The Ann Arbor Greenbelt, Then and Now

Eight years have passed since the Ann Arbor Greenbelt, a program to purchase open space parks and development rights on farmland in eight townships bordering the city of Ann Arbor, has begun to form a patchwork of properties protected from big-box stores and subdivision mazes.

The targeted area is 13 square miles roughly centered on downtown Ann Arbor. Any land inside that boundary and not within Ann Arbor city limits is eligible for preservation. About 30 properties totaling over 3,200 acres have been saved to date, according to Dan Ezekiel, chair of the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Advisory Commission.

"Some of the priorities for the Greenbelt overall, long term, are putting together thousand-acre or greater blocks of protected land, partnering with other agencies to leverage the city dollars, and also protecting portions of the Huron River watershed," says Ginny Trocchio, program manager for the Greenbelt.

The Greenbelt came into being largely as a perceived barrier to sprawl during economic boom times. "In the 1990s the biggest issue in the Ann Arbor area, bar none, was sprawl and its impact on our community, its impact on the environment, its impact on the central city, its impact on our schools, and on our tax base," says Mike Garfield, director of the Ecology Center and a Greenbelt Advisory Commission member.

"For many years Washtenaw County was the fastest-growing county in Michigan, and we were losing approximately 4,000 acres of farmland every year to development."

As such, the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center led the ballot drive to establish the 30-year, .5-mil Open Space and Parkland Preservation program, a.k.a. the Greenbelt, which passed with two-thirds of the vote. It wasn't just environmentalists who were in favor, but also downtown business owners and real estate and building professionals, Garfield says.  

Ann Arbor Township also passed its own millage in 2003, followed in the next couple of years by Scio Township and Webster Township. Together with Washtenaw County's Natural Areas Preservation Program, says Garfield, the five entities "controlled about $100 million for buying development rights on farmland and preserving natural areas outright. A fund like this doesn't exist anywhere else in the Midwest at the local level."

Ezekiel says, "We've been really successful in garnering matching funds, so every dollar of city taxpayer money we've spent, we've attracted more than a dollar from other sources so that the taxpayers got a better than one-to-one match for their investment."

Fund levels fluctuate with acquisitions and tax collections. At present, the Greenbelt fund holds about $6 million, according to Ezekiel.

To date, the Greenbelt has received about $6 million worth of grants from the U.S.D.A. Farm and Ranchland Protection Program. The Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy is also a partner, and although they do not have separate millages, Lodi Township, Superior Township, and Pittsfield Township have put funds towards land preservation, and Salem Township is readying to do the same, Ezekiel says.

Green goals

While the measure passed handily in 2003, it was still contentious. Critics questioned whether the program was indeed powerful enough to prevent sprawl, and also called for more affordable housing and urban density in the city. The point was made that without a plan for density, Ann Arbor's Greenbelt would only relocate sprawl, rather than curb it. According to the latest census, population growth in Washtenaw County has continued to grow, though not at the pace it did earlier in the decade.

So looking back, has the greenbelt effectively fenced out sprawl, and can it do so going forward? And with another 22 years of tax collections ahead, what are some other goals of the program?

When the programs were created they were big news in Ann Arbor, Garfield says, however: "Now that the real estate market has crashed, the issue doesn't have the controversy that it did a decade ago. But we've got the funds in place to make sure that when the market changes we'll be able to keep our rural lands rural, and we'll have farms that can grow local foods for Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and Chelsea and other communities inside Washtenaw County."

Ezekiel concurs with the food security goal and adds to that some others, including scenic views and open space, outdoor recreation, and "preserving a sense of place for the city of Ann Arbor so that it's not a city that's surrounded by sprawl and housing developments on every side, stretching all the way to Detroit and all the way to Jackson."

When the Greenbelt program was launched in 2003, Matthew Lassiter, a professor of history and urban planning at the University of Michigan, co-authored an editorial in the Ann Arbor News that called for city leadership to promote affordable housing and urban density with the same fervor it was directing towards curbing growth on the fringe.

Lassiter says he supported the program and that it has "good motives", but he takes issue with calling the program a greenbelt. "I thought Greenbelt was a very smart label for the advocates to use..." he says, but: "A belt is something that goes all the way around something else."

He likens the Greenbelt program to a "checkerboard" approach, handled at the level of the individual land plot; the better equivalent, he says, is a purchase of development rights (PDR) program.  "Any plan that's really going to curb sprawl has to be a comprehensive regional plan rather than an individual property policy. I think without the slowdown in the economy, the limitations of the greenbelt would have been more obvious. This is not a criticism of the people who support it, really, because I'm sure they would prefer to have tougher growth controls. This was the best they could get."

The Greenbelt was intended to save 7,000 acres of land, and the county natural areas program another 5,000 acres. The county has since expanded its reach to include farmland preservation. They're each about halfway there, but it's a moving target, Garfield says. "Bottom line, all the transactions that happen are voluntary. No land gets saved without the property owner wanting it to be saved. It was never possible to say we were going to make 10 deals a year and save 1,000 acres every year."

The Greenbelt is a PDR program. "We looked at the best farmland preservation programs around the country and decided that the best technique that would work for saving farmland in Michigan was buying development rights..." Garfield says. Programs in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were used as models. In a PDR transaction, a property owner gives up the right to develop land in exchange for cash or other compensation that's equal to the difference between the property's value as potential commercial property and as farmland.

Former Gov. Granholm tried to raise the issue of a state-wide PDR program, but it never really found favor, Lassiter says.

Garfield echoes that. "At one point we had hoped to create a Michigan-wide initiative to buy development rights but it didn't happen." Other PDR programs in Michigan, albeit smaller, exist on the Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City, and in Ingham County.

"And because Ann Arbor was trying to do something in the absence of any sort of larger state commitment it was always compromised. ...Let's say the Greenbelt extended to all of Washtenaw County, which it doesn't even come close to doing," Lassiter posits. "There's no way that you could stop growth from happening in Livingston County, or in Jackson County, whereas under the Oregon plan, Jackson would have its own growth boundary...and so it would be kind of compact in each populous county."

Smart development

The Oregon plan refers to Oregon's urban growth boundary model, which was implemented by state law in 1979. It's hailed by urban planners nationwide as a model for smart growth. In Oregon, every city has an urban growth boundary prohibiting development outside a certain limit, thereby creating a sharp delineation between city and rural area.

"For planners and people like myself who believe in regional planning, the Oregon model is ideal," Lassiter says. The state's largest urban growth boundary area is the Portland metropolitan area, overseen by Metro, a regional government agency. The analogy he draws for the Detroit area would consist of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties and the city of Detroit consolidating into a single government in terms of zoning and development.

"I would have loved to see the Oregon plan come to Michigan. There was no political will for that. What the greenbelt advocates did, it was a good effort and it's not their fault that there's no political will at the state level. They were doing what they could do at the local level, but it's no substitute for a comprehensive approach."

A caveat: Curbing natural supply and demand has its own ifs, ands, or buts. It's no utopia outside (or within) Oregon's urban growth boundaries. Counties have been the target of numerous lawsuits filed by property owners on the basis of the quashing of their rights to profit from land sales to developers. And critics of urban growth boundaries point to rapidly escalating real estate prices inside boundary lines. Those lines are re-drawn every 20 years to account for population and job growth – and they continue expanding outward.

So what would a smart metro Ann Arbor look like on the map?

"I would like to have zoning be done by Washtenaw County," Lassiter says. "I think it makes very little sense to have every township and city have its own zoning because what that means is they compete for resources so when a developer wants to come in, he can play townships off each other. Then they'll give him tax breaks and then you create this competition. I think the most effective places in terms of growth are places where zoning takes place at the county level like in Maryland and Oregon, or a metropolitan level."

"The main reason there hasn't been an explosion of suburban and exurban development in the last five or six years is because the housing market collapsed. What they were hoping to do with the greenbelt, curb growth, that happened for larger reasons. But if the economy ever heats back up again there's certainly not many obstacles to sprawl continuing in this metropolitan area or anywhere else in Michigan, for that matter," he adds.

Sprawl question aside, the Greenbelt is also touted as supporting the old style of farming, which is new again. "I think today that one of the great opportunities that these land preservation programs have is to promote local food agriculture and farm-to-table agriculture in Washtenaw County," Garfield says.

Garfield points to a farmer who wanted to start a local grass-fed beef operation with an on-farm store. However, the farmer couldn't afford the farm as it was originally marketed. The owner wanted what a developer aiming to build a subdivision would pay – a cost prohibitive for a farmer trying to get established. In 2009, the Greenbelt, in partnership with Legacy Land Conservancy, bought the development rights on the Lodi Township parcel from the original owners, with the rest of the purchase price borne by the new farmer.

The store is not open yet and the operation is still in transition from row crops to grass-fed beef, Trocchio says. Separately, another individual is interested in starting a community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation in Webster Township. That deal is still pending.

In 20 years, will we see an Ann Arbor rung by farm sprawl rather than housing sprawl? A pastoral vision to be sure, but the realistic view lies somewhere in between.

Tanya Muzumdar is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and the Assistant Editor for Concentrate and Metromode. Her previous article was: "Parkour: Go Ahead and Jump!"

All photos by Doug Coombe except where noted

Ginny Trocchio at a Greenbelt property in Ann Arbor Charter Township
A Greenbelt property in Ann Arbor Charter Township
A map of Ann Arbor's Greenbelt Program
Dan Ezekiel at Forsythe Middle School
A greenbelt property (courtesy of Ann Arbor's Greenbelt Program)
Mike Garfield at the new offices of The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor
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