Flipping the Aprill Farm
Inside the multimillion-dollar deal that saved a prime parcel in Scio Township
From the October, 2020 issue
Extraordinary timing, great good luck, creative financing, and two fortuitous phone calls combined to save one of the finest farms and richest farmlands in Scio Township from a future as a subdivision.
The Aprill Farm, 161 acres situated on the corner of Scio Church and Zeeb roads, has a new lease on life as an organic farm that will produce a variety of fruits and vegetables for local markets, returning the land to its original roots.
Sometime in the middle of the 19th century, three brothers of German heritage bought land near this crossroads. An 1874 Scio Township plat map shows that William Aprill owned a 160-acre farm on the corner of what would become Scio Church and Zeeb roads. Emanuel and Adolph settled nearby, and 1915, the three owned a total of 500 acres in the township, including what is now the Polo Fields.
William's land is one of the most picturesque properties in the township. A large Victorian home nestles close to Scio Church Rd., and an old silver-gray barn sits on a promontory that overlooks a pond, rolling hills, meadows, and woodlots. As the years passed, the farm was passed down through five generations of the Aprill family. During recent decades, however, the acreage was rented out to neighboring farmers.
One of the most preservation-conscious townships in the state, Scio has a Land Preservation Commission (LPC) whose members actively monitor land use and development, alert for possibilities to maintain the township's aesthetic and cultural heritage. Since 2004, when its LPC was established, the township has safeguarded more than 1,500 acres, in cooperation with Ann Arbor Greenbelt, Washtenaw County Natural Areas Preservation, and a host of other agencies and organizations.
"For more than a decade, the Aprill Farm was one of our highest priorities for preservation," says Barry Lonik, president of Treemore Ecology and Land Services and land preservation consultant for Scio.
A dedicated millage provides funds for the township to purchase conservation easements on high-priority properties.
Under the terms of conservation easements, property owners agree to maintain the property as farmland, forgoing the possibility of ever developing it. In exchange, they are paid the difference between its value as farmland and its value if sold for residential development.
"Land is a farmer's greatest investment. The ability to acquire an easement allows farmers to draw value from their property while saving it in perpetuity," adds Alec Jerome, chairman of Scio's LPC. "Aprill Farm has some of the best assets of any property in Scio.
"What defines Scio Township is its rural character," he adds. "Our job is to maintain the quality and availability of prime farmland and protect our agricultural heritage, while encouraging business in appropriate sectors. Conservation easements protect the environment, conserve land and open space, and encourage sustainable agriculture."
Barry Lonik contacted Alan Aprill three times over a five-year period, "but he consistently said he wasn't interested in selling development rights ... that he'd leave the decision up to his heirs," Lonik says.
One day in early 2019, he heard shocking news. Jerome called to say that a developer had submitted plans to Scio's planning commission that called for the subdivision of the Aprill Farm into five-acre lots. A tract of "monster-size homes" would demolish the farm. Lonik googled Alan Aprill and learned he had died the previous October.
"Some developer must have watched the obits and put in an offer immediately," Lonik surmises. "I was kicking myself that such an important property would disappear. I can't tell you how disappointed I was."
Then, three weeks later, a friend delivering a load of firewood casually mentioned that a local farmer had renewed his lease to farm the Aprill land. "They're not selling?" Lonik asked, astounded by the news. He dropped the logs he was stacking and hurried to his computer. Alan Aprill's obituary listed the names of his six daughters. Lonik googled them, located their addresses and phone numbers, and contacted all six. One called him back.
"Scio Township has money through dedicated millage," he told her, without preamble. "We want to save your farm."
To his amazement, she immediately said, "Yes, make us an offer." Lonik still has a touch of awe in his voice as he tells the story. "When I hung up the phone, I shook for twenty minutes, I was so excited."
Scio already had bought easements from a neighboring parcel in 2014--the 66-acre farm across Zeeb owned by Grace P. McCleery.
"We do the most good we can, with limited funds. Over time, our priorities have changed, as we acquire the deed restrictions to more properties. We look for contiguous tracts of land," Lonik explains.
In the past, the Scio LPC had paid for development rights and deed restrictions. The Aprill transaction would be entirely different. The township offered to buy the farm outright immediately, then find a buyer who would agree to the easements. Knowing a developer lurked in the wings, Scio had to move fast. Very fast.
Lonik immediately checked recent local sales and come up with a fair price. "The property has a great location, and the best quality of soils for agriculture--and septic fields," he says. "We all knew it was prime agricultural property with a half-mile frontage on Zeeb Road, which is paved, and a half-mile frontage on Scio Church, which is also paved. We knew it wouldn't come cheap, and we knew we wouldn't get a second chance if we blew it."
He contacted Scio trustee Irwin Martin, who represents the township on the LPC, to ask for direction. By great good luck, the board was meeting in three days. Martin agreed to add the potential purchase to the agenda, and that night, the board enthusiastically endorsed it.
Scio offered the Aprill heirs $2.3 million. "The preservation commission is very frugal, and we manage our funds very well," Lonik says. "At the time, we were fortunate: we had $2 million in our account and we knew we could access another $300,000 from general funds."
Still, he knew the price was a gamble. His best guess was that the developer might have offered somewhere around $4 million. "The one thing we had going for us was that developers don't pay for the land all at once, but in stages, as houses began to sell. We offered cash outright, within sixty days.
"Scio had never bought an entire farm property, but that was the route we had to take. This purchase would ensure that the farm would be saved, intact, and we would have time to find a buyer."
But not much time.
The Aprill heirs accepted Scio's offer. The township became the owner on July 24, 2019, and immediately began casting feelers throughout the local community, hoping to find an interested farmer who would agree to buy a property with easements.
Meanwhile, Lonik and the LPC applied for funds from land preservation organizations to help defray the cost in a "buy, protect, sell" process. One federal program was targeted--but the township was not eligible for that grant because it was the owner.
On a Sunday morning six months after the purchase, Lonik received another unexpected--but very �welcome--call. Richard Andres, co-�owner of Tantre Farm in Chelsea, was on the phone. He and his wife, Deb Lentz, own one of the state's largest certified organic community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms. He told Lonik that his mother was interested in buying and restoring a farm around Ann Arbor, which he would farm.
"I couldn't believe my ears! 'Have I got a farm for you!' I told him."
Scio Township jumped at the chance to sell the Aprill Farm, with accompanying deed restrictions. The Andres Trust had $600,000 and needed a $1.7 million temporary loan from the township to buy the property. Scio agreed.
The trust purchased the two 80-acre parcels of land, which included a Victorian farmhouse, outbuildings, and a well-preserved barn with a resident turkey buzzard. Andres and Lentz immediately set to work with plans to make the farm an organic business, mirroring what they were doing in Chelsea.
"What we especially appreciate is that the trust is approaching farming from a holistic perspective rather than planting row crops," Lonik says. "We had the opportunity to promote diversity in farming.
"Organic farms amend and protect the land and soil properties and introduce a much more diverse approach to the quality and maintenance of agricultural soils and the range of food options. Covid changed the dynamics of everything, putting CSAs on the map. People became aware of the importance of local community farming enterprises, particularly when supply procedures are threatened."
In September 2020, Scio landed two federal grants totaling more than $700,000 to help fund the project, and was hoping for another from Washtenaw County's Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Commission in October. According to commission minutes, some members want any future purchase and resale deals to include more public disclosure.
After contributions from other preservation groups (Ann Arbor's Greenbelt Advisory Commission also has recommended funding), Lonik estimates the township will spend between $300,000 and $400,000 "to protect one of the most important properties in our area and encourage local sustainable agriculture."
Judy Shankland, one of Alan Aprill's six daughters, moved into the old Victorian farmhouse in 1981. According to the purchase terms, she can remain in the house only one more year. After that, Andres and Lentz will take possession.
"I wish we could continue living here, but my sisters and I all agreed on the sale," she says wistfully. "Not one of us farms, but it was important to us to preserve the land and the buildings."
More than 90 percent of the 160-plus acres is rich, arable, and able to percolate--no clay deposits or swamps, a major selling point for Andres and Lentz. Their crew just harvested their first crop of squash, and has planted blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. They've also weeded many acres, planting native grasses in their place.
In time, the land will return to the pristine condition that convinced William Aprill to purchase his farm more than 150 years ago. Lonik calls it "my greatest accomplishment in twenty-nine years" of work in land preservation.
[Originally published in October, 2020.]
On October 12, 2020, Sally Mitani wrote:
Great article. All the development on jackson rd had led me to believe Scio Twp wasn't interested in conservation. I was wrong.
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