More than one year after Ann Arbor voters approved the Parks and Greenbelt Proposal to protect natural habitats in the city, the project has yet to preserve its first piece of land within the designated Greenbelt.
Ann Arbor voters approved the Parks and Greenbelt Proposal in 2003 with 67 percent of the vote. The proposal created a millage, which will be used to purchase development rights from landowners with property in the area surrounding the city of Ann Arbor. It also approved the buying of parkland inside the city in the ‘parks zone.’ The land will be purchased in an effort to restrict urban sprawl and promote open spaces in the area.
While Ann Arbor City Council members approved the purchase of 18.2 acres of parkland last month for $1.2 million, the purchase was a continuation of the parkland purchases that have been made in Ann Arbor for the last several decades and fall inside the parks zone, not the designated Greenbelt area.
City officials said that despite the fact that no land purchases have been made under the Greenbelt Project, they are pleased with the progress it is making.
“I think it’s going as well as one could hope. It’s a very complicated process,” said City Council and Greenbelt Advisory Commission member Robert Johnson. “We hope to begin purchasing properties in the first half of 2005,” he added.
Additionally, those involved with the Greenbelt Project have said that in comparison to similar projects in other cities, the timeline of Ann Arbor’s project is on target.
“By every measure of what we have to compare our progress to in other cities, our plans are right on schedule or even ahead of schedule,” Mayor John Hieftje said.
But not everyone paying attention to the project shares the mayor’s optimism. Bill Hanson, a former executive of the Washtenaw Land Trust and a former leader of the initial Parks and Greenbelt Project, said he is concerned about the pace at which the commission is proceeding.
“It’s been nearly 14 months since voters approved the Greenbelt proposal, and as far as I know the city hasn’t posted any jobs or hired any permanent staff. Even by city hall standards, that’s awfully slow,” Hanson said.
Doug Cowherd, another former leader in the effort to create and pass the Greenbelt plan last year, also said it is unfair to compare Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt project to projects in other cities because of the varying circumstances in each city.
“Some conservation programs start slowly because they’re not under sprawl development pressure, they have no money in hand and they have no history of land acquisition. In Ann Arbor, we have severe sprawl pressure; we started out with around $4 million in the acquisition fund on the day the proposal was passed, and we have a 20-year history of doing land acquisition, there’s no good reason our program couldn’t have gotten off to a fast start,” Cowherd said.
Both Hanson and Cowherd said they feel the Greenbelt is no longer a priority for the City Council and that its lack of support has kept the project from moving forward in a timely manner.
“There are good people on the Greenbelt commission, but that body will only be as good as the City Council it advises, and so far, regrettably, City Council hasn’t made the Greenbelt a priority. Land isn’t getting cheaper, developers haven’t stopped developing, yet city council has spent more time on matters like couch bans than they have on the Greenbelt,” Hanson said.
Mike Garfield, chairman of the Greenbelt Advisory Commission, said he understands these concerns and believes the commission should continue to move forward and begin to purchase properties soon.
“There has not been the same kind of increase in property values that we’ve seen over the last 10 years, but I take that with a grain of salt because I think all the long-term indicators say that property values are going to escalate. I think we’re going to save money if we buy more properties soon, rather than wait,” Garfield said.
He added that over the past year, commission members have been working on a variety of tasks that need to be accomplished before the first land acquisitions can be made.
Albert Berriz, Chief Executive Officer of McKinley Real Estate Solutions and chief financial advisor to the commission, said a lot of the preparatory work has involved figuring out how to finance the project. He added that commissioners have been developing a point system by which properties can be assessed for suitability. The commission has also been searching for a consultant who will help to advise the commission and guide it in making land acquisitions.
“A lot of what goes on in the first year of a project like this is legal work, organization, structure and is certainly less visible to the voters,” Berriz said.
Commission members said one of the project’s challenges is finding properties that are for sale. But Garfield said one of the important aspects of the Greenbelt Project is that farmers and land owners are not asked to sell their properties and give up their farms. Instead, farmers may keep farming, but if enrolled in the program, they must sell their right to develop that piece of property.
Still, Garfield said he understands the concerns that some landowners have about enrolling in the program.
“People don’t just decide to sell their land or their development rights on land that’s been in the family for 100 years,” he said.
But Garfield and other members of the commission said they hope that farmers and other landowners will see the value of participating in the Greenbelt Project.
“I’m very pleased with the project. It’s going to be a great thing for our kids and grandkids. It’s a great legacy,” Berriz said.