This week on “In The Public Interest,” our bi-weekly conversation with the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area, 89.1 WEMU’s Lisa Barry talks with Washtenaw County parks official Ginny Trocchio about the county’s Natural Area Preservation Program.
She is the Superintendent of Park Planning and Natural Areas for the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission. The interview is the second in our series about getting to know your Washtenaw County government.
What is the Natural Area Preservation Program (NAPP)?
Washtenaw County's Natural Areas Preservation Program (NAPP) purchases unique natural areas to ensure their preservation for the benefit of all County residents. The program goal is to identify lands which, through long-term preservation, will:
- Protect and preserve the natural, ecological diversity/heritage of Washtenaw County
- Complement the existing network of publicly and privately protected lands
- Maximize the public benefit
When and how was the Natural Areas Preservation Program established?
The Natural Area Preservation Program (NAPP) was established in August 2000 by Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners through the passage of Natural Areas Ordinance No. 128. The program was subsequently funded through a 10-year .25 millage later in 2000 and delegated to the Parks and Recreation Commission to administer the program. In 2010, voters chose to renew the 10-year, county-wide .25 mil tax that funds the program. The current millage runs through 2020.
How is NAPP similar or different than other land preservation programs in the County, such as the Greenbelt?
Washtenaw County is fortunate to have several land preservation programs operating in the County, each with their own unique niche. The County’s program is focused on the preservation of unique natural resources found in the County and evaluates properties through the lens of natural resource protection, while other programs are more focused on land use planning or curbing sprawl. As such, NAPP works throughout the County: rural areas as well as urban fringe areas. That being said, the end result for all the programs is preserving land.
How does the program determine which natural areas should be preserved?
The Board of Commissioners has appointed a 7-member Natural Area Technical Advisory Committee (NATAC) to review and make recommendations to the Parks Commission on potential lands to preserve. NATAC includes members with expertise in ecology, botany, wildlife biology, aquatic ecology, land conservation and real estate.
Are natural areas the only lands the Natural Areas Preservation Program seeks to preserve?
In addition, the County program also helps to protect active agriculture land throughout the county. Recognizing that prime agricultural soils are a significant natural feature in the county that needs to be protected, when the millage was up for renewal in 2010, 25% of the revenue was allocated to the preservation of agricultural land. Those dollars are often leveraged almost 1:1 with federal grant dollars, or other local dollars. The Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee (ALPAC), appointed by the Board of Commissioners, helps review nominations for natural areas with active farm land. ALPAC is comprised of farmers, real estate representatives and conservation organization representatives.
What are the Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee goals?
It is the goal of the Committee to preserve Washtenaw County's farming economy by identifying those parcels of land that, through permanent preservation will contribute to:
- Preservation of working farms, particularly those including prime and unique soils
- Preservation of working farms that support the ecological integrity of wildlife habitat or important natural habitats
- Complement the existing network of publicly and privately preserved lands
- Maximize the public benefit
How are agricultural lands protected under the program?
Agricultural land is protected through the purchase of conservation easements, which allows the land to remain in private ownership. The conservation easement outlines permitted and restricted land uses on the land in perpetuity to ensure the agricultural soils and land are protected for future generations of farmers. The conservation easement typically allows for minimal building or renovations to buildings for agricultural purposes, to account for change agricultural practices.
If a landowner is interested in preserving their land, what is the first step they should take?
There is an application form, found on the county’s website. This is the first step to give staff the basic property information to begin the review the property. Staff would then set up a meeting with the landowner to discuss their property and interest in preserving their land to find out the best avenue. For natural areas, NATAC conducts site visits spring through fall. For agricultural properties, ALPAC has a rigorous scoring system that will be used to rank property applications. Every fall, both NATAC and ALPAC prioritize properties to pursue for the following year. The process can take over a year, depending on additional funding partners or grant cycles.
What are the greatest accomplishments of the program?
One of the greatest accomplishments of NAPP is to see the progression and diversity of land protected throughout the county over the last 19 years, and counting. As a result of the NAPP funding, the county has established 34 nature preserves, providing over 40 miles of nature trails to residents. For some areas, the preserves provide one of the only outlets for nature recreation for nearby residents. The preserves also provide a classroom for kids and adults to learn about the ecological features through hikes led by WCPARC naturalists. In addition, NAPP has helped to protect XXXX acres of active farmland and contributed funds to help local partners protect an additional XXXX acres of land. Secondly, the Parks and Recreation Commission and Board of Commissioners have set aside funds to be invested to be used for the long-term management of these preserves and conservation easements to ensure that the unique natural areas protected through the program are here for future generations of residents. This is an impressive legacy to the next generation of residents and county government officials responsible for these lands and is consistent with the national land preservation standards, set for by the Land Trust Alliance.
What are the greatest challenges facing the program?
Some of the challenges NAPP faces:
- Garnering interest in areas that the program has not currently preserved land (SE in particular);
- Managing numerous nature preserves across the county;
- In reference to agricultural conservation easements, drafting them to be strict enough to protect the land, but flexible enough to account for changing agricultural landscape over time. For instance, just 10 or so years ago, hoop-houses were non-existent, so they needed to evaluate conservation easement language to allow for non-permanent buildings. Also, the average age of farmers across the region is increasing. Conversations are ongoing with land preservation professionals on how to support the next generation of farmers and ensure that there is available and affordable farmland to keep agricultural viable as a part of Washtenaw County’s economy.
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