In November 2003, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposal B, a millage planned to raise more than $30 million during the next 30 years to purchase the land and development rights to rural tracts of land surrounding Ann Arbor in an effort to stymie urban sprawl and preserve green space around the city. Unfortunately, since the proposal passed, the Greenbelt Commission has struggled through internal politics and bureaucracy and is only now beginning to take action. The Ann Arbor City Council announced last Monday that it has chosen four properties for purchase under the Greenbelt program. While the city has decided not to buy the land itself, it will purchase the developing rights to these tracts, meaning the city will have the power to ensure that they remain undeveloped. When combined, these properties, located in Webster, Salem and Superior Townships, would amount to a total of 400 acres of protected farmland and are perfect opportunities to get the already-delayed Greenbelt program officially underway.
Despite the promise of these properties, significant obstacles still block their acquisition. They could cost between $2 and $5 million, giving rise to the possibility that the $4 million currently in the Greenbelt fund may not cover the entire price. The city has wisely applied for federal agricultural grants, which could cover up to 50 percent of the cost, but these funds are not guaranteed. In the event that Ann Arbor does not receive federal matching funds, however, it must be resourceful and find the means to purchase these four tracts of land. If property-owners do not accept prices lower than market value — and little indicates that they would — neighboring townships could contribute to make up the difference. The preservation of open space in the Greenbelt corridor would benefit all surrounding communities through its environmental and aesthetic benefits, and Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje has indicated to The Ann Arbor News that some townships in the corridor have already expressed an interest in participating.
Ann Arbor officials and the Greenbelt Commission might been able to buy the properties for less had they acted sooner, but they can protect themselves from further price increases by purchasing developing rights now. While the city must wait about two months for word regarding federal funding, City Council members should begin to create specific backup plans now in case the city encounters difficulties in financing the purchase. Without federal funding, Ann Arbor may have to issue bonds or cooperate with other townships in order to raise the money, and two months from now it will not have time to waste in determining these logistics. The next few months promise to be difficult as the Ann Arbor City Council tackles the financing of these land purchases, but they must not let the politics of money cause them to lose sight of the goals voters have endorsed: land preservation and responsible urban development.