Greenbelt Commission Starts New Year

Advisory group gets update on Preserve Washtenaw, creates outreach committee, recommends land preservation in Scio Township

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Jan. 2, 2014): Commissioners spent more than half of their first meeting of 2014 in closed session to discuss possible land acquisition.

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Stephanie Buttrey asks a question during a discussion at the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission’s Jan. 2, 2014 meeting. Other commissioners in this photo are Peter Allen, Shannon Brines and Jean Cares. (Photos by the writer.)

Land acquisition is one topic that’s allowed as an exemption in Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, which allows a public body to meeting in a closed session. Emerging after about 30 minutes, commissioners voted to recommend that the city partner with Scio Township for the purchase of development rights on a property in that township, just west of Ann Arbor. Until properties are put on the council agenda, they are identified only by application number, not by specific location or ownership.

Also on Jan. 2, commissioners got an update on Preserve Washtenaw, a group of local governments and organizations – including the city of Ann Arbor – that are involved in long-term land preservation efforts. The goal of Preserve Washtenaw is to provide a forum for discussing how these various entities can collaborate and coordinate.

Commissioners also voted to approve GAC’s 2014 meeting schedule, and created a new committee focused on outreach. Members include John Ramsburgh, Stephanie Buttrey and Jean Cares.

No one spoke during the meeting’s two opportunities for public commentary.

Preserve Washtenaw

Ginny Trocchio, who provides staff support for the greenbelt program, gave commissioners an update on Preserve Washtenaw.

The group was formed in 2005, two years after Ann Arbor voters approved the city’s 30-year open space and parkland preservation millage, which funds the greenbelt program. Several other entities in Washtenaw County are also working on land preservation initiatives. Those include the Washtenaw County natural areas preservation and farmland preservation programs, and land preservation efforts in Ann Arbor Township, Pittsfield Township, Scio Township and Webster Township.

In addition, several land conservancies were also active in local land preservation, including the Legacy Land Conservancy, Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy, and Raisin Valley Land Trust.

The intent behind Preserve Washtenaw is to provide a forum for discussing how these various entities can collaborate and coordinate efforts, Trocchio said. The group has been meeting quarterly since 2005 and is open to any organizations and communities that are working on permanent land preservation in the county.

Preserve Washtenaw is not set up as a formal nonprofit, Trocchio explained, but it does serve as a single entry point for landowners who are looking for options to protect their land. If a landowner applies to the greenbelt program but the property is located outside of the greenbelt boundaries, for example, then the city staff shares the application with the appropriate land preservation entity, she said.

The Preserve Washtenaw website is hosted by the county, and will be updated soon. They also hope to provide an interactive map at some point to show the locations of protected land.

Preserve Washtenaw: Commission Discussion

In response to a commissioner question, Trocchio said that she typically attends the Preserve Washtenaw meetings on behalf of the city of Ann Arbor, but any greenbelt advisory commissioners would be welcome to attend.

Stephanie Buttrey asked if this was the only forum for exchanging information – she guessed that people were communicating regularly throughout the year, not just at the quarterly meetings. Trocchio confirmed that view, saying that she talks regularly with representatives from the county and other land preservation groups. But the quarterly meetings allow people to all gather at one time, she said.

There were no other questions.

Outcome: This was not a voting item.

2014 Meeting Calendar

Commissioners were asked to approve GAC’s meeting calendar for 2014. Except for the August meeting, GAC will meet on the first Thursday of each month at 4:30 p.m. In August, the meeting will be held on Aug. 14 due to a conflict with a rescheduled city council meeting. The city council typically meets on the first and third Monday of each month. But because of the primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 5, the council meeting that week will be held on Thursday, Aug. 7.

Most GAC meetings are held in council chambers and are broadcast live via Community Television Network. However, the calendar indicates that GAC’s November and December meetings will be held in the basement conference room at city hall, which is not set up for broadcasting. [.pdf of GAC 2014 meeting calendar]

Outcome: Commissioners approved the calendar without discussion.

Staff Update

Ginny Trocchio reported that she hasn’t yet received word about whether the city has received any grants from the USDA Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP). She said she’d update commissioners when she receives additional news.

Trocchio also reported that the greenbelt registry program is still being reviewed by the city administrator and city attorney’s office. A database has been compiled of about 250 landowners with large properties – 40 acres or more – that are still in active use as farmland or have undeveloped open space. These are landowners that the city could approach about the greenbelt program, she said.

The registry was part of an updated strategic plan that the commission approved at its April 4, 2013 meeting. 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.

Outcome: This was not a voting item.

Outreach Committee

Catherine Riseng, GAC’s chair, reported that the executive committee had discussed the issue of outreach, and that Ginny Trocchio is interested in getting help with suggestions from commissioners. Riseng asked if any commissioners were interested in volunteering to serve.

Three commissioners volunteered: John Ramsburgh, Jean Cares and Stephanie Buttrey. Trocchio said she’d be in touch with them about setting up a meeting.

Outcome: This was not a voting item.

Land Acquisition

Most meetings of the greenbelt advisory commission include a closed session to discuss possible land acquisitions. The topic of land acquisition is one allowed as an exemption by the Michigan Open Meetings Act for a closed session. On Jan. 2, commissioners met in a closed session that lasted about 30 minutes, then emerged and voted on one resolution that will be forwarded to the city council.

Before appearing on the city council’s agenda, details of proposed greenbelt acquisitions are not made public. Parcels are identified only by their application number, with the first four numbers signifying the year in which the application was made.

On Jan. 2, commissioners voted on a resolution recommending that the city council approve partnering with Scio Township for the purchase of development rights on a property identified in application #2013-04 and contribute up to 30% of the purchase price, not to exceed $25,200.

Outcome: The resolution passed unanimously, without discussion.

Next meeting: Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 at 4:30 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron. This meeting will also likely include a driving tour of greenbelt properties. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date] The meetings are open to the public and include two opportunities for public commentary.

Present: Peter Allen, Shannon Brines, Stephanie Buttrey, Jean Cares, Jennifer Fike, John Ramsburgh, Catherine Riseng, Christopher Taylor. Staff: Ginny Trocchio.

Absent: Archer Christian.

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