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Posted on Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 6:05 a.m.

Ann Arbor's Greenbelt Program making strides on preserving open space

By Ryan J. Stanton


The city of Ann Arbor's Greenbelt Program recently purchased the development rights to 286 acres of farmland owned by Bill Nixon of Webster Township for $2.14 million. Aside from being the largest chunk of land ever acquired by the Greenbelt Program, the purchase is significant because the property once was slated to become a manufactured home park.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Members of the Webster United Church of Christ - the oldest continuously used church in Washtenaw County - say they thought long and hard before agreeing to relinquish the development rights to 94.4 acres behind their aging building.

The fact that the land was historically used for agricultural purposes was a major consideration when the congregation decided to accept the $613,000 offer by the city of Ann Arbor's Greenbelt Program. That will ensure the property can't be developed and will remain forever preserved as open space.

Now entering its seventh year, the Ann Arbor taxpayer-funded Greenbelt Program is making strides. Administrators of the program are reporting 2009 was one of the most successful years to date. After the purchases of multiple properties in Webster Township, an actual greenbelt is starting to form around Ann Arbor.


The congregation of the Webster United Church of Christ recently decided to relinquish the development rights to 94.4 acres of property to the city of Ann Arbor's Greenbelt Program.

Ryan J. Stanton |

"The congregation overall felt that it was important to maintain the property," said Jim Kulp, chairman of the church committee that evaluated putting the land into the preservation program. "We felt that it would be best to utilize it as a green space area, and when we learned of the Greenbelt Program, we looked into it and it appeared to be an excellent program that would serve that purpose."

A stone's throw away from the church, at the intersection of Zeeb and Daly roads in rural Webster Township, lies another 286 acres of farmland owned by Bill Nixon. At the end of December, the city closed on the purchase of development rights to Nixon's property for $2.14 million.

Aside from being the largest chunk of land ever acquired by the Greenbelt Program, the purchase of the development rights on the 286-acre Nixon farm is significant because the property once was slated to become a manufactured home park.

"After having faced that, to have Bill now turn around and put this in the PDR is a great thing," said Webster Township resident Spencer Ford, who owns 90 acres of property across the road that he is considering putting into the Greenbelt.

"It's been a great program," Ford said. "It's really great for Webster Township, and I love what it's doing for Ann Arbor, too. It would have been a shame to have turned into another Canton and have solid development all the way around the city."

A total of 709 acres were added to the Greenbelt in 2009, which includes 607 acres in Webster Township and 102 acres in Lodi Township. That brings the total land protected by the program to date to 1,782 acres.

Those acres are spread across eight townships surrounding Ann Arbor, including Webster, Northfield, Ann Arbor, Salem, Superior, Pittsfield, Lodi, and Scio townships.

"We're just delighted with closing the projects at the end of the year," said Peg Kohring, midwest regional director for The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit firm under contract with the city to administer the program.

"The big thing that's been done this year is that it's blocks of land," Kohring said. "When we started out with the Greenbelt, we did individual properties in kind of spread-out townships, but now we're actually doing blocks of land that are safe to drive a tractor between and that will actually lead to sustainable farming."

Critical matching funds were received this past year, resulting in an average 1-to-1 match for every dollar the city spent. A total of $564,500 was provided by Webster Township, $366,850 from landowners, and $2.07 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program.

"The Greenbelt Program has been accomplishing its mission, and it's kind of into a golden time right now because a very large percentage of the federal monies that come to Michigan come here because we're the people with the program with matching funds," said Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje, who was the public leader of the campaign seven years ago to start the program. "It's been a whole lot of success, and I look forward to the next few years particularly."

The Greenbelt Program was approved by Ann Arbor voters in November 2003 - at a time when a significant amount of development activity was occurring around Washtenaw County, and farmland was being sold for development.

Voters authorized a 0.5-mill tax for 30 years, which 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 (see map).


Hieftje points out the Greenbelt millage wasn't a new tax when it was approved in 2003. The city had a land acquisition millage off and on dating back to the 1980s, and it was extended a couple years before it would have expired.

The millage - officially called the Open Space and Parkland Preservation millage - brought in $2.2 million in revenues from city taxpayers last fiscal year. An income statement obtained by shows expenses totaled $4.26 million, while revenues - factoring in grants and investment income - totaled $3.73 million. The program ended the year with a fund balance of $17.1 million - $10.23 million from the millage and $6.9 million from bond proceeds.

About $1.2 million went toward debt service for bonds, while $2.6 million was spent on Greenbelt projects and $237,444 on park projects. Another $184,924 was paid out in administrative expenses, $139,443 of which went to The Conservation Fund.

City Council Member Carsten Hohnke, a member of the Greenbelt Advisory Commission, said lower land prices and more matching funds are helping city dollars go further than ever before through the Greenbelt Program.

"The market place is much different - there aren't a whole lot of developers looking for farmland - and so we've seen the price per acre for the development rights come down by about half," Hohnke said. "And so we're actually protecting a lot more land than we expected."


A view of the two silos on the Nixon farm from behind the broken boards of an old barn on the property.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Last November, Webster Township residents voted to continue their support of preserving farmland and open space, township Supervisor John Kingsley noted. He said the township looks forward to working with the city and other partners to preserve even more land in the future.

The city of Ann Arbor originally estimated it would cost $617,257 to acquire 75 acres of property behind the Webster United Church of Christ, about half of which would be funded through a federal land protection program. But when federal grants were denied, the church was willing to donate additional acreage for free and Webster Township kicked in a contribution of $77,000.

A historic marker standing in front of the white building indicates the church traces its roots to the 1830s. While the congregation agreed to make 94.4 acres untouchable, Kulp said the church kept the development rights to land immediately surrounding the building. The church is considering using the money it was paid through the Greenbelt Program to complete a renovation or expansion in the future.

"The gain that we did get from the property, we've put it away and we have a meeting in January where we'll have some discussion," Kulp said. "We have additional property we can build upon - we didn't put all of the property into the Greenbelt."

Ryan J. Stanton covers government for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.



Thu, Jan 21, 2010 : 4:03 p.m.

What's to stop developers from buying land just that little bit further out past the Greenbelt boundary, and then people moving there? Nothing. A few miles more to drive to get to the city will not convince many people to live in the city, Ann Arbor has plenty of problems that make people think twice about locating in the city limits. This is not Portland with a population of almost 600,000 people. Portland sits on two sides of a major river. The South Portland Greenbelt is part of a recreational walkway. It's sole purpose is not to prevent sprawl. If you've ever been there, the Portland area already has plenty of what most of us would identify as sprawl. It's a pretty big metro area.. Their Greenbelt is there to slow the loss of metro green space. Portland city itself is already pretty densely populated. Altho Ann Arbor has an opportunity to make a walkable Greenway inside the city, which I support, there a no plans to have our Greenbelt be part of an organized recreational use. So let's see, Spend money in the townships with no plans for use by city residents or use those tax dollars to improve services and the quality of life for residents already in the city. A badly needed bridge comes to mind. You choose.

Ryan J. Stanton

Thu, Jan 21, 2010 : 1:10 a.m.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone. I don't know the answer to every question posed here, but I am in the process of getting more information, slowly but surely. I'm planning to write more about the Greenbelt in the coming months, so stay tuned. Perhaps some of this discussion can be channeled into a future story. But for now, I'm glad we have this forum where, it appears, people intimately involved in this issue are sharing valuable information. Keep it up.


Thu, Jan 21, 2010 : 1 a.m.

Moose, Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of providing more opportunities for community gardens. Better to teach someone to grow food than to give them food. As to your claim that "Greenbelts are not a proven planning device", I would disagree. Look at the successful greenbelt in Portland, Oregon, or the many greenbelts around European cities. Compact cities are more efficient cities, plus we need land for local food, forests for clean air and water, etc. Sprawl development is inefficient and wasteful. In the Detroit Metro area alone, billions of tax dollars have been spent subsidizing sprawl over the last 60 years. This has led to high taxes, abandonment of the urban core and thousands of acres in need of redevelopment. Ann Arbor should be commended for trying something different. Trying to establish a greenbelt at this late stage will not be quick or easy...but it's a step in the right direction.


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 10:26 p.m.

"(A public farm might be nice, too.)" Yeah, a taxpayer supported hobby farm and petting zoo for people who know exactly nothing about and romanticize farming a la Little House on the Prairie. Why don't we put it on top of the Library Lot parking structure?


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 4:42 p.m.

Fee Title Market Value = Development Rights Value + Restricted (Residual) Value The main reason that purchasing fee title could be a cost effective strategy is that I believe that appraisers often underestimate the restricted value of a property, resulting in a higher payout for the development rights. As a real estate broker, I fully understand that appraisals are simply estimates of a property's market value (and federal law requires purchase offers to be based on appraisals when federal funding is involved). The challenges that an appraiser faces today are 1) there are not that many good comparable sales of large properties, and 2) there are virtually no sales of easement-restricted properties to use as comparables to estimate the restricted value of a property. Sales of properties with low development potential are often used a "comparables", but those properties are often quite distant from the subject property. Hence, there is more guesswork involved in the appraisal. The Little Traverse Conservancy in northern Michigan has utilized the strategy of buying and then re-selling land with an easement, and it has protected land for a very reasonable cost per acre. Of course, land around Ann Arbor has much more development potential (and value), but values of restricted property are much higher, too. Its a strategy the Greenbelt Program should at least explore. Still, the Greenbelt should buy more land, period. The public access benefits would be worth the added acquisition costsplus there are plenty of partners to reduce the Citys costs. (A public farm might be nice, too.)


Wed, Jan 20, 2010 : 3:49 p.m.

"If the development rights are so expensive, why not buy the land and lease it to farmers?" That's a good question. Buying the development rights--also called buying a conservation easement--primarily keeps the land private and on the tax rolls. All of the costs associated with maintaining the land also remain as private responsibilities. Plus, many people don't want to sell their land, they'd rather retain title. Purchasing the development rights is always cheaper, in terms of dollars expended, than buying the fee interest, and there are no subsequent costs to manage the land. Purchasing property outright, however(when people are willing to sell), could be a very cost effective strategy. Instead of simply buying the development rights, the Greenbelt could buy the fee title and then sell the land encumbered with an easement, thereby protecting the property and recouping much of their money. Ill outline my reasoning for how this could save money in a subsequent post, if thats allowed.


Tue, Jan 19, 2010 : 10:01 p.m.

Greenbelts are not proven fixes for either preserving open space surrounding urban areas or increasing urban density. it is essentially a regressive redistribution of wealth (suburban land purchased with urban tax dollars) and does little to improve the systems and processes necessary for sustainable urban infrastructure.


Mon, Jan 18, 2010 : 3:37 p.m.

All of the Greenbelt purchases have had independent appraisals conducted prior to purchase. The "development rights" value, in just about all cases, has been the vast majority of each property's value. I view these purchases as tremendous bargains for taxpayers. If the properties were developed, it would cost untold millions of tax dollars to service new developments. Plus, we're getting a permanent benefit from the purchase--something that you can rarely say about tax expenditures. The Greenbelt Program is still not "thee" solution. It can only be successful in partnership with other programs (federal, state, county and local), in partnership with local land conservancies, and combined with strong local zoning (which, unfortunately, is virtually non-existant in Michigan since it's so politicized).


Mon, Jan 18, 2010 : 11:53 a.m.

While most of the properties protected by the Greenbelt remain private, it should be noted that the Greenbelt also partnered with the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission to purchase two parcels in Superior Township. These two parcels are now called the Meyer Preserve and comprise 139 acres which are open to the public. Adjoining the Meyer Preserve are the LeFurge Woods Nature Preserve (325 acres) and the Conservancy Farm (99 acres) which were purchased by the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy and are also open to the public. In fact, over 1,000 contiguous acres are now protected at this location due to the many partnerships involved in these and other projects. Significant farmland has been protected and several miles of hiking trails are available at these preserves for the public to enjoy.


Mon, Jan 18, 2010 : 10:27 a.m.

This has been a great story and comment thread - thank you Ryan Stanton for bringing more and more facts into the comments as the discussion goes on. I especially like the various camps that show up in the comments for most stories. I'm better understanding all the mentalities present in the Ann Arbor area. Bottom line: there's not much excuse any more for ignorant reactions. There are those who inform themselves before commenting and those who don't. The online medium gives more people a chance to be informed faster than the print medium ever did.


Mon, Jan 18, 2010 : 9:34 a.m.

This Greenbelt has just as much potential, if not more potential considering the politics in the city, to make people locate and developers to build, further out, past the Greenbelt boundaries than it does to increase residential density within the city limits. Think about it.


Mon, Jan 18, 2010 : 8:55 a.m.

I wish they would target some of their purchases closer to the city limits. A drive down Jackson Road in Scio will show you how terrible unplanned development can look.

John Galt

Mon, Jan 18, 2010 : 1:19 a.m.

With all the budget problems and the exodus of population from this economically depressed State, this waste of money is an outrage. You want open space? Move to Alaska.

Seasoned Cit

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 11:42 p.m.

Let's see... $600,000 dollars collected from local property owners, was just given to a church who owned land that they don't pay taxes on, so that they won't sell it to folks who would pay taxes on the land. I'm sure the same folks who complain that EMU and UM doen't pay taxes on their property, but still want the city to continue to buy more park land are applauding this move! I'm glad I don't have to try and explain such action in a HS Civics class..

Ryan J. Stanton

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 8:19 p.m.

@fisherman Thanks for pointing that out. I have made a correction to the story. I was working from earlier documents that showed details of a tentative purchase agreement that appears to have been later revised. As I have now found out, the city was unsuccessful in seeking federal funds for the purchase of development rights on the Webster United Church of Christ farm property. Since federal grant funds were not received, the church was willing to donate an additional 23 acres of land as a contribution -- that includes forestland with several trees and Scadin Lake, which drains into the Arms Creek and is part of the Huron River Watershed. The revised total acreage included in the conservation easement is about 94.4 acres. (Note: The parent parcel is about 113.11 acres. The church excluded 18.69 acres from the easement). Under the revised agreement, the purchase price for the land was $613,000. Webster Township kicked in $77,000, and the city spent $536,000 plus other costs for a total contribution of $590,257 from the city's Greenbelt millage. If you include all money spent, the 94.4 acres was protected at a total cost of $7,068 per acre, though the church actually was paid about $6,494 per acre.


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 7:09 p.m.

There was some inaccuracy in the story about the number of acres that the Webster United Church of Christ contributed to the Greenbelt - it was not 75, but 94.42 acres. This acreage included a pond and surrounding woodland which was of particular of interest to Webster Township, whose PDF funds also were used in purchase of these development rights. And the amount received by the church was $613,000, not $617,257. So therefore the church received $6492 per acre, not the $8230 per acre as indicated in Mr. Stanton's comment. And the sale of development rights is exactly that. It prevents anyone from ever building anything permanent upon this property. The church cannot build on it, subdivide it, or sell or lease to anyone else who would build upon it. It also is not public property and the public must respect it as they do any other private property. Thus even the city of Ann Arbor cannot build anything upon the property. So the purpose of a PDF sale such as the Greenbelt is to provide a space for agriculture near an urban area. In the future such land may become very dear, and quite valuable for food production to serve the surrounding populace.

Ryan J. Stanton

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 6:28 p.m.

@aataxpayer If you click on the second and fourth hyperlinks in story, it will take you to the action items for both purchases cited here. In those reports, the city cites what it has determined to be the fair market values for both properties.

Ryan J. Stanton

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 5:37 p.m.

If you look at the link I provided in the story to documentation of the Webster Township church property purchase, you'll see that the city cited the fair market value of the development rights (as determined by the city as required by Section 1:320 of the Ann Arbor City Code) is $613,000. It was a similar situation with the Nixon farm. The fair market appraisal revealed the development rights were worth $2.061 million.


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 5:02 p.m.

I'm all for the greenbelt acting as a develpment moat around Ann Arbor. Any existing independent appraisals for these properties? Are development rights that much cheaper than the land itself? I'd hate to think taxpayers were paying these folks more than what the land would sell for in an open market. I realize they wouldn't have to sell but then condeming it for the "public good" with compensation at market value would still allow aquisition if the court agreed it was beneficial. Were these smart purchases?


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 4:45 p.m.

If the purpose of the Greenbelt is to help create demand for more urban density, what's to keep developers and residential buyer from moving further out? And in the case of this Greenbelt, just a few miles further. Most townships have or are developing infrastructure to handle increased residential, so it's not that much more difficult for people to live even further from the city center. This Greenbelt has just as much potential to make the sprawl go out a little further out as it does increasing urban density. And with all the bs in the city and city taxes, I would figure there's just as many and maybe more people who would prefer to live just 5 miles further away and work in the city or come in for some of their entertainment. Greenbelts are not a proven planning device. To many people it sounds like a way to divert tax dollars away from useful and necessary services for city residents.


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 3:05 p.m.

Wow, $8k per acre to keep them farming???!!!! This is maddening. How much do you want to bet that some of the owners of these lands have connections to Ann Arbor city officials? You should almost be able to buy the land for that much. Ridiculous. I'm going to start attending these city council meetings.


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 3:05 p.m.

Greenbelts are not something that can be built over night, but they are very effective at creating livable communities over time. The most cost effective time to expand a greenbelt is during a down economic period. I hope that 10 years from now, Ann Arbor is distinguished by its downtown density, rural surroundings, extensive parks, alternatives to automobile-based transportation, and overall liveability.


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 12:32 p.m.

The idea of increasing the density in Ann Arbor, while keeping it low in the surrounding green belt makes a lot of asense. Only if you have a certain density in the city you can have all the services and amenities that make a city "cool", and to achieve that density you have to make it harder to sprawl into the open space in surroundign townships. I don't know, though, if the purchase of development rights is the most efficient way toa ccomplish that. Traditionally, this would be a zoning issue, but given how fragemented zoning is, townships will not always act in the most beneficial way for the region but primarily look at their own tax base and allow developemnt that hurts the region as a whole. Unless that is fixed (and that means centrailizing more planning and zoning - as hard as that may be to swallow for some), the purchase of development rights by the city of Ann Arbor may just be the most effective way to accomplish that. And, now is the time to do it - development rights are cheap right now - once the economy turns around, this initiative will hopefully show the desired results.

The Grinch

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 12:08 p.m.

Thanks, Ryan. Please pass on to others at that yours is a model for dealing with the misinformation that flows through far too many of the discussions on the website.

Ryan J. Stanton

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 11:27 a.m.

For anyone who wants to find out more details about past Greenbelt purchases, you can go to the city's legislation Web site and simply put "Greenbelt" into the search field and select a year. You'll find lots of details there.

Ryan J. Stanton

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 11:13 a.m.

Just a note on the fund balance - the Greenbelt Program bonded for a portion of the funds upfront as, at that time, the city had many willing sellers. The Greenbelt bonded for $20 million and has been receiving around $1 million per year after the debt service in addition to the bonded funds. Program administrators say the Greenbelt Program is committed to finding development rights purchases that leverage the money that Ann Arbor residents provide and are thus selective about the deals that are approved, which helps explain why there is so much money built up and not spent.

Concerned Citizen

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 10:26 a.m.

Looks like a drop in the bucket. Especially if only the "Development Rights" are being purchased. I mean come on!! The Nixon's got $2.17 to be farmers - which is what they were to begin with. Almost 1800 acres and only about 5 b-zillion to go if they want a complete greenbelt. Don't ya think the money could be better spent elsewhere?


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 9:57 a.m.

This is a complete and total waste of OUR money. Time to get the priorities right, the days of the horse and buggy are not coming back and China/India speed past us laughing all the way.


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 9:54 a.m.

Here is a link to the Greenbelt Strategic Plan: Part of the "unique character" of Ann Arbor includes the green space around the city; it's one reason that I support some of the proposals that increase density downtown and near downtown. If people can affordably live in closer quarters (i.e. near downtown, in taller buildings) they don't have to sprawl out in large developments on the outskirts, requiring them to drive their cars for every little thing. As a young professional on a modest salary I would rather live downtown than in a cookie-cutter house a half-hour from downtown. If living a half-hour from downtown is my only affordable option, I'll probably end up in a different city. If I wanted to live somewher that looked and felt like Northville... I would live in Northville. I'll probably be personally attacked, as I have often seen on this site, but that's my feeling and I'm sticking to it.

Top Cat

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 9:50 a.m.

As a resident of Webster Township, my thanks to the taxpayers of Ann Arbor. However, if I were in your shoes I would feel like a chump.

Mike D.

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 9:44 a.m. Most of the land can't be used by the public because it continues to be privately owned. The city buys the development rights, which means the land must be used for agriculture or lie fallow in perpetuity.


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 9:36 a.m.

The surge to sprawl and then return to urban environments has been a re-occurring, decades long cycle. Hopefully, the sprawl surges can be minimized in future cycles by what is done now.


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 9:29 a.m.

So, this is the first time I've heard of this program and I'm curious to know more details. Specifically, can I as an Ann Arbor resident, now go use these lands like I would use a park in the city? Or are they off limits? And if they're off limits, why? Why not turn them into parks or use the farm produce to sell for extra revenue for the city?


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 9:27 a.m.

I'm so glad to see this purchase. It will contribute to long term sustainability. We need to be able to have farmland to feed area residents in the long term. The price of oil is not going down and shipping food halfway across the globe will become increasingly expensive. In the future, your food is going to go way up in cost, folks. We'll need more close-by farmland if we are to remain viable as a place to live.

The Grinch

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 9:18 a.m.

Thanks, Mike D. You have brought facts and rationality to bear!!

Mike D.

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 8:26 a.m.

Anyone whose Prius I've been stuck behind can tell you I'm no "treehugger," but I voted for the Greenbelt program. I like having open space around the city, and this is a great way to achieve it. The other part of the Greenbelt program that we voted for allows more density (taller buildings) within the city. When the economy bounces back and new housing once again is being constructed, it will be more concentrated downtown instead of sprawling out into the sticks. Makes sense to me. As for the people constantly whining about moneys long ago set aside for other purposes not going to save the firefighters, do your homework. It would require a ballot referendum (at least) to redirect money set aside for the Greenbelt to be diverted to short-term budget issues. And even if there were a referendum, I wouldn't vote for it because it's bad policy to forget long-term goals to, in effect, simply raise tax rates for operational expenses.


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 7:02 a.m.

Wow. The City just totally screwed our firefighters. The greenbelt fund balance is $17 million. That money could be used to lower the amount needed to fund the city hall project. That would lower the debt payment into the future and help with the City's budget. Instead, the City continues to spend on non-essentials like the greenbelt. Nice for the landowners' retirement funds. Guess what? No one in this area is developing subdivisions because of the economy -- the rest of us don't have money. What's next? We will need a city income tax because we are in such dire straights.