When Ann Arbor voters overwhelmingly approved the Parks and Greenbelt Proposal in 2003, they expected results. Proposal B, conventionally known as “the Greenbelt,” renewed a millage enabling the city to purchase land and development rights to protect open spaces and farmland. Though the project started with a $4 million endowment and has been generating revenue since then, the City Council has thus far failed to make any land or development rights purchases despite the strong mandate from voters. The Greenbelt Advisory Commission, the committee charged with implementing the project, should stop wasting the time and money of Ann Arbor residents and act now to begin purchasing land.
The 2003 vote revealed that residents agree on the importance of protecting the city’s open spaces and reducing sprawl. When the proposal passed, enthusiasm and hopes were high. Ann Arbor had set a precedent for southeastern Michigan by making reducing sprawl a priority, complementing it with an innovative plan to preserve open spaces both inside and outside city limits. But it seems that the city is now falling behind on the lofty vision it once pioneered. Smaller neighboring communities such as Ypsilanti Township have begun to outshine Ann Arbor by acting on their own initiatives to preserve and control the development of open land through city purchases.
Ann Arbor is fortunate to still be surrounded by plots of open space and farmland, but a booming demand for property threatens to swallow this land. As development continues, there will be less land available for purchase, and land values will rise as supply shrinks. The price of land and development rights will increase as developers become willing to bid higher and higher. The City Council is only making things more difficult and expensive through its failure to spend these already-allocated funds.
Urban sprawl is a serious problem that contributes to air and water pollution, traffic congestion and the decay of urban centers. Communities can minimize the effects of sprawl while continuing to promote population and commercial growth by enacting density-sensitive policies, such as support for public transportation and approval for the construction of taller buildings, that promote the efficient use of space. The passing of the Greenbelt signifies that Ann Arbor’s residents are eager to preserve open spaces and stop sprawl, and it is the city’s obligation to respect that. Along with the lag in Greenbelt implementation, the City Council’s delay in considering a proposed 10-story commercial and residential building near the University Hospital also sows doubt that the City Council appreciates the urgency of efforts to encourage density and reduce sprawl.
Reasons for the delay in enacting the Greenbelt project, such as coordination problems in a bulky bureaucracy, may have very well been anticipated by Mayor Hieftje and other council members. They are not, however, valid in excusing the city’s sluggishness, especially when prompt action is so critical to the project’s success. Some City Council members assert that progress is being made and that formal action will begin early this year. Until citizens can actually see their money being put to use, however, these reassurances will remain hollow.