Anti-Sprawl III: Natural Areas Preservation

 Natural Features Ordinances and Proposal 1

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Ecology Center made many efforts to protect natural areas and prevent urban sprawl; sprawl. is uncontrolled development outside of urban areas that results in excessive road building and the destruction of green areas. Prior to the Ecology Center's intervention,  developers bought out farms across Michigan to build shopping centers and housing, instead of focusing development in already urban areas. Sprawled development negatively impacts small businesses by detracting customer traffic from city centers. Environmentalists argue that sprawl replaces farms and forests with malls.

pro-Proposal 1 flyer

The Ecology Center protected key wetlands and woodlands in the early 90s through its advocacy work, helping to pass Natural Features Ordinances. Still, attempts to protect farmland in addition to natural areas through Proposal 1 in 1998 failed.  Proposal 1 was a countywide comprehensive land reform proposal that sought to raise funds to buy natural areas for preservation and buy the development rights of local farms. This program, the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program, would allow local governments to buy development rights for farms, compensating landowners and preventing development and sprawl, even if the landowners later sold the property. Despite a huge coalition of support, a strong advertising campaign sponsored by the Home Builders Association (HBA) ultimately defeated Proposal 1 in 1993. The HBA worried that the PDR would limit their development opportunities.

Article on the passing of the 1999 proposal

Natural Areas Preservation Proposals

After this loss, the Ecology Center refused to give up, regrouped, and looked for new ways forward. They decided the best way to continue work on sprawl was to start smaller and more locally. In June, 1999, the Ecology Center and the local branch of the Sierra Club organized a petition drive to place an open space acquisition measure before voters. This proposal avoided the farmland preservation measures from Proposal 1 that were strongly opposed by the HBA and instead focused on saving 200 acres of natural areas in the city of Ann Arbor. After breaking Ann Arbor records for petition success, the proposal made it to the ballot and won with a 65% ‘yes’ vote.

Spurred on by this success, the Ecology Center brought a similar proposal to the county level in 2000. This new land millage proposal planned to raise $25-30 million over 10 years to acquire 5,000 acres of natural land for the County Parks & Recreation Commission. As with the 1999 proposal, the Ecology Center decided to focus on natural areas, not farmland, in order to avoid developer opposition and even decided to reach out to their previous opponents, the realtors and HBA, to ask for their support. Both groups eventually agreed to support the proposal after many tense meetings with the Ecology Center and some prominent realtors in the community became strong supporters. This proposal passed and to this day has saved 1,000s of acres of natural areas across Washtenaw County.

Despite these wins, the Ecology Center knew that it still hadn't dealt with a key issue with sprawl: farmland preservation. In 2003, the Ecology Center would once again take on the HBA and put forward the Greenbelt Proposal in order to protect farmland.


Chong W. Pyen, "Open-space Fans, Builders Mend Fences," Ann Arbor News, June 13, 2000.

"Natural Areas Preservation Program." Parks and Recreation Washtenaw County Michigan.

Article written by Frances MacKethan  - Research Partners: Allie Goodman, Carmen Parkinson, Nissa Thodesen-Kasparian, & Lily Antor - Editing: Allie Goodman
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