Lyon Township Exploring Potential Ways To Conserve Land

With continued development in Lyon Township and some resident concerns, officials are exploring ways to potentially preserve land.

The municipality has grown over the past decade with numerous residential, commercial and industrial developments, resulting in the loss of open space and resident concerns about the changing character. Trustee Kristofer Enlow brought up the issue at a recent meeting, saying whenever developments come up he tends to hear chatter from residents about incorporating more green space into developments or conservation areas but also questions about the township buying parcels. That issue was recently highlighted when the board denied a proposal to place 490 housing units on the land currently occupied by Erwin Orchards. In its denial, officials cited the development’s high density as well as concerns over increased traffic.

Enlow attended a land protection workshop, which included information on how a community can raise money to do a PDR program – possibly through a conservation millage. It was noted the township already has a future land use map, a green infrastructure planning process and maps where it wants to promote more or less dense developments so they have an idea of where things could be. Enlow raised the issue to get the board’s opinion as the program could give property owners as an option to make a profit, conserve their property, and legacy in the township and keep future taxes lower for residents and businesses.

Enlow said he has since looked at programs in some neighboring communities, which basically enable property owners to sell their development rights to a public entity such as a township or county and put their property in a conservation easement. He says the owner can still live on the property and sell it, but they essentially get paid to keep all or a portion as a conservation easement. Enlow stressed that whoever owns the property must be willing as it’s just another option for land protection and no “strong-arming” is involved. He further reached out to township planners about drafting a purchase of development rights or PDR ordinance and said it turned out there was already one on the books but it would basically need to be updated and marketed with allocated funding. Enlow stated the initial process for the township started in 2008, which included mapping out different areas of priority zones that have been translated into the township master plan as potential conservation and natural areas.

A representative from the Huron River Watershed Council delivered a presentation at the meeting and reviewed the various benefits of land protection. Watershed Ecologist Kris Olsson told the board the purchase of development rights is basically a land owner agreeing to give up rights to develop the land. She says they can still live on the land or sell it but a government entity or conservancy would purchase the rights to development and then a conservation easement is placed on a piece or all of the property – which runs with the lands when it’s sold so a new owner could not develop the land. Olsson said the purchase amount is typically determined by taking the appraised value currently of allowed development minus the appraised value it would have with the conservation easement on it – which is what would be used to purchase the easement. Olsson said the programs can be important for farmlands because many farmers are aging and feel connected to the land and want to retire but don’t want to see it developed so it gives them some money out of their land but still the option to sell and move.

Olson said the cost but it can be a lot cheaper than actually buying property outright and making it a city or township preserve or park but still protect the land. Olsson said the board has a lot of ordinances for comparison in moving forward although there are some differences to the current one in Lyon Township. She says some communities have a preservation subcommittee or a board that runs the program. There is also specific selection criteria in some ordinances and a scoring system for different lands to compare to in case a lot of property owners are applying. It was noted that some communities will reach out to property owners or do mailings but many sit back and wait for applications. In some cases, communities have opted for millages to do a PDR program since it can be cheaper and less taxes to residents.

Board members discussed perhaps incorporating a future line item into the budget for land or easement acquisition and figure out how to reach out to people. Some questioned if there are still large tracks of land that could benefit from a PDR program and it was relayed that some have since been developed but there are others available. Trustee Lise Blades commented that some residents probably don’t realize their property has this type of potential and it could be prudent to start budget planning for the possibility, save a little bit and then review it annually. Trustee Sean O’Neil commented it could be a good tool to have and worth looking into as it’s not something they’ve used. He felt it could be worthwhile to put a formula together and apply it to a sample property or two to gauge the amount so the board could be more knowledgeable about what the financial impact would be. The board ultimately agreed that it would be beneficial to move forward and a good first step would be to update the ordinance and continue conversations.

More information is included in the attachments. (JM)

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