Greenbelt expansion wins approval from Ann Arbor City Council
The Ann Arbor City Council gave final approval Monday night to expand the Greenbelt district boundaries further into Salem and Lodi townships, adding 10 square miles of land to the area where city officials are working to preserve farmland and open space.
"This expands it by about 6 percent," said Council Member Carsten Hohnke, D-5th Ward and a member of the city's Greenbelt Advisory Commission.
"This recognizes the partnership that we've developed with Superior and Lodi townships, and just the knowledge that's been gained over the eight years of administering the program, and understanding where the opportunities are for best leveraging the dollars."
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Ann Arbor voters authorized the 0.5-mill tax for 30 years in 2003. It provides funds for parkland acquisition within the city and the preservation of open space, agricultural land, and other natural habitats outside the city in a designated Greenbelt district.
At the time the program was approved, a significant amount of development activity was occurring around Washtenaw County and farmland was being sold off to developers. A goal of the program is to counter urban sprawl and preserve sustainable farming.
The purchase of development rights keeps the property in the hands of the owner but ensures the land can't be developed and will remain preserved as open space.
"I think it's been a huge success for the community, and one that has served us particularly well — and will for perpetuity," Hohnke said. "We as a community have leveraged our funds extremely wisely. For every dollar that Ann Arbor taxpayers have put in to preserve open space around the city, we've gotten more than another dollar from other sources."
The only council member to oppose the expansion at Monday's meeting was Jane Lumm, an Independent who represents the 2nd Ward.
She questioned whether spending millions to purchase the development rights to properties outside the city is the best use of city tax dollars during difficult economic times.
Lumm said she wondered how many boundary expansions there are going to be before the city considers repurposing a portion of the Greenbelt funding.
"Only voters can change the Greenbelt millage," she said. "But that does not prevent council from deciding to present a proposal to voters to decide to repurpose some of the Greenbelt millage funds. Knowing my colleagues, I certainly don't expect that to happen anytime soon."
She said the Greenbelt fund is "flush with cash," pointing out it has a $10 million fund balance and annual millage revenues exceed annual debt service by $1 million.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
"What are the results to date?" she said. "This will be the second expansion. The first was in 2007. Twenty-seven percent of the purchases have been parkland purchases inside the city, a bit lower than the one-third target. And the city has on average paid about half — 48 percent, to be precise — of the costs, certainly higher than the one-third target."
Meanwhile, Lumm said, the city's parks are "starved for funds." She said the city owes it to taxpayers to monitor their tax dollars carefully and no program should be above scrutiny.
Mayor John Hieftje said he supported the Greenbelt expansion with the expectation it will be the last time the boundaries grow.
"But these little corners that are being brought in do present some unique opportunities, particularly down in the southwest," he said.
Lodi Township has partnered with the city on the purchase of conservation easements, and Salem Township recently passed a purchase of development rights ordinance and has committed $1 million over the next five years to land preservation.
By expanding the Greenbelt boundaries in those townships, city officials hope to capitalize on the potential for more partnerships to leverage the city's Greenbelt funds.
Hieftje referenced one of the main literature pieces used during the Greenbelt campaign several years ago. It stated the millage would raise about $35 million from city taxpayers plus leverage $30 million to $50 million in matching funds from other sources.
"So I think the program is consistent in doing that," he said.
Dan Ezekiel, chairman of the Greenbelt Advisory Commission, recently reported the Greenbelt program has preserved 27 properties — about five square miles — around the city.
He said that came at a cost of about $18 million to the city, and the city has leveraged another $19 million in matching funds from the federal government, the county, surrounding townships, nonprofit land conservancies, land owners and private organizations.
Hieftje pointed out the state of Michigan eliminated a preservation program that was in place at the time the Greenbelt program was approved.
"But we have been fortunate to garner, in many years, 90 percent of the federal money that comes to Michigan for farmland preservation — it's coming to the Greenbelt program and our partners in this area," he said. "So it's been very successful."
Hohnke said it's not unreasonable to expect the city will have preserved 10,000 acres of land by the time the Greenbelt program concludes.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's e-mail newsletters.