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Capitol Report

Lethargy in Lansing

March 1, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The facts keep piling up about the beating Michigan is taking from sprawl:
• Last December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that from 1992 to 1997, 550,800 acres of Michigan farmland were developed. Only seven other states have higher rates of farmland loss.
• In September, the 40-member House Urban Caucus published a study that looked at the "urban well-being" of 13 Michigan cities. The study concluded that during the 1990s, when the state's economy and wealth grew and suburban sprawl accelerated, cities lost significant ground in property values, population, school test scores, household incomes, and other measures of social stability.
In Lansing, though, Gov. John Engler and legislative leaders are doing little to turn things around. The Governor last year fought major reforms in Michigan's land use policies, and is doing so again in 2000. Alegislative initiative to establish a Smart Growth Commission (see the Spring 1999 Bulletin) collapsed as a result. And last May House lawmakers defeated an effort that would have required the state Department of Environmental Quality to assess how its spending programs affect uses of land.
Late last year House Speaker Chuck Perricone (R-Kalamazoo) formed a nine- member House Republican Land Use Work Group, chaired by Rep. Gene DeRossett (R-Manchester). The panel's mission has not been formalized, nor has a timetable been set for its work. Whether it will develop new land use legislation or simply review proposals is not clear, said a member of Mr. DeRossett's staff.

Wisconsin Gets It
Such legislative torpor stands in contrast to steps taken by Wisconsin,-->steps taken by Wisconsin, which last year approved a new Smart Growth law that established nine formal statewide planning goals and requires local governments to develop comprehensive land use plans to attain them. The goals include: promoting urban redevelopment; providing a range of transportation choices; protecting natural areas; protecting farmland and productive forests; establishing development patterns that incur lower costs for public services; encouraging cooperation among neighboring governments; building community identity; and providing affordable housing.
As in the model Smart Growth program in Maryland, Wisconsin now extends state funds to local governments for planning, and calls for state agencies to follow local plans. That means the state Department of Transportation, for example, must reconsider plans for building new highways across forests and fields. 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which played an important role in pushing for the new law, calls it the strongest growth management legislation ever passed in the Midwest.

Slogging through Mortar
Although growth management advocates in the Legislature say it's like slogging through mortar, they nevertheless managed last year to gain two valuable land use policy reforms:
• One program speeds up the process for allowing local governments to recover abandoned property. Thousands of such buildings are a blight on older Michigan neighborhoods, especially in the inner cities. They become hangouts for criminals, and diminish property values and the quality of life. Grand Rapids, for example, has at least 600 abandoned buildings.
• The Legislature also approved an amendment to a state jobs and business law. It directs the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the state's primary business recruiter, to: consider the effect of its purchases for land and property on the health of urban neighborhoods; and to discourage "shifts in population away from an area's population center."
The amendment also directs the Economic Development Corporation to favor urban redevelopment among its top priorities, and to review how new business development affects local and regional land use patterns. It is the first time the Michigan Legislature has directed a state agency to understand the effects of its investments and policies on city neighborhoods and local patterns of development.

CONTACT:Keith Schneider at the Institute, 231-882-4723, ext. 11, e-mail: <keith@mlui.org>.

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