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City's Policy Of Expansion Faces Serious Challenges

City's Policy Of Expansion Faces Serious Challenges image City's Policy Of Expansion Faces Serious Challenges image
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A City Council representative was at a gathering recently and was approached by a little old lady who grabbed his sleeve and implored, "Isn't there something you can do to keep Ann Arbor a nice little town?" She opposed annexations. Like many Ann Arborites she was concerned over the growth of the city in the past two decades. She remembers the "good old days" of a small Midwestern college town. If Ann Arbor was simply a small Midwestern town, sans college, the sentiment of some for a miniature city may have prevailed. But the nature of the University of Michigan which emerged as one of the nation's leading institutions of higher learning and a research center did not point to a small town. Not too many years ago it was fashionable for City Council candidates to talk fondly of retaining the "character" of Ann Arbor, a "character" which was never really defined despite the fact a now defunct committee was appointed to preserve it. Over the past 20 years or so at least a part of the "character" of the city has been to expand its boundaries. This policy of expansion is now facing some serious challenges, and the electorate has voiced its concern at two consecutive annexation elections. The annexation issue is complex and many faceted. It involves such issues as the environment, taxation, the extension of services, housing supply, densities and intensities of land use, developmental controls, renovation of the core city and many others. Most of these issues have been discussed, some at length and others minimally. Few have been resolved. Not discussed at any length has been an issue revolving around ego - city residents saying "we can develop it better" and township residents contending "we can develop it best." Looming on the horizon are two things which could dilute the raging battles over annexations. The state Boundary Commission is to go into operation this spring, and the state may well force Ann Arbor to extend water and sewer services beyond its boundaries. The Boundary Commission will have jurisdiction on annexation questions where the "land is sparsely populated - fewer than 100 persons. And the extension of the sewer and water lifelines for urban development into the townships would have a profound effect on annexations. If Ann Arbor is forced - or does so willingly - to extend services into the townships this act could well abort future attempts at annexation. For if the services are extended the land served would doubtless contain more than 100 persons and would thus take the issue out of the hands of a Boundary Commission. With the new state law requiring an affirmative vote in the city, the affected township, and within the land proposed for annexation it is doubtful all three entities would vote "yes" on an anhexation question. Persons living in the newly-urbanized area would not generally want to pay the higher city taxes and the township residents would not want to give up the tax base. If the powers that be in city government decide it is desirable to expand by taking in huge chunks of township land there may be a rash of proposals placed before the Boundary Commission early, before the land has had the chance to urbanize to any great extent. City planners foresee a city of some 25 square miles by 1980, only three square mïles larger than the present city. Within those boundaries it anticipates a population ranging from 130,000 to 150,000. Ann Arbor currently has a population density of only seven persons per acre. Based on Planning Department figures, this density would be 9.2 per acre in 1980 (based on 130,000 persons) or 10.6 per acre (based on a population of 150,000 persons), if the city's boundaries are not expanded. To continue at the present seven persons per acre the city would need between 29 and 33 square miles of area by 1980. Many view this density as being too low, not conducive to lower housing costs or to a viable mass transportation system. They also believe this sparse density leads to higher taxes. It is cheaper to service 300 persons living in a high-rise apartment building than 300 persons spread over 30 acres of land. Why did Ann Arbor voters do a complete turnabout and reject annexations in two elections this year? There were many reasons, and as former three-term City Council representative LeRoy A. Cappaert noted, the annexation issue produced some "strange bedfellows." Cappaert was active in fighting for the rejection of the annexations but he notes he not agree with the position of some persons who voted "no"on the questions. As an example, he said a certain element cast the "no" vote because they desired large one-acre lots which would be too expensive for Negroes to purchase. "Citizens are frustrated over a lot of things," Cappaert said. "They lack confidence in the kind of community we have, they feel an enlarged city will make it more difficult for them to be heard and express what they want. Some believed the annexations would increase our taxes. There was more generally a distrustful feeling about what was going on in city government. They showed a lack of faith in the planning and communication level." Cappaert says the government has not gained confidence of the electorate in what the community would be through added development. "We've had political platforms for 30 years calling for the removal of Lansky's junkyard," Cappaert said. "The city can build a myriad of roads and spend countless dollars on other projects but it doesn't help in that area. How can these people trust the government to help them through annexations?" He says this mistrust of city government will increase as the city grows and citizens are faced with a maze of bureaucracy and red tape in attempting to get things done. Some say Ann Arbor government in the past has not adequately met the problems of increased land use, citing sanitary and storm sewers which are over capacity and which back up into basements and overflow into the streets. How can we be assured the city government will perform better in the future with added growth, they ask. The 1968 flood is still vivid in the memory of many citizens and they lay the blame right at the doorstep of City Hall. Certain areas of the city have experienced sewer backups on numerous occasions over the years, and again the finger of blame is pointed at City Hall. In recent years city government has moved to correct these problems, but in past years frugal City Counsils were more concerned with their political image and tried to keep the tax level down rather than spend to avert problems which may or may not develop. The city has had for many years documents prepared by the Planning Department and other city agencies listing the necessary capital improvements for the coming years. These capital improvement budgets and programs until only recently have been prepared only to lay on the shelf. In 1959 one of the major needs listed was the northside interceptor sewer which at that time was estimated to cost about $1 million. This year the council has moved to get this project under way - at a cost of $3.5 million. City officials have been handicapped to some extent by a City Charter which sets a maximum taxation for general operating purposes at 7.5 mills, a figure which is proving to be more and more inadequate to meet the needs and desires of the citizenry. Voters have rejected the local income tax, the only avenue now open to city government to expand its tax revenues outside of voted bond issues or special millages. One of the major reasons annexations went down to defeat this year was the fear on the part of city residents the new developments would cause their taxes to increase. City officials presented figures showing two of the three annexations on the November bollot would more than pay their own way in both city and school taxes while the third, planned for low-cost housing, would not pay its way. All were rejected by substantial margins. Studies conducted by University professors indicate Ann Arbor city taxpayers are paying a disproportionate share of the school and county taxes because assessments in the surrounding townships are not up to par. City Assessor Wayne C. Johnson agrees with this to some extent, but believes assessment practices in the townships are improving. A one-acre parcel in the township can not be as valuable as a one-acre parcel within the city limits, however, and thus can not be assessed as highly. But even with this differential, studies point to specific parcels assessed at a low figure which sell for many times this assessment. The county equalization process is designed to take care of these discrepancies but a relatively small staff makes absolute control virtually impossible. The state Legislature has increasingly shown concern in this area and there is hope laws will present a remedy in the future. But there will be a need for more state law revision in other areas before other problems are solved. And although the annexation question is the pressing issue locally at this time, these other problems far outweigh it in importance.