City of Ann Arbor invests in its future with “Greenbelt” program

Monday, July 27, 2020 - 3:59pm

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As a student at the University of Michigan over the past year, I have come to love the natural beauty of the Ann Arbor region, whether it be the scenic Huron River winding through the Washtenaw County countryside, large expanses of open space or picturesque farms dotting the landscape. Unlike many other cities similar in size  — along with most areas of Metro Detroit — Ann Arbor’s close proximity to the countryside in nearly all directions makes this city a rarity in southeastern Michigan. In only a couple of miles, you can easily travel from a dense, urban atmosphere to wide, open fields that give you a longing for Northern Michigan’s landscape, only a half hour from Metro Detroit.

These precious lands surrounding Ann Arbor don’t exist today by accident. For nearly two decades, the city of Ann Arbor has led a valuable effort aimed at preserving the “Greenbelt” around the city limits in order to protect natural resources, the Huron River watershed and farmland. This effort began in November 2003, when Ann Arbor voters approved the Open Space and Parkland Preservation Millage, also known as the Greenbelt Millage. Since then, Ann Arbor has protected over 6,100 acres of land within the boundaries of the Greenbelt District, in partnership with Washtenaw County and surrounding townships.

Far beyond simply preserving the rural character of the Ann Arbor region for decades to come, the Greenbelt Millage — which is a 30-year, 0.5 mil tax levy based on assessed value — has a wide range of benefits, as Remy Long, manager of the Greenbelt Program for the city of Ann Arbor, discusses in a video posted on the Ann Arbor website. 

According to Long, “dollars and acres” are only one way to understand the far-reaching benefits of the Greenbelt effort. By preserving dozens of farms, one of the most powerful impacts of the Greenbelt is increased food security and a greater supply of locally-grown produce for residents in and around Ann Arbor to enjoy. The Greenbelt program, as Long explains, also makes it easier for new farmers to purchase land by removing the development rights, which lowers the land value and makes it more affordable. “Affordable land access is the number one barrier to starting a successful farm operation,” Long explains. “If we’ve removed those development rights from the equation and made it more affordable for beginning farmers to access, we are helping promote a new generation of farmers.” 

In the nearly two decades that have passed since Ann Arbor residents approved the Greenbelt Millage, thousands of acres of farmland and natural areas have been successfully protected. According to an MLive report from 2014, the largest property preserved by the program is a 286-acre property in Ann Arbor Township, north of Ann Arbor. Taking second and third place are currently a 265-acre property in Webster Township and a 218-acre property in Salem Township, respectively. In the first 15 years of the Greenbelt Program, more than 5,700 acres of wooded areas, wetland, prairie and farmland have been permanently preserved. 

Many community members and officials agree that the Greenbelt program is so important because it protects the natural, undeveloped areas surrounding Ann Arbor from urban sprawl. Urban sprawl leads to a number of problems, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, including “increased energy use, pollution, and traffic congestion and a decline in community distinctiveness and cohesiveness.” Without the Greenbelt initiative, many feel that the areas of Washtenaw County surrounding Ann Arbor would begin to look more like the suburbs of Metro Detroit, with miles of never-ending strip malls and subdivisions. As a result of the millage, “So much beautiful property has been protected, and there's also funding to protect more, so Washtenaw County is never going to turn into Oakland County. There's going to be viable agriculture and there's going to be close-by natural areas for people to enjoy,” according to Dan Ezekiel, former chairman of Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt Advisory Commission.

While a majority of voters approved the Greenbelt Millage in 2003 and the program has proven to show clear benefits for the Ann Arbor community, the Greenbelt does have critics. One common concern amongst residents is that the Greenbelt isn’t the best use of the tax revenue the city of Ann Arbor takes in, especially since most of the Greenbelt District is outside of the city limits. While I am not a taxpayer in Ann Arbor and I understand these concerns, I believe that the benefits of this program for the entire Ann Arbor region as a whole far outweigh the costs. Not only does the Greenbelt safeguard natural resources and improve food security, but by protecting natural beauty and open areas, I feel this program is also beneficial for things like mental health. According to research discussed by Harvard University, there is “a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.”

Thanks to the voters of the city of Ann Arbor and the Greenbelt Millage, thousands of acres of land have already been preserved. While this program undoubtedly has costs for residents, I believe the Open Space and Parkland Preservation Millage will benefit the Ann Arbor community and Washtenaw County for decades to come.

Evan Stern can be reached at erstern@umich.edu.