The U.S. Department of Agriculture is awarding “The Ann Arbor Greenbelt: Saving Michigan Farms Regional Conservation Partnership Program” $1 million dollars, according to a Feb. 4 press release. The project is led by the City of Ann Arbor Open Space and Parkland Preservation Program, also called the Greenbelt. It aims to protect surrounding Ann Arbor agricultural lands through conservation easements, the right to use someone else’s land for a specified purpose. Greenbelt and its local partners will match the grant, which means a total of $2 million will go toward preserving farmland in Washtenaw County.
Partners in the project include Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission, Scio Township, Ann Arbor Township, Augusta Township, Legacy Land Conservancy, Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy, The Conservation Fund and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
This 2018 fiscal year, the Saving Michigan Farms program is one of 91 projects selected for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program funding by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The USDA list of chosen projects describes ecological and local benefits of the Saving Michigan Farms program. These benefits include protecting food security and local economics, maintaining the agricultural heritage of residents and combating environmental concerns.
According to Jennifer Fike, the Greenbelt Advisory Commission chair, the USDA grant will amplify the Greenbelt’s land preservation efforts.
“(The grant money) is an awesome way for us to leverage federal dollars to match the amount of money that we put in to protect land in Washtenaw County in the Greenbelt area,” Fike said. “It allows our (tax) dollars to go further to protect more land.”
According to the USDA website, the RCPP funds projects through four types of programs, including from the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. Though the Greenbelt has received USDA funding directly from ACEP before, this is the first time Greenbelt has received such funding through the RCPP, Fike explained.
“It could potentially allow us to go after larger parcels of land,” Fike said. “I’m not sure, as (both types of funding) are very similar. It just allows us more funding — one million dollars — whereas ACEP funding is a lot less.”
The Saving Michigan Farms program will preserve agricultural lands by functioning as a Purchase of Development Rights program, a voluntary program for which landowners can apply. Owners of qualified agricultural property are compensated for accepting a permanent deed restriction through a conservation easement, which prohibits future development on that land. The land remains private property, and the landowner may receive income tax benefits for donating part or all of the value of development rights.
To LSA freshman Noah Clements, who is a student in the Program in the Environment, PDR programs are especially beneficial for their long-term effects.
“Conservation easements, like Greenbelt is doing, are really sustainable, and they keep that land undeveloped for decades to come,” Clements said. “It really is a future-minded project, which is what we need.”
According to the Greenbelt website, PDR programs benefit farmers in a variety of ways, such as rendering farmland more affordable, which helps younger farmers; gives older farmers a way other than selling their land to fund retirement; and assists in the transfer of farmland from generation to generation. Fike echoed these points, expressing that PDR programs can help landowners in their present-day business operations as well.
“Land prices in Washtenaw County can be pretty high,” Fike said. “(It can be) very difficult financially to make a living at (farming). By being able to place land in a conservation easement with us as a partner, that allows (farmers) the financial capability to put the money back into their business and grow food for local markets, such as Ann Arbor Farmers Market, selling to Ann Arbor restaurants, selling directly off their farm.”
The Greenbelt arose out of the 2003 Open Space and Parkland Preservation Millage, a 30-year, 0.5 mil tax levy in response to the worries of suburban sprawl in Ann Arbor in the 1990s. More commonly known as the Greenbelt Millage, the measure passed with two-thirds of the vote.
Michael Garfield, director of environmental advocacy group known as the Ecology Center, spearheaded the Greenbelt ballot measure in 2003. Garfield explained the context in which the measure arose, describing rapid development in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Back in the 1980s and ’90s, there was unplanned, unrestrained suburban development in all of southeast Michigan … quite a distance from the urban center of Detroit,” Garfield said. “There were ginormous (sic) developments in Washtenaw County fairly close to Ann Arbor that were being proposed that would utterly transform the landscape around here … We were concerned about the loss of natural resources, and loss of good farmland that could be used to build a sustainable food economy.”
Garfield also described unrestrictive development laws, which made control of suburban sprawl difficult.
“Michigan law is among the worst in the country in addressing land use development in a sensible, environmentally-friendly way,” Garfield said. “It’s very hard to put restraints on groups, and Michigan townships have a lot of planning and zoning authority.”
Since its establishment in 2005, the Greenbelt has dedicated one-third of the money generated for city parkland purchases and dedicated the other two-thirds to preservation of farmland and open space beyond the city limits.
After the Greenbelt was formed, Garfield served for eight years as the first chair of the Greenbelt Advisory Commission. According to Garfield, funding in his day targeted specific parcels of land, and he expressed his pleasure in seeing the new USDA grant address a more general purpose.
“This is a broader award — that’s wonderful, this is like an endowment,” Garfield said. “When I was actively involved … you had to have a specific purpose and some land in mind and all the paperwork before receiving federal money.”
Applications for a conservation easement are reviewed both by Greenbelt staff and the Greenbelt Advisory Commission, which is composed of one City Council representative, one farmer, one developer, two environmentalists, one biologist and three at-large community members. In its 13 years, the Greenbelt has leveraged over $25 million and preserved over 5,200 acres of farmland and open space surrounding Ann Arbor.
According to Fike, Ann Arbor is one of the few municipalities with a millage to protect land outside of city limits. Fike expressed that this benefits Ann Arbor in a myriad of ways.
“By preserving land throughout Washtenaw County, it protects the Huron River watershed, and that’s a source of drinking water for most Ann Arbor residents,” Fike said. “The more this land is developed, the more that there could be impacts such as runoff and increasing emissions.”
In the 2017 fiscal year, a group of School for Environment and Sustainability graduate students studied the Greenbelt in a project titled “Measuring Impact: Evaluating the Economic, Social, and Ecological Services of the City of Ann Arbor Greenbelt Program.” The study suggested the program benefits local water quality and food systems as well as maintains the rural character of the area.
In addition, the students surveyed 441 Ann Arbor residents, 81 percent of whom supported using tax dollars for the Greenbelt. Information from the survey also estimated residents were willing to pay a median of $127 per year per household for the program, which is more than residents actually pay.
Fike expressed appreciation for the overwhelming local support of the Greenbelt.
“I am grateful that Ann Arbor residents had the foresight to vote and approve a millage where much of the funds would protect land outside of the city limits,” Fike said. “It’s a unique program and has done its part to protect over 5,200 acres to date.”