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Posted on Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 7:13 a.m.

Ann Arbor's Greenbelt a wise investment now, and for future

By Guest Column

The Ann Arbor Greenbelt is a tremendous success, beyond the hopes of its backers when it was put on the ballot in 2003. I know because I was one of those backers.

Thanks to the wisdom and foresight of Ann Arbor voters, 27 properties comprising 3,200 acres of farmland and open space have been preserved on the outskirts of the city, all within an hour’s bike ride from downtown. Hundreds more acres will be protected before this year is out.


Dan Ezekiel

The cost in city taxpayer funds has been approximately $18 million, which the city has been able to leverage, obtaining approximately $19 million in matching funds from other sources, including the federal government, Washtenaw County, townships, landowner donations, non-profits, private citizens, and businesses.

Most of the protected land is farmland, which remains private property, but to which the city now owns development rights. This land can never be subdivided or built on; it will continue to support productive agriculture and provide views, wildlife habitat, and property-tax revenue. Protecting open land also protects the quality of the Huron River, the source of almost all of Ann Arbor’s drinking water.

A decade ago, most Ann Arbor-area farmers believed they would be the last to farm their property and that upon their retirement it would become housing. Now, with a critical mass of permanently preserved farmland, farmers are investing in their operations, confident that agriculture will continue to thrive in our area.

Some of the farmers whose development rights have been bought by the city have now bought additional farmland with the proceeds, which they intend to preserve also. This creates a multiplier effect of farmland preservation from city millage funds.

Some non-farm Greenbelt properties are now owned by the county and open to recreation. This includes the popular new Scio Woods Preserve on Scio Church Rd., the Meyer Preserve in Superior Twp., and the Fox Science Preserve in Scio Twp., where thousands of Ann Arbor school students go each year to collect rocks and fossils. Expect to hear of more Greenbelt-preserved property open to recreation soon.

Just as the voters hoped, a number of properties that had been slated for urban-sprawl projects are now protected forever as farmland. The quiet Nixon farm, now preserved in Webster Twp., was once slated to be a manufactured-home development with hundreds of mobile homes.

Likewise with the Braun farm, now preserved in Ann Arbor Township. The tranquil Alexander farm in Northfield Township was once slated to be part of the largest housing development ever proposed in the state of Michigan -- Grand Sakwa. The now-preserved Merkel farm on Joy Road was once proposed for a strip mall. The cooperation between the city, the county, and townships in preventing these sprawl developments has been a model that is rarely seen in Michigan, with our fragmented system of land use planning.

The Greenbelt effort has snowballed. Ann Arbor Township voters passed a land preservation millage in the same 2003 election as the city’s voters. More recently, Scio, Webster, Pittsfield, and Lodi townships have put their own money into farmland and open space preservation. In addition to the 3200 acres preserved with city funds, several thousand additional acres within the Greenbelt boundary have been protected by other entities, public and private, since the Greenbelt began, at no cost to city taxpayers. Salem Township, the latest to join the bandwagon, recently committed $1 million of its own funds to open-space preservation over the next five years.

Voters support taxing themselves to protect land. For example, look at the overwhelming margin by which Ann Arbor voters approved the extension of the county’s open space millage in 2010, as well as the handy margin by which Webster Twp’s conservative voters reauthorized their own land-preservation millage in 2009, despite the economic headwind.

Now is the time to preserve land, while development values are low and the city can stretch its citizens’ money. We are on target at least to double the amount of preserved land in the Greenbelt, with at least the current 1:1 matching funds ratio.

The price per acre for development rights in the Greenbelt has declined from a high of $18,000/acre in 2005 to today’s $4,000-5,000/acre. As my father in law always said: “Buy low”.

The Greenbelt Advisory Commission and City Council have kept faith with city voters, who overwhelmingly approved the Greenbelt in 2003. We’ve worked hard to protect the best properties at the best prices, leveraged with the most matching funds. The Greenbelt is a project with its eye on the future, but it also provides benefits now: views, water quality, wildlife habitat, a barrier to urban sprawl, and an abiding sense of place for our city.

The Greenbelt protects places to grow food locally. This is a quality-of-life benefit that may become much more important in years to come. Bob Sutherland, owner of Cherry Republic, recently donated several thousand dollars to the city for use in the Greenbelt program. He stated that our Greenbelt, with the care it shows for local farms, epitomizes the reason he chose to locate his business in Ann Arbor.

One day, hopefully very soon, Michigan's economy will recover. Then it's likely that development pressure on open space and farmland will resume. At that point we will realize what a beautiful emerald necklace the city has acquired. One hundred years from now, many of the issues that seem so pressing today will have faded into obscurity. Ann Arborites will look back gratefully to today’s citizens for our vision in preserving the Ann Arbor Greenbelt.

Dan Ezekiel is a local science teacher and the chairman of the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Advisory Commission.



Mon, Jun 25, 2012 : 10:18 p.m.

At first I thought the free belt was amazing but now I agree with Halter. This prevents Ann Arbor from growing because downtown space is limited and a lot of people complain when there is renovation and development but because of the green belt Ann Arbor prevented itself from growing and limited urban sprawl. It might as well be another Ypsilanti...

Richard Wickboldt

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 : 1:40 a.m.

Thank you for giving a fine history of the program at a nice total of 3200 plus acres. The Green Belt was and is a good idea but does not need to go on for year after year. We do need to leave room for development so we can make new friends and have job growth. Jobs! I believe it is time to end this tax. At a minimum reduce the millage. Let's not forget that there are a few citizens in our fine town. Who are living in hard times raising families and on fixed income. High tax burdens make it more difficult for them. We must realize taxes will be increasing for all of us going forward. The country is broke and in debt to the tune at the fed level of $16 trillion with a 'T'. Our money needs to be spent to get out of debt and also invested in our schools and infrastructure for the future. There will not be any threatening development to worry about for a number of years. Additionally higher taxes will also reduce the value of our homes. I voted for the Green Belt back in 2003. The emerald necklace is strong for now with the accomplishments. We can always start again at a later date when the threat arises. Let's get the petition started to vote again. I will be voting NO.


Wed, Jan 11, 2012 : 5:54 a.m.

I can see the skallywags of the Right have been here before me. I guess it's time to once again set them right on one of their favorite "points." False Wisdom 101: The claim that tax payers are ripped off by having to pay for land that "will never be used" is so clearly wrong that it's an embarrassment to those who think it's "smart." That land IS and will be used:for the purpose it's long been used for - farming! Those making the claim never bothered to check, so they don't even know that Washtenaw County lost hundreds (yes, hundreds) of farms before Ann Arbor voters put the brakes on unfettered development. Culturally: we're talking about family owned farms, not mega-factory farms, so the core culture which once brought food to the tables of all Americans is being preserved. I'm not talking about politics or religion, though those are part of the story, I'm talking about having families who live close to the land and know how we depend on it for our very survival. I'm also talking about drives in the country, little jaunts with the kids in the back seat, during which the kids get to see cows and horses and pigs and fowl. I'm talking about fields draped in fog or highlighted by rising or setting sun - sights not available downtown or in places "built up" with isolated McMansions. Anyone who values sprawling, culture-less housing developments over farmland must think these eco-disasters are sustainable, but they're wrong. Eventually, such misplaced housing will become too far from anything to justify burning gasoline. Then there'll be a migration back to the towns and those developments will become either suburban slums or ghost neighborhoods.


Mon, Jan 2, 2012 : 11:59 a.m.

You said "it will continue to support productive agriculture and provide views, wildlife habitat, and property-tax revenue." and now that "Some non-farm Greenbelt properties are now owned by the county and open to recreation. This includes the popular new Scio Woods Preserve on Scio Church Rd., the Meyer Preserve in Superior Twp., and the Fox Science Preserve in Scio Twp.," How much property tax will the county be paying on these thousands of acres? Land is taxed on its highest and best use. When development rights are sold the land becomes less valuable and will be taxed at a lower rate. Both of these things contribute to a declining amount of revenue the county has to provide services. If I had a choice between snowplows and sheriff deputies or green weeds I know which one is more important to me.


Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 11:31 p.m.

This kooky initiative was the product of a bygone era, a kind of frosting on PC old A2's wishful thinking cake. It should be dragged, kicking an screaming, back before the electorate so that cooler heads may prevail, and return this useless waste of scarce tax dollars to the oblivion it so richly deserves.

Craig Lounsbury

Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 4:29 p.m.

"27 properties comprising 3,200 acres of farmland and open space have been preserved on the outskirts of the city, all within an hour's bike ride from downtown." splendid...lets fund it with a bicycle tax.


Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 4:15 p.m.

"Green politics at its worst amounts to a sort of Zen fascism; less extreme, it denounces growth and seeks to stop the world so that we can all get off." - Chris Patten (b. 1944), British Conservative politician. Independent (London, April 19, 1989).

Tony Livingston

Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 3:44 p.m.

Yes, the greenbelt is a wonderful benefit. The problem is that once again, Ann Arbor property owners are funding an initiative that everyone else will enjoy for free. We already have many many acres of parkland in the city that township residents regularly take advantage of at no cost. Ann Arbor taxpayers need to start requring participation from all of the county residents instead of continually taxing ourselves for everyone else's enjoyment. Living in Ann Arbor no longer means living in the city limits. Let's start pulling in funds from the people who actually use these perks.


Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 5:36 p.m.

I meant to include that the friends I meet live in Ann arbor city limits.


Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 5:35 p.m.

The roads go both ways. I live in Pittsfield and routinely meet friends and their kids at Pittsfield parks because they are newer, cleaner, and have more interesting playgrounds for the kids. Occasionally we will go to burns park but that's pretty much the only one we use in ann arbor. I figure it all evens out in the end. I guess my point is when you live in Ann arbor you probably feel like everyone is coming there. I live in Pittsfield and feel like there are Ann arbor people all over our parks. The difference is it doesn't bother me and I'm happy to see the parks being used.


Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 3:39 p.m.

Great article. Those of you who complain about the taxes won't be complaining when the value of your home rises as Ann Arbor becomes an increasingly desirable place to live, for reasons such as the Green Belt. I dislike urban sprawl for many reasons, and moved here because its one of the few places in the midwest where people have the foresight to take such good care of their immediate environment.

Wolf's Bane

Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 3:27 p.m.

I concur with Martel; the Greenbelt program is not just an investment into Ann Arbor's future but also the neighboring communities and serves current and future citizens equally by negating urban sprawl by building a denser, thriving city center. Now, if we could just get sustainable public transit system that moves beyond eco-diesel spewing buses?

Brian Kitchin

Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 3:26 p.m.

Nothing to say here. Just another case of people never seeing a tax they didn't like..Guess I missed the part in the State or Federal Constitution that give the Government this right to take my money and buy land to NEVER BE USED. Silly me.

Bob Martel

Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 2:46 p.m.

I respectfully disagree with Halter. I see the Greenbelt program as an investment in our community's future. Twenty, fifty and a hundred years from now, the then current residents of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County will applaud the foresight of those who put these programs in place. Of course it's difficult to make investments for the future during tough times when there are so many immediate needs that could be funded with those same investment dollars. But, if we don't invest in our future, we won't have one.


Sun, Jan 1, 2012 : 1:19 p.m.

A well written article -- sadly, I disagree with 95 percent of it.... I've voiced my opinion about the economy-stiflying, tax-payer burdening, and economic growth/development throttling ridiculousness of the Greenbelt Project elsewhere so I won't repeat it all again here -- Except to say that it has to go, and should be back on the public ballot at the earliest convenience if people really want to see Ann Arbor grow and thrive again.