Dexter Township is thinking about Open Space and Farmland Preservation

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To meet a March 12 grant application deadline, Dexter Township has decided to move forward on what’s being called a “Pilot Project to Purchase Property Development Rights.”

If everything goes according to plan, the township would use different grant resources to purchase the development rights to 70 acres of land on Island Lake Road for the purpose of Open Space and Farmland Preservation.

However, that would be down the road. This project has specific steps to it, so there’s some work to do and certain details will need to happen for that to be the final outcome.

The first step is putting together a grant application.

By a 6 to 1 vote at its Feb. 16 meeting, the Dexter Township Board approved devoting up to $1,200 to employ a grant writer, Barry Lonik, to put together a proposal and submission for a Federal funding grant.

To explain this proposed pilot project and the grant application, Dexter Township Trustee Karen Sikkenga put together a policy briefing to help inform the township board’s decision.

In her project summary, Sikkenga said, “Dexter Township has an opportunity to purchase Development Rights through a conservation easement on a 70-acre parcel contiguous to the popular West Lake county preserve on Waterloo Road.”

“The Township is authorized to purchase Development Rights through Ordinance 37, constraining the landowner in perpetuity from developing the property, to further the Township’s long-term vision of preserving Dexter Township’s rural character,” she said in the summary. “There is no dedicated township funding for the purchase of Development Rights. Federal, State and county funding are available up to 100 percent of the estimated $420,000 purchase cost.”

She said no external funding is available to support the closing costs or project management costs, so an estimated at $20,000 would need to come from the township.

The WCPARC (Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation) has expressed openness to providing funds, according to Sikkenga’s summary, and regarding State funding, she said Dexter Township is one of a limited number of counties, cities and townships eligible for dedicated Development Rights matching funds.

“First time applicants often receive priority points for dedicated State funding,” Sikkenga said in the summary. “At this February meeting, the Board of Trustees could limit its decision to the $1,200 grant preparation cost. We could defer the decision on the pilot project, with its $20K township match.”

Some concerns were expressed came from board trustee Jim Drolett, who voted against submitting a grant application, and former township supervisor Harley Rider, who spoke as a resident during the meeting.

Both said the decision to move forward on a grant application was premature and there were other steps that needed to first take place.

They cited Dexter Township Ordinance #37 as reason, which they said is the ordinance that governs the purchase of development rights in Dexter Township.

“That ordinance clearly spells out the process for township consideration of purchasing development rights,” Rider said to The Sun Times News in follow up. “The proposal last night effectively circumvents that ordinance - the property owner didn't apply to the Township as required by Section 4 of the Ordinance; the Township Board hasn't created the Farmland Preservation Board as required by Section 5 of the Ordinance, so the Preservation Board hasn't reviewed an application; the Preservation Board hasn't scored the property in accordance with Section 4 of the Ordinance; there has been no appraisal as required by Section 6 of the Ordinance; the Preservation Board hasn't made a recommendation to the Township Board to consider the property, as required by Section 6 of the Ordinance. All of those are requirements before the Township can consider purchasing development rights on any property. At last night's meeting, Trustee Drolett explained the legal difficulties the Township can face if the Board proceeds down this path.”

Drolett asked what would happen if the township goes down this path, but doesn’t get all of the needed grant funding and is then in a spot where it cannot back out of the process to purchase the development rights because it’s a situation where some of the parties have already committed themselves.

He asked would the township be on the hook to pay more in order to secure the rights.

To him, he said this current plan is putting “the cart before the horse” and the township needs to follow the ordinance set forth.

Township supervisor Diane Ratkovich said they could table or postpone the decision.

However, after some discussion with others on the board it was decided not to delay.

Township board trustee Laura Sanders summed up the logic when she said what was being proposed that night was only about writing a grant for potential funding that could help buy the property, so they were not really addressing buying the property yet.

She said if the grant is awarded then they could begin to work their way through the ordinance #37 process and begin to take a deeper look into a possible purchase.

The majority of the board concluded that if anything they could at least learn some things about this by going through the grant application process.

Lonik, of Treemore Ecology and Land Services, Inc., said the owners of the proposed pilot project property had applied to the county’s natural area preservation program and the land has been reviewed by the county. He said the land wasn’t rated too highly on the priority list and an initial idea was to possibly purchase it outright, but that would take time.

He said he pitched an idea to the county as another way to preserve the land, rather than have it become a housing development next to a preserve. He said one plan could be to buy the development rights on the property. However, he said that would take someone else applying for the federal grant, which brings us to the decision on Feb. 16.

Lonik has a lot of experience working with other area townships on land preservation projects, such as Scio and Webster townships.

Dexter Township could find out if it’s awarded the Federal funding this summer. If an award was made, Lonik said the township could then apply for the other funding opportunities.

However, he said there’s always the possibility they will not be awarded the grant, which would obviously change the course of the plan.

In her summary, Sikkenga said the project budget is estimated at $440,000.

“Dexter Township’s planned contribution to the total project budget is $20,000, including closing costs, due diligence and grant preparation,” according to Sikkenga. “The Federal grant application requires the Township to guarantee it has the funds to close on the easement purchase. If County and State funds are not approved to cover the local match, the Township will have the authority to decline the Federal funds.”

She said some of the costs/risks of the project include the fact the township has not updated its master plan in many years and has no strategic plan.

“This activity is not mandated and requires at least a $20,000 contribution in unrestricted dollars. In the absence of a strategic plan or recent master plan, the Trustees must make a policy decision regarding whether this is the highest and best use,” Sikkenga said.

She added, “If Federal funds are approved and County and/or State funds are denied, the BOT (board of trustees) will have to decide whether to provide the local match or decline the Federal funds.”

In moving forward, Ratkovich said, “I still would like to clarify how this property would fit in with our current preservation ordinance #37, but that I think is, could be, a little bit further down the road if we did get this funding.”

So there are some moving parts to this and the township is looking to the next steps.

The township board began discussions at the Feb. 16 meeting of seeking the help of a master planner. In addition, it is considering scheduling in meetings to address a Strategic Plan, Financial Management and the Master Plan.

Township clerk Michelle Stamboulellis, who voted yes on submitting the grant application, said during the Feb. 16 meeting that her concern was with the fact they were getting the pilot project agenda item only days before the meeting. She said she supports open space and land preservation, but does want to learn more about it and how it works in order to make informed decisions.

She pointed to a proposal made earlier in the meeting that can help with this and that was the discussion of the township establishing an Open Space and Farmland Preservation Board or Committee. This board or committee would be an exploration/ learning group, and not necessarily a decision-making one.

In the drafted resolution for this committee, it was stated, “Dexter Township is committed to protecting its rural character recognizing that “Rural Character is the perception of limited urban development and the existence of expansive open spaces, of farmland and/or natural landscapes including woodlands, wetlands fields-is a function of the form of new development, not just the amount of new development” (from the 2011 Dexter Township Master Plan.)

These topics will be revisited in upcoming meetings.

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