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Home Builders Train Guns on Ann Arbor Land Plan

Greenbelt would protect watershed, limit sprawl

October 22, 2003 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Jim Dulzo

Ann Arbor leaders say that preserving farmland outside town is essential to prevent more sprawl and improve the Huron River Watershed.

ANN ARBOR — Promising to do whatever is necessary to defeat a farmland protection program aimed at defending the Huron River watershed from sprawling development, an association of Washtenaw County home builders is mounting what could become a $500,000 effort to bury the pioneering initiative in a landslide of negative advertising.

The initiative, known as Proposal B, would extend for 30 years an existing half-mil property tax in Ann Arbor to raise up to $100 million to purchase the development rights to farmland around the city. That’s enough money, say proponents, to protect as much as 8,000 acres of land north, east, and west of the city. If approved on November 4, farmers who volunteer for the program will be paid roughly $12,000 an acre to permanently prevent housing development and commercial activities, and gain needed capital to invest in their farm operations.

Supporters say the program is a wise public investment that will improve the quality of life in Ann Arbor by surrounding the city with a ring of appealing green, ensure the integrity of the local farm economy, and improve the Huron River watershed. Opponents say the program is a waste of money, will limit new development, injure the local economy, and impede the American Dream of homeownership. For both sides, the political stakes in the election are very high.

Defending a Far-Reaching Idea
Proposal B, which is championed by Ann Arbor Mayor John Heiftje and a strikingly broad coalition of business, environmental, conservation, realtor, and construction leaders, is one of the most ambitious farmland protection programs ever tried in Michigan and the Midwest. It represents the leading edge of the new thinking in Michigan about how to manage sprawl, preserve open spaces, and protect watersheds to help build the state’s prosperity. These ideas are attracting many supporters in Michigan, including most members of the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, which recommended such programs in a report last summer, and Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm.

In response, the Michigan Association of Home Builders and its county chapters are leading a countercharge against the trend. The home builders’ success in such campaigns is mixed, however. Last year they failed to defeat a purchase of development rights program in western Michigan's heavily Republican Kent County and were unsuccessful in their effort to derail the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council’s recommendations, which were completed in August. But in 1998, after spending nearly $400,000, they defeated a similar countywide millage proposal in Washtenaw, which would have protected tens of thousands of acres of farmland.

Leaders on both sides of the issue are not sure which way the November 4 vote will turn out. Supporters of the measure note that the 1998 millage proposal attracted overwhelming support within Ann Arbor, but was defeated by similarly large margins in the rest of the county. But supporters also said they are concerned that the very large amount of money the proposal's opponents are spending to defeating the 2003 proposal could sway voters who previously backed the idea.

All-Out Home Builder Campaign
To be sure, the home builders are putting everything on the line. The industry’s leaders view the area around Ann Arbor as prime territory for suburban development and an economic opportunity for their members. In order to make sure they have access to that land, the builders revived their 1998 campaign opposition group, Washtenaw Citizens for Responsible Growth (WCRG), which has already raised between $150,000 and $300,000 and is preparing to raise more.

Much of the money is likely to come from outside the county. Campaign finance records from the 1998 election show that the top two contributors to WCRG were the state and national home builders associations, followed by the Washtenaw group. The balance came, with but one exception, from home building industry members around the state.  “We spent $400,000 defeating this ballot last time,” Jeff Fisher, public affairs director for the Home Builders Association of Washtenaw County, a primary funder of WCRG, told Crain’s Detroit Business in August. “We’ll spend another $400,000 this time. We’ll spend $800,000.”

The home builders claim Proposal B was rushed through the city’s approval process without a proper public hearing, an assertion denied by Mayor Heiftje, who is a realtor by profession. Home builders also say that the initiative will cost city taxpayers $100 million, too much to spend on farmland preservation. In addition they assert, without offering much evidence, that the proposal will divert money from Ann Arbor’s parks, push sprawl further out into the countryside, and deprive the public school system of families with young children. Mr. Heiftje challenged these claims as well.

Effort to Intimidate?
Barry Lonik, a well-regarded conservationist who worked for the losing 1998 county ballot and helped to design Proposal B, said that the home builders' opposition is devoted to one more outcome: Intimidation. “They don’t want anybody else getting these kinds of ideas,” said Mr. Lonnik. “This is a very bold step by the mayor and the city.”

Indeed, Proposal B is unique for a Michigan city, although a number of Michigan counties approved purchase of development rights programs they have not yet funded, and Peninsula Township, north of Traverse City, has a fully funded program that voters initially approved in 1994. Experts say if Proposal B succeeds it could inspire similar programs in other cities.

Public comments last April by more than 1,000 state residents at hearings held by the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council confirm this. Citizens overwhelmingly urged the state to quickly reverse development patterns that are rapidly erasing  farmland, causing severe traffic congestion, draining cities, and driving up taxes as local governments scramble to keep up with new road, sewer, water, and public safety costs. The few people who told the council that sprawl was not a problem were almost always home builders, developers, and realtors.

Powerful Coalition in Support of Farmland Preservation
This near-unanimous opposition to sprawl is energizing the remarkably diverse coalition of untraditional allies that endorse Proposal B. Campaign literature by Friends of Ann Arbor Open Space lists prominent leaders like Michigan Environmental Council president Lana Pollack, Congressman John Dingell, state legislators Chris Kolb and Liz Brater, and former state Senator Alma Wheeler Smith, plus dozens of CEOs, business organizations, local builders and real estate companies, environmental groups, land conservancies, recreation organizations, former city park supervisors, and agricultural groups.

The four townships that border Ann Arbor also back the proposal. Three pledge to help fund purchases of development rights if it passes; the fourth, Ann Arbor Township, has its own millage purchase of development rights proposal on the Nov. 4 ballot. The city’s program depends on matching money from townships, along with federal land conservation funds.

Last week a debate on the issue at the Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor attracted hundreds of people.  Mr. Heiftje, a Democrat, emphasized the wide support the measure enjoys, the need to act quickly to conserve open space in a county losing 4,000 acres a year to development, and the economic benefits of maintaining a high quality of life in and around the city, one of just two in Michigan that experienced a population increase during the 1990s.  

Fiery Debate
“Why is it that folks like Albert Berriz here, the chief executive of McKinley and Associates, a card-carrying Republican, is up here with me?” he asked, pointing at the man next to him. The mayor listed other prominent business leaders that publicly endorse the proposal, including the CEOs of the city’s two largest taxpaying companies. “They understand what it means to attract the top professionals in the world to come and work in Ann Arbor.”

Craig Welch, the chief executive officer of Wexford Development Group and a proposal opponent, sought to describe the strong support for his side by offering a list of people who he characterized as being against the proposal, including several public school officials, two local professors, two local planners, and the director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.

The Great Lakes Bulletin News Service contacted four of those named to confirm their positions and found that three actually support Proposal B. They said that Mr. Welch had taken their comments out of context and misused them.

Despite repeated claims by home builders that greenbelts automatically increase housing prices, expert research suggests that other factors are actually responsible. In Michigan cities such as Ann Arbor, Traverse City, and Royal Oak, prices have risen sharply in recent years due to their high-quality lifestyles. Meanwhile in Portland, Oregon,  which does have a sharply defined growth boundary encircling it, housing prices remain close to the national median. Proposal B proponents point to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which has a program that resembles the one Ann Arbor is considering; housing costs there are among the lowest in that state, they say.

At the debate, Mr. Berriz, a respected realtor, challenged Mr. Welch’s affordability concerns, noting that the developer is currently building 27 homes that cost $1 million each. He challenged Mr. Welch to join the board of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, an affordable housing group which Mr. Barriz chairs, and raise $400,000 for the organization. He said that if the home builder would do that, he would do the same.

A Belt of Calming Green
Doug Cowherd, co-director of the Proposal B campaign, said in an interview that the millage would, at most, protect three percent of the land in the entire county and that such a small fraction would not drive up land and home values at a higher rate than they already are rising in Washtenaw County. And Mr. Cowherd said school enrollments would not be affected by the proposal. “We are shifting development from remote sites without infrastructure to places that already have paved roads and services,” he said.

Mr. Cowherd also accused home builders of deliberately misleading the public. “The developers have started an amazing misinformation campaign,” he said. “They are trying to say that they are the ones saving the parks. But you know my wife, who was the former chair of the City Park Advisory Commission, was very surprised to hear this. They are not bound by the truth. It gets in their way.”



Nov. 5, 2003 -- Voters in Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor Township, by a two-to-one margin, yesterday overwhelmingly approved programs to permanently preserve 8,000 acres of farmland in Washtenaw County. The vote reflected citizen concern about the runaway sprawl surrounding Ann Arbor. The vote gives Ann Arbor the authority to continue an existing property tax to finance a $100 million PDR program over the next 30 years. It is one of the largest such city-sponsored farmland conservation programs in the nation. 


Jim Dulzo, a journalist and broadcaster, is the managing editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org

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