October 10, 2016|By Ruth Thornton| Food and Farms

As a new resident of Ann Arbor, Michigan, I love living in this charismatic city and exploring the many things it has to offer—a multitude of great restaurants, a fun and vibrant downtown area with many small stores and coffee shops, museums and concerts, and the many parks that provide green space and a place to walk.

Just as importantly, immediately surrounding the city is abundant farmland and open space, providing both beautiful views and access to nature. Considering Ann Arbor’s proximity to Detroit, that’s pretty impressive. And it might not have been that way, had Ann Arbor’s citizens not decided to proactively protect their surrounding land. 

Ruth A2 photos toned-2052 Ann Arbor, home of The University of Michigan, is working hard to preserve green space in and surrounding the city. Photo courtesy the City of Ann Arbor.

Fifteen years ago the growing city of Ann Arbor was becoming a victim of its own success, and developers were building on surrounding open space and farmland at an alarming rate. Luckily, Ann Arbor residents recognized the value of the open space in and around the city as an essential part of both the quality of life and character of the area. In order to preserve and protect open space, voters approved in 2003 a 30-year tax known as the Open Space and Parkland Preservation millage. It was an unusual and innovative attempt to help curb the suburban sprawl that was increasingly threatening Ann Arbor’s unique character by purchasing the development rights of parcels outside of city limits (in the so-called Greenbelt District), and also acquiring parklands within the city.

To date, the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Program has raised on average more than $2 million per year, protected more than 4,700 acres of farmland and natural areas around Ann Arbor, and added 72 acres of parkland within the city. In August 2016 we celebrated the completion of our 50th project—the acquisition of an 82-acre tract of land that will soon be open to the public. The property is a beautiful mix of woods, wetlands, and prairies, and its acquisition resulted from a collaboration between the Greenbelt Program, Legacy Land Conservancy, Washtenaw County, and the landowner, who contributed by donating a portion of the value of the tract.

Ruth Landsberg our 50th easement that Legacy Land ConservancyOur 50th project was the acquisition of the Landsberg property, pictured here and now owned by Washtenaw County. It will soon be open to the public and a place for Ann Arbor residents and visitors to enjoy. Photo by Legacy Land Conservancy.

An exciting aspect of this program is the collaboration with landowners and partners to find creative conservation solutions. Many landowners have contributed funding in the form of reduced sale prices. So far, the Greenbelt Program has worked with nine different partners, including Washtenaw County, townships, local land trusts such as Legacy Land Conservancy and Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Specifically, NRCS has contributed funding to 25 of the 50 projects, and has approved funding additional future projects via their Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). ACEP was created in the Farm Bill of 2014 with the strong leadership of Michigan’s U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, who serves as the Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and has been annually funded by Congress with support from U.S. Senator Gary Peters and U.S. Representatives Debbie Dingell and Tim Walberg. Additionally, The Conservation Fund provides our expertise in land acquisitions and experience with external funding sources to the Greenbelt Program.

I am simply amazed at how much space the program has been able to protect in a relatively small area around Ann Arbor and so close to Detroit. It really highlights the foresight the residents of Ann Arbor had to tax themselves to preserve the open character and beauty of their home.

By purchasing lands within the city and the development rights, or conservation easements, on farmlands and natural spaces surrounding it, the Greenbelt Program isn’t just protecting open spaces—it is also connecting parks, preserving important farmland, safeguarding natural habitats, and protecting city water sources.

There are a lot of misconceptions about how conservation easements work and the rights that landowners retain. The tract remains private property, and the landowner has full control over who visits the land and can even sell it. The succeeding landowner then still has to abide by the terms of the easement. I wish more people understood the benefits to both landowners and the general public, which depending on the property being protected can include wildlife and natural habitat protection, corridors for wildlife movement, protection of our drinking water sources, and economic benefits like enabling small farms to compete financially.

Over the past 10 years farmland has actually decreased in Michigan, and a majority of farmers have said that access to land is their biggest challenge. New and beginning farmers often face a steep financial hurdle to afford farmland, especially this close to a metropolitan area. By eliminating the development rights on the land, conservation easements make the land affordable for local farmers in addition to providing many benefits to the public.

Ruth Guenther-1The Greenbelt Program works with farmers around Ann Arbor to protect their land from future development while still allowing agricultural uses on these lands. Photo by Ivan LaBianca.

Each project is unique, and I enjoy working with landowners to help them protect their property in the most beneficial way. It can get complicated sometimes, but it is all part of figuring out how to make these protection projects happen and find funds from multiple partners. The Greenbelt Program would not be successful without the combined dedication and enthusiasm of all these people and organizations, and I’m proud of our shared success.