Environmentalists scored a huge victory at the polls earlier this month, when a Midwestern city and its surrounding townships agreed to a tax to preserve a belt of green space. The plan marks one of the first locally funded efforts in the Midwest to fight sprawl. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert takes a look at whether this plan will fulfill its promise to curb unplanned growth:
Environmentalists scored a huge victory at the polls earlier this month, when a Midwestern city and its
surrounding townships agreed to a tax to preserve a belt of green space. The plan marks one of the first
locally funded efforts in the Midwest to fight sprawl. Sprawl often occurs when developers pave over
farmland and other natural resources to create strip malls and subdivisions. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Julie Halpert takes a look at whether this plan will fulfill its promise to curb urban sprawl:
Voters in Ann Arbor, Michigan gave the nod to a 30 year tax to preserve roughly 8,000 acres of land. It’s
one of the first measures in the Great Lakes states to set up a major regional funding plan for curbing
growth. Sprawl is prominent in the area and Ann Arbor and its surrounding townships will share the
preservation costs. The proposal will allow the city to purchase easements on land. That will prohibit the
land’s future development and preserve it.
Elizabeth Humphrey is the director of the Growth Management Leadership Alliance in Washington, D.C.
She says citizens are fed up with seeing houses overtake park lands. So anti-sprawl initiatives, like Ann
Arbor’s, are gaining popularity among all political parties.
“I think the loss of open space is the one thing that we all see as the big threat of sprawl. It’s tangible.
You can see it in the field you used to play in when you grew up. It disappears and that’s visceral. And I
think that appeals to everybody who’s really concerned about how we’re growing.”
Humphrey says that Ann Arbor’s program is a good approach, since it focuses on regional development.
And while scenic areas like Boulder, Colorado and Portland, Oregon have greenbelts in place, the
Midwest generally hasn’t followed. But that could all change now, according to Mike Garfield. He’s
director of The Ecology Center, which spearheaded the plan.
“I think that what we did Tuesday in Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor township could lead to a wave of new
conservation easement programs and farmland programs around Michigan and throughout the Great
Garfield says his group’s win showed it was possible to successfully trounce a formidable opponent: the
homebuilders. Homebuilders feared the plan would limit housing choices. They spent a quarter of a
million dollars to fight it. Garfield’s hopeful that this victory will help preserve Ann Arbor’s high quality
of life and its vital downtown. In a mere ten minutes, he’s able to walk to work without fighting traffic.
And he thinks the ‘yes’ vote indicated that Ann Arbor residents value that kind of living. But Garfield
realizes not everyone in Ann Arbor agrees with him.
“And of course there were some people in town who are not developers and home builders who opposed
it because it was a tax or because they believed some of the arguments or they didn’t trust city hall or
something like that.”
Niki Wardner is one of those people. She lives in a ranch on an acre of land overlooking a public golf
course in Ann Arbor’s wooded residential section. A handful of vote no signs are perched against her
door. Wardner lobbied heavily with other citizens against the Ann Arbor plan. She thinks 30 years is
way too long for a tax.
“They’re going to bond this issue, this proposal, i.e., take a mortgage out. We can never change it.
There’s no accountability. How do we know 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, 30 years, what’s going on with
Wardner’s concerned that this plan was rushed to the ballot without details on how it would work and
what kind of land will be purchased. She thinks something needs to be done about sprawl. But she’s not
sure this is the solution. And she also thinks residents won’t agree to the increased development that will
likely occur downtown and where she lives.”
“Personally, you know, I bought my piece of property because I live on a park and you know, we all like
trees and green space and I don’t think anyone wants townhouses or condos or a five story building in
And building more homes downtown is a central part of the plan. Doug Kelbaugh is Dean of The
University of Michigan’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He says that to avoid sprawling
out, more people need to live in the city’s center.
“There aren’t enough people living downtown. It’s the living downtown, the downtown residential
development, that will do the most to decrease sprawl, decrease the number of commute trips, decrease
the length of commute trips, increase the walkability, increase the livability and the urbanity of Ann
Kelbaugh says if that denser development occurs, that means houses will have to be built on smaller lots.
That could curb housing price spikes by adding to housing supply. He said that if carried out responsibly,
Ann Arbor’s plan could be a small, but important first step in attacking sprawl.
“As long as gasoline is so cheap and farmland is so cheap, we will tend to have sprawl in America. This
is a major model that’s prevailed in America for 50 or 60 years, if not a little longer and it’s going to take
a little while to turn it around. But this is a significant beginning.”
Other towns are looking to preserve green space just like Ann Arbor’s doing. They’ll be closely watching
to see if it works.
For The Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Julie Halpert.