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SG-W:/ county land preservation proposal

Many of you will remember that, two years ago, the county home builders and their allies waged the most expensive campaign in county history to defeat Proposal 1, a comprehensive land preservation ballot proposal. The homebuilders said then that they agreed with us that sprawl was bad, but that there was a "better way" to deal with it. One plank of their "better way" used public funds to acquire open space. And since then, leaders of the builders' and realtors' "Smart Growth Initiative" have continued to say publicly that they support the use of public funds to buy natural areas.

Well, that's all along sounded pretty good to me.

Last night, four environmental organizations -- the Ecology Center, Sierra Club, Huron River Watershed Council, and Washtenaw-Potawatomi Land Trust -- formally requested that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners put a natural areas millage proposal on the November ballot. We proposed a 10-year 0.25-mill levy which would raise over $20 million, leverage additional matching funds, and save thousands of acres of the most environmentally sensitive lands in the county.

And the builders and realtors?

Yesterday, the boards of directors of the Home Builders Association and the Board of Realtors endorsed our proposal, in concept, without taking any position on the millage level. This follows a series of meetings between the environmental groups, home builders, and realtors.

(If you read the Ann Arbor News article about this issue, you might be confused about the homebuilders' position. The newspaper neglected to mention that a homebuilders' spokesperson read a statement at the meeting endorsing the proposal in concept. Instead, they repeated a three-week-old out-of-context quote by the group's executive officer which made the homebuilders appear unsupportive.)

Two specifics of our proposal deserve special mention. First, we are explicitly excluding farmland from the types of land that could be protected under the program. Instead, the plan would protect wetlands, wildlife habitats, and other critical natural areas. Second, we would house the program within the County Parks and Recreation Commission. We figure that the Parks Commission already acquires and manages land for recreational purposes, so most of the infrastructure for a natural areas program is already in place there. A technical advisory committee would be appointed by the Board of Commissioners to advise the Parks Commission on acquisitions.

It's hard to predict how this proposal will play out. The County Board has until August to approve language to place the proposal before voters this fall. The Board is currently dealing with a number of unrelated controversial issues, so commissioners need to hear from environmentalists that land preservation is an important issue, and that the ballot language should be approved.

So please contact your County Commissioner and urge their support for the proposal. And, if you'd like to get more actively involved in the campaign, please let me know.

It's exciting to consider that, only two years after a sound election defeat, Washtenaw County might be in a position to pass a major open space acquisition proposal. To succeed, it will require lots of hard work by many, many people -- both to get it on the ballot, and to win a millage election. But, if any county can do it, it's this one.

Mike Garfield

Mike Garfield
Ecology Center
117 N. Division
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
(734) 761-3186 ext. 104
(734) 663-2414 (fax)

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