Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

A2 Greenbelt and Washtenaw Land Trust receive $1.9 from Feds

13. May 2005 • Murph
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Somebody in Washington thinks the Ann Arbor Greenbelt is a good idea; of $3.1 million in federal farmland preservation money allocated to Michigan, the Greenbelt program scored nearly $1.7 million, and the Washtenaw Land Trust received another $200,000 for development rights in York Township.

The federal grant money is for farmland preservation; the targeted land will remain in active farming, selling only the development rights. The development value of the four properties targeted by the Greenbelt are appraised at a total of $6.8 million; one of the landowners has apparently offered to donate 10% of the development value, and Ann Arbor Township will be sharing the cost of one of the parcels

  1. Can anyone map these properties? I thought I saw one in the news back in Feb, but I don’t remember.

    Also, if anyone is familiar with the greenbelt program, what kind of say does the city have over the continued operation of the farm (do they have to approve any new farm buildings?) and are there any controls on the city’s use of the development rights (eg could the city, in tougher financial straits, sell the development rights for big money down the road)?
       —Dale    May. 13 '05 - 07:29PM    #
  2. I believe, in general, that “purchase of development rights” programs do not give the buyer development rights – most of the time the development rights are purchased and immediately retired (like retiring Kyoto carbon credits), or else it’s done in the form of a 99-year conservation easement. I don’t know off-hand what the exact form of the purchases here would be; I think, though, that the City has zero say in the matter, since everything is defined at a higher level than the City. The PDR simply flips the legal status of the land from one state (the farmer can do whatever he wants) to another (the farmer can do whatever he wants – except sell it). I believe that any farm operations buildings can still be built on the land, but not, say, processing or distribution facilities that handle materials from other farms. I am, however, mostly saying this from what I know about the general case of PDRs; I’m not that familiar with the legal details of the A2 program.

    I was going to try to map them, but I can’t find addresses easily. Up until now, I think that the details on the properties have mostly been kept quiet – the Greenbelt Advisory Committee’s minutes are almost entirely closed sessions to discuss land purchases / grant applications. The addresses will probably be available soon. (Or now, if I wanted to dig.)
       —Murph    May. 13 '05 - 07:41PM    #
  3. I think that if a farmer sells the Property Development Rights (PDR), he can still sell the farm, but the property cannot be split into smaller parcels.
       —tom    May. 13 '05 - 08:18PM    #
  4. “Also, if anyone is familiar with the greenbelt program, what kind of say does the city have over the continued operation of the farm (do they have to approve any new farm buildings?)”

    None, unless there’s language in the conservation easement limiting the usage. Those uses will be controlled by the zoning of the particular Township.

    “are there any controls on the city’s use of the development rights (eg could the city, in tougher financial straits, sell the development rights for big money down the road)?”

    According to the ordinance governing all things Greenbelt, the land is held in trust for perpetuity. However, a landowner can petition to repurchase the development rights after 50 years. The criteria for this process make it more likely than not that this won’t ever happen. Even if the City did sell the development rights, there would be a strong legal argument that the money would have to go back to a fund for the purchase of development rights. It just couldn’t be diverted into the general city coffers.

    “I believe, in general, that “purchase of development rightsâ€? programs do not give the buyer development rights ”

    I don’t think this is the case in MI. You actually purchase and retain the development rights and enforce them via a conservation easement on the property.

    The property owners’ names and locations are in the article – punch them in here and you should get all of the details you need:

    More details here:$f=templates$3.0
       —John Q.    May. 14 '05 - 04:41AM    #
  5. In the course of research on Greenbelt, Maryland, I came across this 1975 article about Boulder-area greenbelts on JSTOR. “The Effects of Greenbelts on Residential Property Values: Some Findings on the Political Economy of Open Space.” Land Economics v. 54, no. 2, pp. 207-217.

    One particularly striking excerpt, analyzing values after much calculation: “Distance from the greenbelt has a very strong depressing impact on the price of residential property in neighborhood 1. In particular, price decreases $10.20 for every foot one moves away from the greenbelt.”

    Give it a look.
       —Dale    May. 14 '05 - 03:11PM    #
  6. That’s an interesting spin. The greenbelt is linked to the “depression” of property price, rather than the enhancement of it (for those closer to the greenbelt.) I wonder who wrote it.
       —Steve Bean    May. 14 '05 - 03:57PM    #
  7. Dale,

    Why are you relying on a 30 year article about the economic impacts of greenbelts when there are much more current studies and many more communities that have adopted greenebelt policies (particularly in California)? Plus, as Steve noted, that’s just one way of saying what I think everyone would guess – the closer you live to the Greenbelt, the more valuable your property is going to become. I don’t think that effect is any different than what you would find for properties that border a preserved open space (park, nature area, etc.) or environmental feature (river, lake, etc.) versus those properties that don’t. Do we say that Lake Michigan causes a depressing impact on property values because properties that don’t have lake frontage are less valuable than those that do?
       —John Q.    May. 14 '05 - 05:20PM    #
  8. It would be interesting to see a map of the Greenbelt area at the parcel level developed. That would help visualize what areas are already protected through parkland, open space, PDR (esp. by the land conservancies) and what areas still can be and need to be covered by the Greenbelt program. I think people might be surprised to see what kind of progress has been made in some areas.
       —John Q.    May. 14 '05 - 06:10PM    #
  9. John Q.—I wasn’t relying upon anything. I came across it and shared it. You may not have been able to access the article, but it was evaluating the situation with an eye towards tax policy, ie if everyone pays more or less equally for the greenbelt and those closer to the greenbelt reap greater benefits, should we tax them more for it? This question may have been prompted by the local political situation in Boulder at the time and not a general question about land management policy in the US. I think the term is “case study.” Again, it was something I came across and decided to offer it for wider consumption, thinking people might be willing to take something from it. Perhaps not.

    I do, however, place higher value upon studies of pretty much anything that take a rational, empirical, and rigorous approach to examination of a thesis than upon anecdotes and conjecture. This goes for most realms of life; lots of people can and do claim to know things, while only a few can demonstrate them.

    While there may be other, more recent studies, I haven’t seen anyone offer citations, so I can’t base my opinions upon them. If you’ve got a couple articles you’d like to share, please do so.

    Indeed, I would not guess that your assertion is true. I think that the closer to the center of the city you live, the more valuable your property is, with property values decreasing until a middle point between the CBD and the greenbelt, where property values start picking up again (not perfect rings, but you get the idea).
       —Dale    May. 14 '05 - 10:59PM    #
  10. Dale, your last paragraph is what I noted as interesting. Central Place Theory puts highest value at the center of the city, with a negative gradation outwards. (Think Chicago or NYC.) A greenbelt in the absence of a strong-value central place would have the opposite value gradation (is Detroit the natural experiment in this?). Presumably, Boulder has both high value places . . . ?

    I think Steve’s attempt to find “spin” might be a little bit of a stretch? It’s not “the greenbelt causes depressed property values somewhere!” (which would, yes, count as spin), but “Yes, as expected, greenbelts are desirable things that drive up property values.” Considering that one of the concerns when the A2 greenbelt was being proposed was, indeed, “Isn’t it already hard enough to find reasonably-priced housing around here?!” I think that this is a highly-relevant study, that I only wish we had dug up then. (Recall that there was absolutely no evidence provided by anybody for anything at the time, just a lot of FUD flinging.
       —Murph    May. 15 '05 - 02:38AM    #
  11. I thought “depress” was an interesting word to use, but it was used as a frame-of-reference kind of word. That is, if property contiguous to the greenbelt has fully realized value, property at a distance is depressed because of that distance. It could be expressed differently, but since the greenbelt was the center of the study, things were gauged in reference to it.

    I think it is relevant as well; I am grateful to people who attempt to quantify the answers to life’s persistent questions, because it helps to have data to base our conclusions upon. There probably are more good, recent studies out there; I just haven’t seen them and I doubt most people involved in the Greenbelt debate did, either.
       —Dale    May. 15 '05 - 03:08AM    #
  12. “Recall that there was absolutely no evidence provided by anybody for anything at the time, just a lot of FUD flinging.”

    That’s pure BS. Greenbelt advocates provided quite a bit of information making the case for the Greenbelt both from a tax policy standpoint as well as a public policy standpoint. I can only speak for myself but I think many of those active with promoting the Greenbelt are familiar with the findings of studies that made the case for the Greenbelt.

    The argument that the Greenbelt will drive up property values and lead to less affordable housing has always been the weakest argument against it. I know that was the position of the Homebuilders’ lobby and they always trot that out when any effort is made to limit their ability to convert farmland to subdivisions. But most people recognize, and I think people who voted in support of the Greenbelt recognized, that the do-nothing alternative has done nothing to provide more affordable housing.

    For years, developers have had carte blanche to build and the conversion of thousands of acres of farmland into new subdivisions hasn’t led to more affordable homes. I think voters were also smart enough to look at suburban communities like Canton, Rochester Hills and others and see that giving developers the greenlight to maximize development didn’t lead to more affordable housing. It just led to more expensive housing with no offset of additional parkland or open space. The idea that the Greenbelt is going to make housing less affordable ignores the reality that most housing already falls outside the definition of affordable and that would continue to be true, Greenbelt or no Greenbelt.
       —John Q.    May. 15 '05 - 03:57AM    #
  13. As for studies and articles on the impact of parks and greenbelts on property values, here’s a few to get you started:

    Real Estate Impact Review of Parks and Recreation

    Economic Impacts of Rivers, Trails and Greenways

    Measuring the Impact of Parks on Property Values

       —John Q.    May. 15 '05 - 03:58AM    #
  14. My use of FUD was more directed at opponents of the greenbelt, who ascribed various bad things to it without evidence. The advocates I’d more accurately label “starry-eyed”, I suppose. I’m glad to have that list of resources, but, going back to look at, surprised to see that none of those resources, or anything similar, is used there. Even the places I’d really expect to see such evidence, such as pages linked to as, Read the truth here from elsewhere on the site, make assertions rather than providing any kind of evidence.

    I will point out again that I’m not anti-greenbelt. I’m just greenbelt ambivalent, and somewhat glad that I was living in NJ at the time of that vote so that I didn’t have to make up my mind. I’m also a little disappointed, after having Mike Garfield in to discuss the greenbelt and related issues with some planning students, that he (and, by extension, the greenbelt advisory commission?) sees in-town development questions as wholly separate.
       —Murph    May. 15 '05 - 01:14PM    #
  15. John—the article I cited, as you know, was cited in both of your suggested studies that had bibliographies. In fact, it seems to have been foundational.

    Why were we arguing, again?
       —Dale    May. 15 '05 - 01:46PM    #
  16. With regard to spin (or not), “depressed” is used as an active verb. What’s the subject if not the greenbelt? Maybe it’s just poor word choice. I’m still curious who wrote the report.
       —Steve Bean    May. 15 '05 - 03:08PM    #
  17. If only there were some way we could find out. Some way…
       —Dale    May. 15 '05 - 03:28PM    #
  18. Dale: You questioned my claim that properties closer to the greenbelt (or a park or trail or lake) are more valuable than those more distant. That’s why I provided the links to the studies which appear to back up that claim. However, in re-reading the comments, we may have been talking past each other. Your focus was on all properties in the city while mine was focused mainly on the difference between properties bordering a preserved area vs. those that do not. Like Steve, I still find the use of the word “depressed” to be misleading. As I stated in my previous example – do we claim that property that doesn’t have lake frontage is “depresssed” in comparison to property that does?

    Murph: Most of the studies referenced during the Greenbelt campaign focused on the “Cost of Community Services” studies that have been done in other communities to help demonstrate the benefit of limiting the conversion of agricultural land into low-density residential land use. The AA Township site linked to a number of those resources but it doesn’t appear to be online anymore. This shouldn’t be surprising – the focus of the Greenbelt campaign wasn’t how it could jack up property values in the City (although I had some people, even in the development community, tell me this was there reason for voting yes). Instead, the focus was how limiting sprawl and maintaining famrland and open space in the surrounding Townships through PDRs could benefit both communities. The non-financial benefits of the Greenbelt were the reasons that, at least in my discussions, appeared to appeal to the most voters.

    Re: Mark Garfield and the issue in-town development – I come at it from the other side – I think that you and Dale and others put too much stock in the ability of downtown development to have a significant impact on the amount and impacts of sprawl in Washtenaw County. I’ve been involved in land use issues for at least 10 years and my experience has taught me that in high-growth areas every square inch of developable land (or land made developable by filling, clearing, etc.) that isn’t protected as parks, by conservation easements or PDRs, is going to be developed. So even if downtown development does slow the rate of sprawl (and I don’t really even think that’s true), it simply delays the eventually urbanization of everything around Ann Arbor. For some people, that’s OK. But I would prefer a future where there’s some preserved open space and farmland around Ann Arbor so it simply doesn’t become an extension of the sprawl of western Wayne County, Oakland County, Livingston County, etc. I have yet to see any solutions that can accomplish that result without a tool along the lines of the Greenbelt. Perhaps you prefer a future where Ann Arbor is just a western suburb of Canton. But as we saw at the ballot box, that’s a minority viewpoint in Ann Arbor.
       —John Q.    May. 15 '05 - 04:01PM    #
  19. _“Distance from the greenbelt has a very strong depressing impact on the price of residential property in neighborhood 1.”_

    Steve, yes, “has a depressing impact” is the verb clause, but “greenbelt” is not the subject of the verb clause. “Distance from greenbelt” is the subject. From an analytical standpoint, this is sound. I expect that you would prefer something like, “Proximity to the greenbelt has an appreciating effect on property values,” to make the greenbelt sound like a positive thing? As I see it, though, the regression requires a zero point, and “at the greenbelt” is a much better zero point for analysis than “x arbitrarily chosen distance from the greenbelt.” And, if you’re going to do your analysis moving from the greenbelt away, then it should be stated that way in your write-up. No reason to confuse the issue by stating your results in terms that are the opposite of what you analyzed.
       —Murph    May. 15 '05 - 04:28PM    #
  20. John, I in no way believe that “increased development in already urbanized areas” is a single-step magic bullet approach to land use. I don’t think Dale does either. I think both of us see the greenbelt as a valuable part of a good land use strategy in Washtenaw County – but only a part, and not any more of a cure-all. What I am most afraid of, I think, is the Ann Arbor voters you mention saying, “Well, we have a greenbelt, we don’t need any of this other stuff you’re talking about. How much do you want from us?” My primary objection to the greenbelt was always along those lines, that passing a greenbelt without any supporting land-use decisions would lead to a false sense of security and prevent us from implementing any of the other programs that we need.

    Preservation is, I think, necessary but not even close to sufficient. Increased development of already urbanized areas is also necessary but not even close to sufficient. Transfer of development rights programs (TDR) are just as important as PDRs, and much cheaper – and they need to be done across municipal boundaries, so that the development rights from Superior Township can be transferred into Ann Arbor City, for example (which would, oh my gosh, achieve both the greenbelt’s goals of permanently preserving farmland and the goal of focusing development).

    I also think you’re operating on sort of a false premise of infinite growth demand – that, no matter how much growth is accomodated in a sensible fashion, there will always be just as much senseless growth; that if we sucked a million people into Ann Arbor’s borders, the Townships would look exactly the same as if we held Ann Arbor’s population constant.

    I do not prefer a scenario where Ann Arbor is a suburb of Canton, or any scenario where the two are commingled, and I think that’s exactly the kind of rhetoric that’s destructive – anybody who dares question the singular effectiveness of the greenbelt must be attacked as a pawn of the developers’ lobby! I’m saying your tool of choice is not sufficient, but only part of a larger toolkit that we must create. Hopefully, you’re saying the same thing about my tool of choice, and not saying that my tool is worthless at best and most likely harmful? (A view I’ve heard several times, particularly during the greenway “discussion”.)
       —Murph    May. 15 '05 - 04:40PM    #
  21. I’m with Murph, John. The greenbelt doesn’t do much for us if it’s not part of a broad set of strategies that address urban development AND farmland/open space preservation AND transit AND affordable housing AND…

    Anyone who thinks that one of these initiatives is enough to provide opportunity, quality of life, and ecological responsibility has tunnel vision. What does the greenbelt solve? These farmers can keep farming. Even if we can assemble a ring of operating farms around Ann Arbor, if all we do is buy development rights we will have done nothing to solve the underlying problem of Ann Arbor—that we are unable to responsibly provide for and manage the number of people who want to live in and around Ann Arbor.

    Perhaps most importantly, the toolbox Murph alludes to is worthless without a vision of Ann Arbor to work towards. I think an Ann Arbor of 130-140k in 20 years with a broad, affordable array of housing types; a sufficient job base to support the residents (with equal diversity in options); a traditional urban arrangement that is ecologically responsible in its development; and a planned incorporation of services and amenities throughout the metro area is or should be the goal.

    This mostly non-existent vision (with a 40-year version, as well) should be the standard we use to formulate and evaluate our planning strategies. Greenbelt, physical development, transit, education, economic development…
       —Dale    May. 15 '05 - 05:28PM    #
  22. Oops – that’s Mike Garfield, not Mark. Sorry Mike!
       —John Q.    May. 15 '05 - 05:41PM    #
  23. i’m not surprised that property close to the greenbelt is worth more—who wouldn’t pay more to back up to a nature preserve?

    i do worry that purchasing development rights tries to sweep back the tide with a broom.

    i have a dark vision of “greater” ann arbor 25 or 50 years from now, a giant suburban sprawl dotted with the few bare spots that the development rights purchasers could afford.

    well, i’ll probably be pushing up daisies by then, so … good luck, kids! (and: sorry!)
       —peter honeyman    May. 16 '05 - 11:46AM    #
  24. Peter! How long have you been reading? It’s rare to get new commenters whom I’ve met before. (Rob introduced me to you on the street last week, when you were supposed to be . . . abroad somewhere.)

    Meanwhile, have you seen the Washtenaw County Planning Department’s “status quo” development map? During their master planning process, they mapped current urbanized area and exurban developments, and then looked at projected in-migration to the county and existing zoning/local planning and mapped a forecast of urbanized area and exurban developments. I’ve seen them present the pair of maps three times in the past year, and, every time, the forecast map elicits visible and audible shock from the audience. Your “dark vision” is highly appropriate, as they use little black dots to represent discrete exurban development projects, and the forecast map is just a haze of black dots. (Well, except for the massive yellow “suburban land use” halos consuming Saline, Chelsea, and Dexter.)

    Those maps are part of why I’m greenbelt-skeptic. The greenbelt is not nearly enough land to alter the patterns they’re showing, except to carve a few preserves out of the haze. In order to ensure that the future does not match the forecast, we need to hit local land use with everything we’ve got. (And, yes, as Dale notes, we need to consider what exactly we want to be pushing towards as we push.)
       —Murph    May. 17 '05 - 02:46AM    #
  25. That wasn’t a knock against you or your ideas, Murph. It just seems to me that there are basically two visions for the future of Ann Arbor—the “plan for the people who are here” (greenway/greenbelt) crowd and the “plan for the people who are here AND the next 50,000 who are bound to follow” (planning students/brewers) crowd.

    Unless these groups get some sort of consensus (hopefully nearer the latter position), all the planning innovation and millages in the world aren’t going to help Ann Arbor. This idea isn’t new, but I don’t think it’s always clear that the (simplified) two groups are talking with different visions when they talk on the same issue. From one perspective, the greenbelt is great because it means I won’t have to see that great old farm turned into houses. From the other, it’s either almost meaningless or worse because it pushes those developments out farther.

    Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
       —Dale    May. 17 '05 - 03:20AM    #
  26. “Those maps are part of why I’m greenbelt-skeptic. The greenbelt is not nearly enough land to alter the patterns they’re showing, except to carve a few preserves out of the haze.”

    No one who has any familiarity with potential of the greenbelt see it as THE solution for stopping sprawl across Washtenaw County. But it has done something that no other proposed solution has done or probably could do. It’s challenging the status quo model of development which is represented by those build-out maps.

    I think the differences in position represent a difference in experience. For those of us involved in the land use battles over the years, we had become resigned to the fact that except for a few farms protected by land conservancies or stubborn farmers who refused to sell to developers, we were fated to watch most of the area farmland and open space converted to new subdivisions and strip malls. Sure, with cluster zoning and natural features ordinances, you might get some natural areas protected but the overall pattern wasn’t going to change. No one wanted to see this happen but there was no realistic way to prevent that from happening.

    But the Greenbelt has changed all that. Now we have a legally defensible and well-funded tool that allows us to protect more than just a handful of farms. It’s already been successful from a regional perspective by building a vision that neighboring Townships are buying into, both philosophically and financially. For the AG community, it holds out hope that for those that want to continue farming, there’s a future other than waiting until retirement to cash out to the developers. If you haven’t been involved in the land use battles in the past, I don’t think you can realize what a tremendous sea change this represents. We’ve gone from a position where the future looked pretty bleak to a position where those who support the Greenbelt actually feel like there’s some ability to guide the land use decisions of the County to a better future.

    By actively challenging the status quo model of development, I think the Greenbelt is going to be the vehicle that changes land use at a County level. Look at those build-out maps. What they represent are Townships that had a long-range vision of AG going away and being replaced by 1 acre lots of residential development (with exceptions like A2 Township, which has actively fought to maintain its AG zoning). The Greenbelt presents an alternative vision. It says you can maintain AG long-term and I think it will help those Townships rethink how they are planning and zoning for the long-term. It’s also a wakeup call for those communities because it’s going to force them to deal with the reality of their development plans sooner rather than later. If development can’t be accomodated within Ann Arbor (and that’s where your downtown plans come into play), it’s going to be in their communities. If they don’t want to be the next Canton, and most of those residents don’t want that, they need to wake up and start taking steps to see that happen.
       —John Q.    May. 17 '05 - 09:01AM    #
  27. Pretty well formed thought John Q.,

    In response:

    1. Your explanation about why we have greenbelt does a fine job of explaining why I cringe when residents talk about using the funds to build parks/greeways in the downtown area. The fund should never be used for this….it is supposed to help curb/direct sprawl, not make a personal park for area neighborhoods.

    2. You’ve given me the one weapon that I can think of in convincing you and others that density can/will help the situation. I want to increase the heck out of the number of taxable buildings while using the least amount of land so that we can further augment the greenbelt funding. (Read: build up in already developed areas)

    How’s that sound? Let us put in a few multimillion dollar 14 story buildings downtown, and we can help to fund “green” things like parks or intensive recycling programs or how about just increasing the parks maintenance budget to a point where all Ann Arbor parks get a modicum of care?

    The reason that I don’t like the greenbelt proposal is, as Dale has pointed out, there isn’t a concomitant law to increase density in the downtown area. Boulder did the same thing. Now Boulder is a haven for the very, very wealthy, and much of the unique character that made Boulder, well, Boulder is lost forever. The greenbelt policy assumes that all of the citizens can handle an unending number of millages and taxes. That’s swell if your household income is over $200K, but lets pay for all of these millages with a solid and healthy tax base, and keep the cost of living under control.
       —Todd Leopold    May. 17 '05 - 01:26PM    #
  28. John, I like one part of your comment a lot – “building a vision that neighboring Townships are buying into, both philosophically and financially”. If the greenbelt can fire up some sentiment along the lines of linked A2-Township futures and co-operation, and we can work with that vision to say, “And the greenbelt is only the first step – look how much more we can do!” then we have a chance of holding Canton to its current borders. My concern with the greenbelt is of the resting-on-our-laurels variety; we have to treat it as a tool for building a broader regional vision, rather than as a tool for preserving a double-handful (rather than a mere handful) of farms.
       —Murph    May. 17 '05 - 01:47PM    #
  29. When I ran for council I supported the greenbelt proposal largely because I viewed it as a tool to work with the surrounding communities and because it creates an excuse to push for greater density. Perhaps the biggest flaw is that it didn’t include, as Todd suggests, some increased-density mandates along with it…
       —Scott    May. 18 '05 - 04:21PM    #
  30. Think beyond the Greenbelt. That program protects properties near to Ann Arbor, but the County passed a Natural Areas millage in 2000 which is protecting land (by outright purchase, in perpetuity) in areas all over the county. This is “long view” thinking, about those who will come after us (while we are “pushing up daisies”)for the next 50 to 100 years. As to the comment about pressure to build in Washtenaw County – did you see that Biltmore is suing Saline Twp. (Friday’s AA News)because they refused to change their zoning from “rural residential” to “residential”. This is the kind of pressure I am talking about. I do not see any letup. Canton is pretty much built out and we are the adjacent county to Wayne, and much more attractive for developers. To me, the answer does lie in downtown density, and real estate in downtown is hot hot hot. For affordable housing, what it takes is subsidies and political will.
       —Leah    May. 21 '05 - 11:06AM    #