Michigan Land Use Institute

Clean Energy / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Working Together Makes Sense

Working Together Makes Sense

Grand Traverse erosion ordinance a model

March 1, 2000 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

When people think "regional planning" in Michigan, they think next about the state's 2,884 units of local government, boards, and commissions that all are involved in land use decisions -- and usually dismiss the hope of cooperation among them.
Grand Traverse County, however, has proven the conventional apprehension wrong. Its landmark Soil Erosion and Stormwater Runoff ControlOrdinance -- the result of common sense thinking and patient township-to-township diplomacy -- is a national model of how local units of government can come together to prevent flood damage, protect the environment, and save taxpayers millions of dollars.

Tax Avoidance
In 1990 the county's drain commissioner, Maureen Kennedy Templeton, looked out at the new homes and shopping centers going up in the area and saw many more to come. The county's Garfield Township, for example, was fulfilling its ambitious growth plan, and new residents were streaming to northwest Michigan for jobs or retirement.
Ms. Templeton saw trouble ahead. Every new driveway, rooftop, and parking lot that comes with sprawl displaces open ground that used to soak up rainwater, filter pollution, and feed trout streams with cool, clear water. She knew the costs of ignoring these stormwater facts of growth would be high:
* Homeowners would suffer flood damage from stormwater running off new developments uphill.
* To get relief from such flooding, property owners would have to spend money and time in court trying to enforce a state law that prohibits development from pushing water off on neighbors.
* Local rivers leading to Grand Traverse Bay would decline in health as high stormwater volumes disrupted riverbanks and habitats.
* Taxpayers would eventually have to come up with millions of dollars to alleviate these problems with a countywide stormwater sewer system, which would cost approximately $100,000 per mile.
Instead of waiting for flooded-out homeowners to start calling her office, Ms. Templeton went out to the county's 13 townships to explain how they could avoid the headache of runoff and the expense of not controlling it. The townships listened to her full-cost accounting and, by 1992, collaborated in writing an ordinance for the county that requires developers to build stormwater retention into their site plans instead of dumping runoff and the ensuing costs on neighbors, rivers, and taxpayers.
"Since the stormwater ordinance went into effect, complaint calls are rare," says Ron Harrison, watershed technician with Ms. Templeton's office. The county also has avoided new stormwater sewer investments to accommodate its growth explosion in the 1990s.

Catching On
Grand Traverse County's ordinance has been an inspiration to many, including neighboring Antrim County, where rustic woodlands and a chain of sparkling lakes have attracted multi-million dollar home builders. Last year alone, new development in the county claimed 1,000 acres, nearly two square miles, of forest land. "Cities don't sprawl that fast," says Efrain Rosales, director of the county's Conservation District.
Antrim County passed its stormwater ordinance in 1995. As in Grand Traverse County, it took patient diplomacy before enactment. And once again, the community's concern for neighboring property owners, taxpayers, and the environment prevailed over developers' complaints about being responsible for retaining extra stormwater on their construction sites.
Actually, developers still compliment Ms. Kennedy's office for going to the trouble of creating a consistent, county-wide ordinance. "They know that if they have to do it, their neighbor will have to do it, too," she says. Instead of a different set of rules in every township, the county-wide ordinance gives developers a level playing field and gives communities the environmental and property protection they need.
"It wasn't easy," Ms. Kennedy says of the 25 drafts and nearly 30 township visits in Grand Traverse County she made over the course of two years. But consulting with all the stakeholders -- from engineers and builders to township boards and employees -- was well worth it. "You really get people to buy into it," she said. "Then, when it's adopted, they can live by it."

CONTACTS:Ron Harrison, Watershed Technician, Grand Traverse County, 231-922-4624; Efrain Rosales, Director, Antrim County Conservation District, 231-533-8363.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org