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The Planet
Sprawlbusters! Ann Arbor Opts for Open Space

By Tom Valtin

Last fall, sprawl developers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, spent more than $225,000 to defeat Proposal B, an open space measure backed by the Sierra Club’s Huron Valley Group. But the measure passed resoundingly at the ballot box by a margin of more than 2 to 1.

According to the Trust for Public Land, which monitors land use ballot initiatives, this marks the first time nationwide that a land preservation proposal has succeeded when confronted with well-funded opponents.

Hitting Back: The postcard above is just one example of how open space advocates fought back against sprawl developers’ greenscam campaign. Proposal B, the Ann Arbor Parks and Greenbelt Proposal, passed handily.
The Ann Arbor Campaign: For secrets to success and ideas for your local land preservation battle, click here.

Proposal B’s passage represented a stunning reversal of fortune for open space advocates. Six years ago the Huron Valley Group was part of the losing coalition when a similar proposal was clobbered at the polls, thanks to an aggressive opposition campaign led by developers. But the anti-sprawl coalition did not fade away, and due largely to the efforts of the Huron Valley Group, the Ann Arbor Parks and Greenbelt Proposal—extending the existing parkland aquisition property millage (tax) for 30 years—is now law. The millage is expected to raise $72 million that will protect more than 7,000 acres of farmland and natural areas in Ann Arbor and the townships that surround it.

"Ann Arbor’s citizens are looking at sprawl in the future, and they don’t like what they see," Huron Valley Group Co-Chair Doug Cowherd told the Ann Arbor News on election night. "They want more open space and parkland, and they’re willing to tax themselves to do it."

"Somewhere along the way, it’s become un-American to celebrate the use of public funds for the public good," editorialized the Detroit News—historically no friend of land preservation—two days after the election. "But when real estate developers plan cities, you get places that are now backpedaling to create true communities out of the chaos of suburban sprawl. Ann Arbor’s greenbelt millage isn’t ‘liberal’—it’s sensible."

How did open space advocates turn 1998’s thumping 58 to 42 percent defeat into 2003’s overwhelming victory? In a word: persistence. Throughout the 1990s, the Huron Valley Group built relationships not only with other members of the environmental community, but also with farmers and business leaders in the Ann Arbor area, all the while opposing specific developments that threatened important natural areas. The group also helped educate the community about the impact of sprawl through such endeavors as five "Tour de Sprawl" events to build public awareness about sprawl’s impact on the Ann Arbor region’s quality of life.

Doug Cowherd, above, and Michael Sklar, below.

The tours attracted between 40 and 110 people who either biked or rode on a bus. Bicyclists and bus riders would convene at a local park, then rendezvous at half a dozen pre-arranged tour locations to hear expert speakers. The Huron Valley Group advertised the events through the group newsletter, e-mail lists, local newspapers, and a local public radio station. Most tours ended with a party featuring a string band and pizza.

"Each tour focused on a different part of the county," explains Huron Valley Group Vice Chair Nancy Shiffler. "Typically, we visited compact developments—both new and old—that created livable neighborhoods while preserving open space, and then contrasted this positive model of development with sprawl subdivisions that fail to do either. We also looked at high-quality farmland and natural areas jeopardized by sprawl, and discussed ways these special places could be protected."

Rebounding from their 1998 setback, the Huron Valley Group won two smaller victories before launching Proposal B. In 1999, the group helped renew a city parkland acquisition tax and raise $8 million. The measure passed with 65 percent of the vote. The next year Club activists helped promote a county-wide land preservation tax to raise $25 million for the purchase of more than 5,000 acres of natural areas. This measure also passed, 64 to 36 percent.

In 2003, the Huron Valley Group set its sights yet higher. With the Ecology Center—their primary partner in the winning 1999 and 2000 ballot initiatives—they forged a broad coalition of environmentalists, business leaders, farmers, and even some developers to extend Ann Arbor’s existing parkland acquisition program for 30 years and expand its scope so that money could be used to acquire development rights on farmland and natural areas outside the city.

Sierra Club members made up a hefty fraction of the more than 500 Proposal B campaign volunteers, and the Huron Valley Group donated more than $40,000—the largest single contribution by pro-Proposal B forces—to help offset the sprawl developers’ fundraising advantage and a massive media campaign.

"Just as in 1998, the sprawl developers’ campaign was based on deception and faux concern for the environment," says Huron Valley Group Co-chair Michael Sklar. Developers suggested that Proposal B would put city parks and the school system at risk, and in several anti-Proposal B campaign fliers the word "tax" appeared in virtually every sentence, even though Proposal B sought to extend an existing tax, not create a new one.

"We hit back hard with an aggressive campaign strategy of our own," Sklar says. "In 1998, the anti-sprawl coalition ran strictly on a positive message, and didn’t respond to the developers’ greenscam campaign or match their use of radio and cable television ads. This time around, our media campaign blended a positive vision with ads that unmasked our opponents’ misinformation and outright lies."

"Proposal B is an innovative approach to regional cooperation," explains Cowherd, who served as the co-leader of the campaign coalitions that passed the three open space proposals. "State laws impede efforts to control sprawl through regional planning. But now Ann Arbor can offer substantial funds to surrounding townships that are willing to put up their own money to protect farmland, while the land stays on the tax rolls and under township jurisdiction."

Ann Arbor has now passed ballot initiatives that will provide more than $110 million—plus federal and state matching money—to protect more than 12,000 acres of the best land in Washtenaw County. "But we’re just getting warmed up," says Cowherd.

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