Issues of the Environment: Ann Arbor Greenbelt celebrates 20th anniversary with new pilot program
- Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt program is an innovative land preservation program that has protected thousands of acres of farmland and open space around the city of Ann Arbor. The program makes use of millions of dollars from grants, landowner donations, and other locally funded programs. Click here to view an interactive map of the Greenbelt properties.
- 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the Greenbelt Millage, which authorized a 30-year, 0.5 mil tax levy to provide funds for the preservation and protection of open space, natural habitats, agricultural lands. To date, the Greenbelt program has successfully helped to preserve 7,600+ acres of land. A majority of that has been achieved by acquiring conservation easements on private land that permanently restrict the property’s use, safeguarding its use for agricultural, recreational or conservation purposes. These protected lands stay in private ownership and on the tax rolls while contributing to the agricultural economy, conserving regional biodiversity and ensuring local open space.
- In July 2023, the program announced a first-ever affordable farmland purchasing opportunity via its buy-protect-sell initiative. Farmers are invited to submit a proposal to buy protected farmland that is being sold at a reduced price thanks to this new initiative. “This is a space where land preservation can offer new triple bottom-line sustainability outcomes,” said Land Acquisition Supervisor Rosie Pahl Donaldson. “There is an abundance of farmland seekers in the Ann Arbor area, with soaring property prices presenting a common barrier to land ownership for farmers that have been leasing farmland for years and for ones that are just getting started. If you are a farmer interested in purchasing land in the greater Ann Arbor area, especially for the first time, this opportunity may be right for you.”
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and today, we're going to talk farmland, open space and new opportunity. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Ann Arbor Greenbelt program. Back in 2003, Ann Arbor voters approved a 30-year, half-mill tax levy to fund preservation and protection of open space, natural habitats and agricultural lands. In marking this benchmark year and anniversary, there is a new land use and economic opportunity being offered through the program. Our guest this morning has all the information we're looking for. Rosie Pahl Donaldson is land acquisitions manager for the Ann Arbor Greenbelt program. And thank you for making the time today, Rosie.
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: Thank you, David. I'm excited to be here.
David Fair: Well, first of all, congratulations on 20 years. That's a long way.
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: It is. And we are seeing great impacts from that.
David Fair: In the first two decades, how much land has been preserved through the Greenbelt program?
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: Yeah. And, to date, we have successfully helped to preserve over 7600 acres of land, often in partnership with other local land preservation programs, Washtenaw County Parks, and the few townships that have programs as well. A majority of that has been achieved by acquiring conservation easements on private land that permanently restricts the property's use to agricultural, recreational or conservation purposes, though we've also contributed to public ownership of nature preserves for public recreation.
David Fair: So, how much of the acreage is allocated to open space, to natural habitat, and how much to usable farmland?
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: Yeah, so let's see. Out of the multiple, like, 85 properties that Greenbelt money has gone to, 68 of those properties are working farm, which I don't have offhand--the total acres of active farmland on that. But those 68 farms do come out to 6600 acres of land.
David Fair: Significant!
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: Yes. And a lot of the small farms around there contribute directly to the local economy. You can see them at the Farmer's Market and artist farms and co-ops.
David Fair: We're talking with Rosie Pahl Donaldson on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. She is land acquisitions manager for the Ann Arbor Greenbelt program. Well, as the program turns 20 this year, there's also a reason to look forward and to do so with growth and improvement in mind. In this anniversary year, Rosie, you've decided to unveil a new and innovative program aimed at helping local farmers with an opportunity at ownership. What does that look like?
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: Yeah. So, in the typical way we conserve land, I would say, is through these conservation easements. And the way those regularly work is an agency is approached by a landowner who wants to preserve their land. We work with that landowner. It remains in private hands and replace the conservation easement on that land. And that landowner continues. The method we have unveiled that we are now using is called buy/protect/sell. And it's a method of putting an easement on a property just like we usually do, but with a different set of steps. It's a method that's been around for some years now but still isn't commonly used. So, instead of buying an easement from a landowner, an agency will purchase the land outright in fee ownership, reserve a conservation easement, then sell the farm or land again to a different farmer. It will remain in farmland or natural area in perpetuity as the terms of our easement. Buy/protect/sell can be used by an agency to respond to a few different scenarios and achieve different goals. But we're hoping to use it to fulfill the Greenbelt conservation objectives while offering the secondary benefit of creating an active pathway to affordable farmland ownership for farmers that are insecure--land insecure.
David Fair: I don't have to tell you, as you just mentioned, so many small farmers have to rent land because the cost of property is so high and prohibitive. That also reduces profit margin for the farmer and can inhibit the prospect of planning a long-term farming career. Who is eligible for using this program?
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: Yeah, that is definitely one of the primary groups of people that we know around here. There was an MSU survey some time ago that tried to collect that data of what types of land seekers were around here and what type of land they were looking for. And a lot of them are currently renters. The people who are eligible for this buy/protect/sell property--you don't own any farmland. You're eligible. If you do own farmland, but have a gross annual farm income of less than $250,000, which is the definition of a small farmer, you are eligible for this particular RSP. And we have also placed an income cap, a personal taxable income cap, of three times the median household income for Washtenaw County in attempt to limit the applicant pool to people who might really need the affordable price.
David Fair: And does this play into the broader mission of creating diversity and equity within the agricultural community in Washtenaw County?
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: We're hoping so. The income cap is sort of part of that to target those equity goals. And we are pushing this out to as many networks as we possibly can.
David Fair: As part of the program, we keep saying the word "affordable". Is the Greenbelt program working with banks or other lenders to help support those who want to get into this program at an affordable cost?
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: That's a good question. Affordable, you know, is used in multiple ways.
David Fair: And it's always relative, right?
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: In real estate, yeah. So, affordable, in this case, is not at market price. It is at appraised value. So, when people submit their RFP, they are not bidding with finances. We are selling it at a sort of fixed appraised price. And the competition is based on their farm plan proposal essentially. We are not working directly with banks, but we have notified the common lenders around here and have provided a list of resources in our RFP for possible funding sources for applicants.
David Fair: This is Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking about the 20th anniversary of the Ann Arbor Greenbelt program and its new opportunities with the buy/protect/sell program with land acquisitions manager Rosie Pahl Donaldson. This is a process that's been described as offering triple bottom line sustainability outcomes, and I believe that you have touched on that. But I want to be a little bit more specific. What does that mean: triple bottom line sustainability outcomes?
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: Sure. In the simplest definition of sustainability, we're talking about actions that have a positive impact on the environment, equity and the economy. You know, we are achieving our typical environmental goals of conserving land. I've touched a little bit on how we're using this in an equity aspect, keeping the price low, removing that that bidding war and removing uncertainty. Time is often a valuable and limited resource for people that can prevent participation in market processes. And our RFP is open until September 11, and we're not going to rush anyone through the buying process once elected and, again, limiting the pool of applicants by having an income cap.
David Fair: It adds to the tax rules.
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: That's true. Yeah. Preserving land via conservation easements keeps land on the tax rolls, in contrast with buying land outright for public land. But it's also contributing to our local agricultural economy.
David Fair: That used to be a starting place. I imagine you're not going to put all available properties for sale at the same time. What comes first?
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: This is a bit of a prototype, if you will--our pilot project. The Greenbelt developed several guidance documents of when to buy, how to sell, you know what we want, how we want to do the RFP before this property was purchased. But we've had many discussions about it since then and have reworked a bit of that. We've engaged countless people on developing this RFP and what we want to see in a farm plan and how to get this part out here, just this for sell part. In terms of buying more, we have a small public engagement process planned for that, though we have some ideas on what we would look at to buy in the future. But we want to measure the success of this pilot sale first. And if there's a lot of interest, then we'll probably keep doing more. And if there is not, then maybe we won't do it as frequently. But this will not replace all of our work. We will continue to do regular conservation easement as well as there is a lot of grant money available to do that.
David Fair: Again, September is the deadline for applications for this pilot project?
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: Yes, September 11th. We have two open houses before that, too, should people like to visit the land on July 22nd and July 27th. And you can find all that information online.
David Fair: Rosie, congratulations on the 20th anniversary, and we'll look forward to hearing about how the new affordable farmland access opportunity grows in this pilot project and potentially in the years to come.
Rosie Pahl Donaldson: Thank you. We will, too. And we're excited for, you know, what the next ten years of the greenbelt will bring.
David Fair: That is Rosie Pahl Donaldson. She is land acquisitions manager for the Ann Arbor Greenbelt program. She's been our guest on Issues of the Environment. It's produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. We bring it to you each Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
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