Commissioners OK Greenbelt Strategic Plan

Also: Effort underway to establish greenbelt registry program; Jennifer Fike expresses interest in replacing term-limited Laura Rubin

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (April 4, 2013): An updated strategic plan for the city’s greenbelt program received unanimous approval at this month’s GAC meeting. The plan included only minor changes since the draft was reviewed in September of 2012.

Jennifer Fike, Huron River Watershed Council, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jennifer Fike, finance director of the Huron River Watershed Council, is interested in joining the greenbelt advisory commission. If nominated and confirmed by the city council, she would replace Laura Rubin, HRWC’s executive director, whose term on the commission ends in June. (Photos by the writer.)

The plan lays out a broad range of goals for the preservation of farmland and open space within the greenbelt boundaries. There are no significant changes from the last version approved in 2009, although the plan does include a new section on education and outreach.

The plan also includes the goal of establishing a greenbelt registry program, to formalize relationships with landowners who aren’t yet part of the greenbelt program, but who are committed to the program’s principles of land preservation. “It’s creating a pipeline of projects for the future,” said Dan Ezekiel, GAC’s chair. Three commissioners – Peter Allen, Shannon Brines and Archer Christian – agreed to work with Ginny Trocchio, who manages the greenbelt program, to develop a proposal for the full commission to consider.

Also at the April 4 meeting, Jennifer Fike – finance director for the Huron River Watershed Council – was introduced as a possible replacement on the commission for Laura Rubin. Rubin, who serves as HRWC’s executive director, fills a position on GAC that’s designated for an environmental organization. Her term ends on June 30. Because she is term-limited, she can’t be re-appointed.

Ezekiel noted that there are other vacancies as well, and that anyone who’s interested in applying should contact their city council representative. [.pdf of application form for city boards and commissions] Meetings for the commission are scheduled monthly, although the April meeting was only GAC’s second one in 2013. Both the January and March meetings were canceled.

Strategic Plan

Commissioners and staff have been working on an update of the greenbelt program’s strategic plan for several months. Proposed revisions to the strategic plan were discussed at GAC’s Sept. 6, 2012 meeting, but commissioners had not yet approved it.

At GAC’s Dec. 6, 2012 meeting, Ginny Trocchio – who provides support staff for the program – had reported that she had hoped to get input on proposed revisions to the greenbelt program’s strategic plan at the November meeting of Preserve Washtenaw, but that meeting had been canceled. Preserve Washtenaw is a consortium of local land preservation groups, including the Legacy Land Conservancy, Washtenaw County’s natural areas preservation program, and several township programs. Subsequently, GAC’s January 2013 meeting was canceled.

On Feb. 7, Trocchio told commissioners that she was still waiting for feedback. She expected to bring the strategic plan back to GAC for consideration at their March 7 meeting. That March meeting was also canceled.

On April 4, Trocchio reported that no significant changes had been made, based on feedback from the program’s partners. The plan is consistent with what other land preservation groups are doing, in terms for scoring criteria and priorities. She also noted that there weren’t many changes from the previous version of the strategic plan, which was adopted in 2009. The main change is adding a description of how the program fits in with the local economy, because so much has changed over the past few years. Also new is a section on education and outreach.

Excerpts from the strategic plan include the following, from the section on farmland preservation:

Although there is currently little development pressure in the area, due to the downturn in the real estate market and overall economic conditions over the last several years, over the next 3-5 years, the Greenbelt Program will continue to focus on forming 1000-acre blocks -or larger- of protected farms of varying sizes in order to create a diverse farmland base to insure the long term viability of agriculture for future producers. Thus, this strategic plan recommends a major emphasis on purchasing development rights from farmers.

While it is difficult to assign a percentage of focus of the Greenbelt acquisitions, as the program is dependent upon applications, the Greenbelt Program will strive to have approximately 90 percent of the funds focused on preserving blocks of land.

Recognizing that the Greenbelt’s mission is solely the protection of land, the Greenbelt program will make a priority to protect those farms that are producing foods for Ann Arbor markets and consumers.

From the section on open space preservation:

Applications received either along the Huron River or which contain tributaries of the Huron River will be a priority for the Greenbelt, recognizing the significance of the Huron River to the Ann Arbor residents as their source of drinking water.

The Greenbelt scoring criteria awards points to applications that provide scenic views, and visibility from major corridors frequently traveled by Ann Arbor residents. Examples of these major corridors are along the highways that surround the city, which are often an entryway into the City, or routes that are frequented by bikers.

The Greenbelt will continue to seek partnership opportunities with Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation to provide additional recreation opportunities for Ann Arbor residents. In addition, the Greenbelt will prioritize applications with additional recreation opportunities or along major bike path corridors identified by the County.

From the section on leveraging funds:

Given the decrease in land values over the past few years, the Greenbelt Advisory Commission feels that the benefit of State and Federal assistance may not always outweigh the costs of doing business with these agencies. We still place a priority on leveraging funds, but will consider applications that do not meet the State and Federal grant criteria.

After the plan receives approval from GAC, it would be forwarded to the city council as an item of information. [.pdf of draft revised strategic plan] [.pdf of 2009 version of Ann Arbor greenbelt district strategic plan]

Strategic Plan: Commission Discussion

Several commissioners praised the updated plan, and had only a few suggestions. Peter Allen, who served on the subcommittee that worked on the revisions, noted that the data used in some of the charts was outdated. “Is there any way to get more recent data than 2007?” he asked.

No, Trocchio replied. The charts with information on Washtenaw County livestock and crops is based on 2007 data collected by the USDA agriculture census, which is done every five years. The more recent data from 2012 won’t be available until later this year or early next year, she said. In that case, Allen suggested putting a note to indicate that 2007 is the most recent data available. Otherwise, it creates a credibility issue, he said, with people questioning why the data is old.

Dan Ezekiel noted that the maps and a chart included in the strategic plan should be updated to reflect the most recent land preservation deals. He also pointed out that the chart listing sources of potential matching funds should be updated to reflect a contribution from Salem Township.

Washtenaw County land preservation programs

Washtenaw County land preservation programs.

Allen observed that the plan will be forwarded to the city council and posted on the greenbelt program’s website. He wondered how it would be distributed to the public.

Trocchio said she could send out an email blast to people who have signed up for greenbelt notifications on the city’s website. Allen suggested also sending it to the townships and other greenbelt partners, as well as the media.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously recommended approval of the greenbelt program’s strategic plan.

Greenbelt Registry

After approving the strategic plan, commissioners then addressed one of the plan’s recommendations: Establishing a greenbelt registry program.

Dan Ezekiel noted that the strategic plan addresses the transition and changing emphasis from pure acquisition to stewardship of the existing greenbelt. One part of that would be setting up a registry, he said, and so GAC needs to form a subcommittee to work with Ginny Trocchio on developing a proposal for that.

Trocchio gave some additional background, describing the registry as a more formal mechanism to develop relationships with landowners. A lot of land trusts nationwide have this kind of program, she noted.

From the updated strategic plan:

In addition, recognizing that over the next 3-5 years, the Greenbelt will likely shift in program focus and will not be able to acquire as many properties or easements annually, it is important that the Commission maintain contact with landowners in the Greenbelt District who may be interested in protecting their land in the future. Therefore, the Greenbelt will prioritize establishing a Greenbelt Registry Program.

A land registry program is a listing of the properties that contain “special” natural features or has remained in farmland open space that landowners have voluntarily agreed to protect. This is an oral non-binding agreement between the City of Ann Arbor and the landowner. The landowner can end at any time, and the agreement does not affect the deed. The landowners agree to monitor and protect specific features of the property and notify the City if the landowner is planning on selling the property or if major threats have occurred.

The purpose of the land registry is to identify significant parcels of land and, through voluntary agreements with landowners, take the first step toward protection of the land’s natural resources. Furthermore, a land registry program recognizes landowners for protecting significant open space/natural features. Ultimately, these lands could be protected permanently through a conservation easement.

The landowner, by voluntarily agreeing to register their land, agrees to the following:

  • Protect the land to the best of their ability
  • Notify the City of Ann Arbor Greenbelt Staff of any significant changes they are planning or any natural changes that have occurred.
  • Notify the City of Ann Arbor Greenbelt Staff of any intent to sell the property.

Trocchio said the subcommittee would consider how targeted the registry should be – mass mailings versus working with individual landowners directly, for example. Other issues include how the information should be tracked, and how landowners should be honored and recognized for keeping the land in agricultural or open space. She noted that she already has informal relationships with several landowners who aren’t yet part of the greenbelt program. This registry would be a way to formalize that relationship.

Greenbelt Registry: Commission Discussion

Archer Christian asked what the timeline would be for this project. Trocchio said a timeline would be determined by the subcommittee. She also noted that the idea of a registry has been discussed for several years. Now, “we’re getting to the bottom of the market,” Trocchio said, in terms of declining land values. Appraisals are coming back with low valuations, so landowners are deciding to wait until land values increase before selling their development rights to the city.

Shannon Brines, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Shannon Brines of Brines Farm in Dexter will serve on a subcommittee to develop a greenbelt registry program.

Peter Allen asked Trocchio what percentage of farmers she already has contact with, even if they aren’t currently part of the greenbelt program. He wondered if there were a lot of farmers out there who don’t have contact with the program in any way. Trocchio replied that there are definitely some major landowners who don’t have any connection to the greenbelt program. Property is always changing hands, so there are also new people who might not know about the program.

Allen wondered how long it would take to create the registry, and how many people might be on it, when completed. Trocchio estimated it could take a couple of months to put together. She said for the first year, a goal might be to have 10-15 landowners on the registry, eventually with 20-30 landowners enrolled.

She clarified that it’s not just a roster with hundreds of names and contact information. Rather, the registry is a “relationship list,” she said.

Ezekiel reported that this idea has been floated in the past, but until now most staff time has been spent on active acquisition. “This is kind of a bridge to the future, and more visionary,” he said. He imagined that the greenbelt program could give landowners on the registry an aerial photo of their property and a certificate thanking them for being good stewards of their land. Then 20-30 years later, the landowners might have that relationship in mind and decide to preserve their land permanently through the greenbelt. “It’s creating a pipeline of projects for the future,” Ezekiel said.

Commissioners will be transitioning from their roles as giving oversight on land acquisition to becoming ambassadors between the greenbelt stakeholders, Ezekiel said, including the taxpayers who are financing the program. He viewed the registry as a top priority, but said he couldn’t volunteer for the subcommittee because his term was ending.

Peter Allen, Archer Christian and Shannon Brines volunteered for the subcommittee. Allen disagreed that Ezekiel couldn’t be on it too – indicating that Ezekiel’s institutional memory would be valuable. Ezekiel responded: “I’d be more than happy to help.”

Outcome: This was not a voting item.

Commission Appointments

Three commissioners – Tom Bloomer, Dan Ezekiel, and Laura Rubin – are term limited and will not be reappointed when their current terms end on June 30, 2013.

Rubin, who serves as executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, fills a position on GAC that’s designated for an environmental organization. At GAC’s April 4 meeting, she introduced Jennifer Fike, who’s interested in replacing Rubin on the commission. Fike is the finance director for HRWC.

Rubin noted that Fike has a strong expertise in the local food sector, as former director of the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP). Fike has experience with farm-to-school programs and local farmers, as well as familiarity with national issues in that area. She also has a strong financial and administrative background, Rubin noted.

Laura Rubin, Huron River Watershed Council, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, has served on the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission since 2004 and is term limited. Her current term ends on June 30, 2013.

Fike told commissioners that she was interested in serving on GAC. She’s currently on the board of the Legacy Land Conservancy, and was previously the treasurer of the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy. She was also appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to the Michigan Commission of Agriculture & Rural Development. Fike said she has a strong interest in land preservation, and hopes to bring her skills and expertise to the greenbelt advisory commission.

Peter Allen asked Fike for her opinion about GAC’s work, and what she’d like to do on the commission. He also wondered if there were any trends she’s seen that commissioners should be aware of.

Fike replied that she’s been involved in trying to expand the market for smaller farms in the region. There’s been huge growth in farms selling to local markets in Washtenaw County, she said, and she sees that trend continuing. “It’s great to see that interest and effort from young people going into farming,” Fike said. Land costs can be an obstacle, she noted, and a focus at FSEP had been to help new farmers get started.

Dan Ezekiel thanked Fike for her interest in serving on the commission. He noted that greenbelt commissioners are both nominated and confirmed by the city council. [For most other city commissions, members are nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council.] Ezekiel said there are other GAC vacancies as well, so anyone who’s interested in applying for the position should contact their city council representative. [.pdf of application form for city boards and commissions]

Ezekiel fills an at-large position. Bloomer’s position is for a farmer; he owns Bur Oaks Farm in Webster Township.

Another at-large position is currently vacant, following the resignation earlier this year of Liz Rother. She had been appointed in 2011 for a term ending June 30, 2014.

Staff Update

During her staff update, Ginny Trocchio reported that the city has submitted an application to the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) for grants totaling about $202,000 for two properties covering 169 acres. She talked to the program coordinator in Lansing, who said there had been 18 applications in Michigan, requesting a total of $2.5 million in grants. For Michigan, only $1.8 million in FRPP funds are available this year. However, additional funds are being requested from other states that don’t spend their FRPP allotment, Trocchio said, “so we’re hoping that more money will come to Michigan.” Trocchio expects to hear about whether the Ann Arbor greenbelt will receive its requested funding within a couple of months.

Shannon Brines asked if any other local entities applied. Trocchio reported that the Washtenaw County natural areas preservation program has applied for an FRPP grant, as did Scio Township. There might be others as well, she said.

Laura Rubin wondered if there was any information about the future of the FRPP program. Will funding be decreased because of the sequester?

Trocchio replied that as far as she knew, no funding would be cut that’s already been obligated. So the $1.8 million available for Michigan grants is still available. “As far as future years, I don’t know yet,” she said.

Closed Session: Land Acquisition

Commissioners spent about 30 minutes at the end of their April 4 meeting in closed session to discuss possible land acquisitions, which is one of the reasons for a closed session  allowed by the Michigan Open Meetings Act. When they emerged from closed session, there was no further action and the meeting was adjourned.

Next meeting: Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 4:30 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date] The meetings are open to the public and include two opportunities for public commentary.

Present: Peter Allen, Tom Bloomer, Shannon Brines, Archer Christian, Dan Ezekiel, Catherine Riseng, Laura Rubin. Staff: Ginny Trocchio.

Absent: Christopher Taylor.

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