can be solved, Ezekiel said. How long had there been quarreling about the Argo Dam, or talking about the MichCon/DTE property? He noted that the greenbelt program had a few “brags,” too. The greenbelt participated as a partner in creating the Jack R. Smiley Nature Preserve in Superior Township, with the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy and Washtenaw County’s natural areas preservation program. The project, which is part of the Superior Greenway, connected several other parcels and includes public access and trails.

Ezekiel also pointed to some projects that have been completed and that are in the pipeline involving “locally consumed food.” [That phrase is one that GAC member Tom Bloomer has advocated for, in an effort to distinguish from food that is produced in Washtenaw County, but sold outside this area.] Ezekiel reported that one of the properties in Ann Arbor Township that the greenbelt program helped to preserve was bought by a small local farmer. Getting Salem Township on board with the greenbelt program was new, and Lodi Township is also getting more involved – that’s probably the nicest area that’s available for expanded protection of farmland, he said. Both commissions have some positive things to point to since the last time they met, Ezekiel concluded.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, said it’s important to keep in mind that good things can happen in places where you might not think it’s possible. Argo Cascades is an example of that – it’s the first time since 1830 that the river has been connected in that area. “Things can change.”

Some land acquisition deals are 15-20 years in the making, Ginny Trocchio added. ”You never know what’s going to come back around.”

Recreational Uses in the Greenbelt

Tim Berla (PAC) explored the possibility of using millage funds to buy land for recreational use outside of the city. Inside the city, for example, it would be hard to find an adequate amount of land for more soccer fields. Dan Ezekiel (GAC) said it’s been very clear that the city doesn’t want to own land outside its boundaries. That’s a guideline that the greenbelt program has always used, he said.

Berla felt that a recreational field could be an exception, because it’s open space, but he understood that it doesn’t appear the greenbelt funds can be used for something like that.

Laura Rubin (GAC) pointed out that the city does participate in fee-simple (outright) purchases within the greenbelt and outside of Ann Arbor, but that always happens in partnership with other entities that can own the land and manage it, like Washtenaw County. Examples include the Fox Science PreserveMeyer Preserve and Scio Woods Preserve – all done in partnership with the county’s natural areas preservation program (NAPP).

Ezekiel noted another recent example – the Jack Smiley Preserve that’s part of the Superior Greenway. The Ann Arbor greenbelt contributed to the purchase price, but the property is owned by the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy, and Washtenaw County’s natural areas preservation program holds the conservation easement.

Tim Berla, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Tim Berla of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission. In the background is Catherine Riseng of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission. Barely visible between them is Mike Anglin, a Ward 5 city councilmember and ex-officio member of PAC.

Rubin recalled that GAC had discussed possibly purchasing the Knights of Columbus property for use as soccer fields. Ginny Trocchio quickly pointed out that the city didn’t pursue the purchase, adding “that’s not for discussion.” [Most land acquisition deals are initially discussed in closed sessions – that category is permitted under the Michigan Open Meetings Act. It's likely that the Knights of Columbus property was discussed in that venue in the past.]

Berla wondered how many acres in the greenbelt program were protected via fee-simple purchases. Trocchio estimated that of the roughly 4,200 protected acres, all but about 400 acres are agricultural lands protected through the purchase of development rights.

Later in the meeting, the issue of recreational use emerged again. Alan Jackson noted that some soccer and other sports associations want to own their own land. It has the benefit of creating a kind of park without entangling the city in maintaining the property, he said. Jackson wondered if the greenbelt program had done any outreach to those groups? It sounded to him like GAC wasn’t amenable to that approach.

Ezekiel replied that it hasn’t been a priority for the greenbelt program. Trocchio noted that the issue of active recreation has never come up in any of their discussions. Jackson observed that it might reduce the purchase price for protecting open space.

Tom Bloomer noted that the first difficulty would be that none of the greenbelt’s partners would be interested in participating. The other programs – particularly the federal government – are focused on preserving the agricultural economy, he said, “so we’d have to do it all on our own.” The second problem is that if there was a conservation easement, the owner of the land would still have the insurance liability and other responsibilities associated with having a sports complex on the property. The city doesn’t want to own property outside of Ann Arbor, so it would be a difficult scenario, he said.

Trocchio said the only way she could see the greenbelt program being involved is if a piece of the property had a high-quality natural area. In that case, perhaps the city would purchase an easement for that piece.

Farming Trends

Peter Allen (GAC) brought up the topic of farming trends in the county. Shannon Brines (GAC) – who owns Brines Farm in the Dexter area – noted that on average, “farmers are pretty old, and retiring.” But there are definitely more small farms at the farmers market, he added, so that’s a growth area. But Brines wasn’t sure what the balance is between new farmers and those who are retiring.

Tim Doyle (PAC) wondered if the amount of land being farmed is decreasing. Tom Bloomer (GAC) – owner of Bur Oaks Farm in Webster Township – described the agricultural sector as the strongest part of the American economy at this point. There’s less development pressure, so the agricultural land base is pretty stable. There’s even farmland in Ypsilanti Township that’s owned by developers and is being sold back to farmers, Bloomer said. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have imagined that was possible. “That’s a situation that I don’t know if we can expect to continue forever,” Bloomer said. “But right now, land is moving out of development and into agriculture – if the land hasn’t been ruined in the meantime.”

Allen recalled that an appraisal done a few years ago indicated there was an 8-10 year supply of excess development lots in Webster and Superior townships. That is, it would take 8-10 years until demand for development would surpass the available supply.

Trocchio reported that the USDA is updating its agricultural census this year, so next year there will be more data on the number and age of local farmers, and the amount of farmland.

Tim Berla (PAC) said he knows some people in their 30s who are trying to start small farms. Is there any way that GAC can promote that – or is it even a good idea for GAC to help establish small farmers?

Ginny Trocchio, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, land acquisition, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund.

Trocchio noted that the commission has talked a lot about that issue. If a developer wants to sell the land outright, the city can buy the development rights to lower the land value while a farmer comes in simultaneously to buy the property. “That’s one way we can help new farmers get on the land,” she said.

Dan Ezekiel (GAC) gave the example of a project in Ann Arbor Township. Land had been donated to the township by a developer. Now, the Tilian Farm Development Center is located on that site, which provides a farm incubator for new farmers. One farming couple in that program ended up buying the farm across the street from it – that transaction included the greenbelt program buying the development rights, while the couple bought the farm.

Berla suggested that the city could help new farmers by coordinating the process of finding land and securing deals for conservation easements. Trocchio said she doesn’t envision the city or GAC taking on that role, but she noted that she had helped an intern for the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP) explore the idea of a “land link” program. [See Chronicle coverage: "Greenbelt Group Briefed on Land Link Idea."]

Laura Rubin (GAC) noted that in some ways, the participation of the greenbelt program is dependent on the size of the farm. A few years ago, GAC changed its strategic plan. It had originally favored large farms – 40 acres or more – because that’s the size that is eligible to receive federal matching funds. There is the expectation of a certain amount of matching funds in these deals, and without federal funding, it’s more difficult to get that match. But when it became clear that the community was getting more interested in locally produced food, GAC changed its scoring system so that smaller farms wouldn’t be penalized when their applications are scored and considered by the greenbelt program. The city needs to be careful in its acquisitions, she said, and not protect land just so someone can build a McMansion and have the land around it preserved. It needs to be viable for farming – and when a property is too small, those concerns emerge, she said.

Ezekiel pointed to several local nonprofits that are focused on the local food movement, including Selma Cafe, FSEP, and the Washtenaw Food Hub. But the greenbelt program isn’t the “farm police,” he said. They don’t promote any particular business plan for farmers. The economy will dictate how the land is used, Ezekiel said. “Our job is to protect that farmland and greenspace outside the city, and the economy will decide what the best use of that land is.”

Ezekiel recalled a conversation he’d had with someone involved in Seattle’s greenbelt program. She had told him that things had changed dramatically for them in ways they hadn’t anticipated. When Seattle’s program first started buying development rights, there were a lot of dairies. But over the years, those businesses consolidated. Now, the land was being used for things like cut flowers and produce for local farmers markets in the Seattle area. So it isn’t wise to get too involved in telling farmers how to use their land, he said.

Berla asked whether the Ann Arbor greenbelt easements prevent a large property from being sold in smaller parcels. Trocchio replied that land divisions aren’t allowed.

Ingrid Ault said she was curious about the Washtenaw Food Hub. The greenbelt program isn’t really involved, Trocchio replied, although the hub is surrounded by land that’s protected by the greenbelt. Richard Andres, who’s leading the venture, had attended GAC’s April 9, 2012 meeting and briefed commissioners about the project. Located on the former Braun farm in Ann Arbor Township, it’s envisioned as a place to provide support for farmers to distribute and sell their produce, and for residents to buy food, attend workshops and create relationships with those who are part of the local food network. The Lunasa market has moved to the hub, Trocchio reported.

Ezekiel noted that the hub was a stop on the greenbelt bus tour earlier this year, and also on the Ecology Center’s annual EcoRide bike-a-thon route.

Protecting Parkland, Greenbelt Property

The issue of protecting land for parks and the greenbelt emerged in several different ways during the Nov. 1 discussion.

Protecting Parkland, Greenbelt Property: Land Use

Tim Berla (PAC) noted that Ginny Trocchio has used the word “protect” frequently in her presentation. He knew that if the city bought development rights for a property, then the owner couldn’t put a subdivision or shopping mall there – but apparently it can’t be used for recreation purposes either?

Trocchio explained that conservation easements typically describe the reason that the land is being protected from development. That reason is often for agricultural or natural areas preservation. Easements also include stipulation against certain activities – for example, stating that the land can’t be used for ballfields, because that would interfere with the reason that the land was being protected. There’s no stipulation about the type of farming that must be done, she said, although easements do address issues like pesticide management. However, there’s no requirement for things like organic farming.

Berla wondered if the land that has an easement could still have a large operation on it, like 8 million pigs – would that be allowed? Trocchio thought those issues would be addressed under the state’s generally accepted agricultural management practices (GAAMPS). But Tom Bloomer (GAC), a Webster Township farmer, noted that land protected using USDA grants would not allow restrictions on the types of farming. Factory farming, which he thought Berla appeared to be describing, is a loaded term, Bloomer said, but it’s not restricted as such.

Berla clarified with Bloomer and Trocchio that if the greenbelt program wanted to ban those kinds of large farming operations, it would mean that federal funds couldn’t be used to secure the purchase of development rights.

Protecting Parkland, Greenbelt Property: Financial Assets/Liabilities

With some communities in Michigan going through emergency financial management and bankruptcies, Alan Jackson (PAC) wanted to know to what extent are acquisitions protected from “financial calamity.”

Ginny Trocchio explained that even if a property goes through foreclosure, the conservation easement remains on the title and will transfer to the next property owner with the same restrictions on development. Jackson clarified that he wanted to know how the city of Ann Arbor would be protected. He acknowledged that it’s hard to conceive of the city reaching the point of needing an emergency financial manager, but they should think about that possibility.

Tom Bloomer (GAC) noted that you can’t put a monetary value on an easement and get that money back, because the landowner still owns the land. The only thing the city owns is the development rights. “There is no market for development rights, because those rights have been extinguished – that’s in the deed, so there’s nothing for the city to sell,” Bloomer said.

Conservation easements are not assets that can be liquidated. “It’s more of a liability, quite honestly,” Trocchio said. If the city went into bankruptcy, the easements would have to be transferred to another qualified conservation organization to hold.

Jackson observed that the Ambassador Bridge was never intended to be under the control of one person, and now it is – so that’s something to think about. Bloomer said if “everybody else disappeared,” the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture would take over the easement on properties that they’ve put money into.

Protecting Parkland, Greenbelt Property: Endowment

Jackson noted that the greenbelt sets aside funds for an endowment related to each property that has a conservation easement. He wondered how that’s invested.

Trocchio replied that those endowment funds – $525,761 to date – are invested along with other city funds. [In fiscal 2012, the millage funds, including the endowment, earned $176,082 in investment income. Commissioners had previously raised concerns about how those funds were invested, and were briefed by the city's treasurer, Matt Horning, on details of the city's approach.]

Trocchio said that when the program got started, Tom Crawford, the city’s chief financial officer, had given advice on estimated expenses related to enforcement. Currently, about $20,000 per property is set aside for that possible future need, she said.

Jackson wondered if that would be sufficient. Trocchio replied that they were taking a conservative approach, but they don’t expect all easements to be violated. John Lawter (PAC) wondered if there had been any easement violations yet. No, Trocchio said, but most landowners are still first-generation. It’s more likely that violations would occur after the property changes hands.

[The issue of violating an easement emerged last year in Webster Township, for a conservation easement outside of the greenbelt boundaries. See Chronicle coverage: "Webster Gives Ground for Civil War Days."]

Protecting Parkland, Greenbelt Property: Parkland Sale

There was some discussion at the Nov. 1 meeting about a parks-related proposal earlier this year at Ann Arbor city council, in the context of what protections are in place to prevent the sale – or de facto sale – of parkland. At its Aug. 9, 2012 meeting, the council debated putting a question on the Nov. 6 ballot that would have asked voters if they wanted to amend the city charter to require a referendum to lease parkland for non-park or non-recreational use for longer than five years. PAC had voted unanimously against recommending that council put that question on the ballot. Ultimately, only four of the 11 councilmembers had supported it: Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), Mike Anglin (Ward 5), Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3).

At the Nov. 1 joint session, Tim Berla (PAC) said he had supported a 2008 ballot question that Ann Arbor voters had overwhelmingly approved, which changed the city charter to protect parkland from being sold:

Limitations on Contractual Power
(b) The city shall not sell, without the approval by a majority vote of the electors of the city voting on the question at a regular or special election, any city park or land in the city acquired for park, cemetery, or any part thereof.

Berla noted that the more recent proposed ballot question was seen as a reaction to the city’s effort to build a parking garage and train station on the site of a surface parking lot that’s part of Fuller Park. He described some ways that the parks are already protected from sale – if the land is purchased with parks millage funds, for example, or if it’s included in the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan.

As far as he knew, Berla said there has never been an attempt to sell park property in Ann Arbor. If there were, he was pretty sure that PAC “would kick and scream.”

Julie Grand, who serves as PAC’s chair, said she hadn’t felt comfortable supporting the recently proposed ballot question on leasing parkland because it’s difficult to know what will happen 30 years down the road. Someone might propose a project that makes sense and provides a great benefit to the city, but that requires a long-term lease, she said.

The city has 157 parks and natural areas, Grand noted, and simply adding parkland at this point isn’t a good approach. The city shouldn’t buy land for parks just because a property owner wants to unload it so they don’t have to pay taxes. “Clearly there’s a difference between Furstenberg Nature Area and The Rock,” she quipped.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks & recreation manager, explained the process that would be required if the city wanted to sell parkland. The sale would have to be approved by voters, but even before it gets to that point there are significant hurdles, he said. It would have to be removed from the parks master plan, a process that would require a recommendation from both PAC and then the planning commission. The city council would then need to vote to put it on the ballot. All of these steps in some ways provide the greatest protection, Smith said. If you’re a business person who’s interested in buying  parkland, why would you want to go through all of that “rigmarole,” Smith asked.

However, Tim Doyle (PAC) noted that from the city’s perspective, there could be significant economic reasons for wanting to sell a piece of property that’s deemed as parkland. In some cases if a park can’t be maintained, “it’s crap,” he said.

Contract Update

Laura Rubin (GAC) asked about the status of the contract renewal for management of the greenbelt program.

Since the greenbelt program launched, the city has contracted with The Conservation Fund to manage its operation. The current three-year contract ends on Jan. 15, 2013. The nonprofit – with headquarters in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. – also manages the city’s parkland acquisition. Both efforts are funded by the 0.5 mill open space and parkland preservation millage that voters approved in 2003. Ginny Trocchio is the nonprofit’s local staff member.

The Ann Arbor city council approved the current contract with The Conservation Fund on Dec. 21, 2009. It authorized $119,565 in 2010, with two one-year renewal options for $113,661 in 2011 and $106,797 in 2012. The Conservation Fund was the only bidder for that request for proposals (RFP). It is expected to bid on the renewal as well.

At the Nov. 1 meeting, Trocchio reported that the RFP hadn’t yet been issued. [It was subsequently released, with a Nov. 28 (10 a.m.) deadline for responses. (.pdf of management RFP)]

Catherine Riseng, who serves on the RFP review committee for this contract renewal, praised Trocchio’s work – and Trocchio received a round of applause from both GAC and PAC commissioners.

Present from greenbelt advisory commission: Peter Allen, Tom Bloomer, Shannon Brines, Archer Christian, Dan Ezekiel, Catherine Riseng, Laura Rubin. Absent: Carsten Hohnke.

Present from the park advisory commission: Ingrid Ault, Tim Berla, Tim Doyle, Julie Grand, Alan Jackson, John Lawter, Mike Anglin (ex-officio). Absent: Karen Levin, Missy Stults, Christopher Taylor (ex-officio).

Staff present: Ginny Trocchio, Colin Smith.

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