Ann Arbor Greenbelt Program celebrates 50th project, other milestones

The Ann Arbor Greenbelt Program is continuing a year of highlights as it moves toward the halfway mark of the 30-year millage that launched it back in 2003.

The publicly funded land preservation program announced the closing of its 50th project last week, five months after celebrating the 10th anniversary of the close of its first project in March 2006. The lastest 81-acre acquisition brings the total number of protected acres to more than 4,700.

"It's just a testament to how much the residents of Ann Arbor think about open space and preserving the quality of life in their community," says greenbelt program manager Ruth Thornton.

Most program funds are designated to purchase development rights to protect land surrounding the city of Ann Arbor, but some are also available to purchase additional city parklands.

This latest acquisition was a collaborative effort between Legacy Land Conservancy, Washtenaw County, and the Carol Landsberg Trust, which sold the property at a reduced rate. The greenbelt program contributed $157,140 toward the purchase.

The Webster Township property features a mix of prairies, fields, woods, and wetlands, located in the Arms Creek and Huron River watersheds. It is now owned by the county and will be opened to the public.

Thornton took over as director of the program five months ago after leading similar efforts with the Nature Conservancy in northwest Minnesota. She says the Ann Arbor Greenbelt's success can be attributed to how well it has been able to collaborate with other organizations, government offices, and landowners.

"Once you have these conservation easements in place and you have some landowners who have gone through the process, especially if they are happy with the process and how it goes, then you kind of see a momentum build, and I think that's what happened here," Thornton says.

Thornton says the 2007 housing crash probably hurt the program, since land prices dropped and owners didn't want to sell easements at decreased appraisal values, but the program has still exceeded expectations.

"Everybody I've talked to has just been amazed that we have been able to protect 4,700 acres in an area with some real residential building pressure," she says.

Looking ahead, Thornton says more projects are in the works. The program has recently focused on trying to add parcels adjacent to existing greenbelt properties to build continuous 1,000-acre blocks.

"Hopefully in 15 years the millage will be renewed, and we'll keep going from there," Thornton says.