The Greenbelt – an update

This is a little dry – much more crowded with information than just viewpoint. There’s no mention of food or flowers (except in this sentence) and little humor. But I could not think of a good way to get this information out to a broader audience, and I think it may be important in the future.

I’ve been asked several times whether the City could use Greenbelt funds to acquire land within the city – land, that is, that someone wants to develop. The answer, of course, is yes – but that is not all there is to the question.

Recently I asked the City staff to prepare an update on the Greenbelt millage – especially timely as the City has ten years of history with this effort now. And a recent article (October, 2014) in the Ann Arbor Observer also provides an update as well as an historical overview.

I’m not going to go into all of that history. But I do want to address some concerns I’ve heard, and to provide this update.

The Greenbelt Program was approved by City of Ann Arbor voters in November 2003 to provide funding for the preservation and protection of open space, natural habitats and working landscapes both inside and outside the city limits. The program has protected more than 4,300 acres of farmland and open space surrounding the City of Ann Arbor, and has leveraged over $21 million through grants, landowner donations, and other locally funded programs.

To learn more about the Greenbelt Program, visit

Isn’t this millage all about preventing development?

Well, yes, to a great extent, the millage was approved as a way to preserve some agricultural land outside Ann Arbor as well as an opportunity to add more park land to the City. Some people believed that, by approving the millage, they were also approving increased development in the City. Others did not think development was that inevitable, but wanted to make certain that agricultural land could remain as agricultural land, by decreasing the incentive to owners to sell. Selling development rights to the City – like selling land for parks to the City – is voluntary. A decision to purchase is based on some firm criteria.

Can the City spend Greenbelt funds inside the City?

Absolutely. When voters approved the millage, it was for the Greenbelt and Parkland Preservation Millage, and the expectation is that the City would use a portion of the funds within the City for Park acquisition, while it would use another portion outside the City to preserve agricultural land and open space.

Isn’t it supposed to be 1/3 spent in the City?

Yes. In a way. But that was not part of the millage language. Just under 1/3 of the funds spent so far have been used to buy land for parks within the City. (Some other land has been donated during the recent past.) According to the report just provided by the City, the total spent so far is $28,517,596. Of that, almost $9 million (just about 30%) has been spent in the City to acquire or enlarge City parks.

Can you buy this land even if the owner doesn’t want to sell?

Generally speaking, property owners approach the City about having the City acquire the land – or acquire the development rights. Owners have been willing to sell – in some cases, eager to sell. But the City has to evaluate the land to determine whether it meets the criteria for natural preserve or recreation area.

How does the City decide where to buy land?

The City’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) Plan – a component of the master plan – includes areas of the City where the Park Advisory Commission believes the City needs another park. Decisions about land acquisition for new City parks – or to add to an existing park – are made by the City Council, but the Park staff and the Park Advisory Commission play a significant role in making recommendations about the value of any proposed purchase.

The PROS Plan establishes criteria for land acquisition for parks:

  • City-wide System Balance/Geographic Distribution as well as Open Space Convenient to each neighborhood
  • Natural resource protection
  • Open Space and Green Space imagery/aesthetics
  • Enhance access and linkage
  • Protection of the Huron River, watersheds, and water quality
  • Recreation Value and Suitability for intended use
  • Method of Acquisition/Direct Costs
  • Provides for Future Needs/Growth
  • Long Term Development and Maintenance Costs

The Greenbelt Plan also establishes criteria for land acquisition:

  1. Preserve large blocks (1,000 acres or greater) of farmland within five focus areas
  2. Preserve land along the Huron River and major tributaries
  3. Leverage dollars whenever possible through landowner donations, grant funds and local partners. Secondary priorities outlined in the Greenbelt_Strategic_Plan_2013.docx include the supporting local food and specialty crop production, and preserving critical “viewsheds” or corridors surrounding the City.

What are development rights?

A Purchase of Development Rights program, or PDR program, is a voluntary program that compensates owners of agricultural property for their willingness to accept a permanent deed restriction (through a conservation easement) on their land. The conservation easement limits future development allowed on the property in order to preserve the agricultural value and open space value of the land. The value of the development rights is the difference between the value of the land based on its development potential and the value of the land after easement.

How long are we going to be paying for this?

The millage will continue for the next twenty (20) years; it was approved for a period of thirty (30) years 10 2003. In 2031 or so, the residents of Ann Arbor might – or might not – consider renewing the millage.

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