Michigan Land Use Institute

Clean Energy / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Township Ordinance Defines Growth without Sprawl

Township Ordinance Defines Growth without Sprawl

A model for northern Michigan

December 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

"Master plans are dreams. Ordinances are reality. We are determined not to have an ordinance that prescribes suburban sprawl." ~ Joe Anderson, Whitewater Township Planning Commission chairman

When he took over as chairman of the Whitewater Township Planning Commission two years ago, Joe Anderson had a clear aim in mind to translate the worthy goals of the township master plan -- preventing sprawl, protecting the environment, enhancing quality of life -- into reality.

"Master plans are dreams," said Mr. Anderson. "Ordinances are reality. We are determined not to have an ordinance that prescribes suburban sprawl."

Under his guidance, the planning commission is writing a new master plan and zoning ordinance to guide growth in the township, which lies in the northeast corner of Grand Traverse County about midway between Traverse City and Kalkaska, to areas that already have been developed. Last October the township board approved the first phase of the project when it passed a "Village District" amendment to the existing ordinance that requires a more compact, traditional pattern of development in Williamsburg, the township's only village.

Williamsburg's New Urbanist-style Innovations

• Allow apartments above businesses. This time-honored arrangement, banned under modern zoning codes, provides more income to property owners and makes it possible for more people to walk to shops, services, and workplaces.

• Have on-street parking or lots behind storefronts. New buildings surrounded by huge parking lots are specifically prohibited.

• Encourage the building of homes on lots as small as 8,000 square feet, which will increase the stock of affordable housing and the number of families that can live in town. Under the old ordinance lots could be significantly larger.

Require sidewalks and street trees, to be paid for by the developer, in front of new homes and businesses.

• Design streetlights to minimize glare and "light pollution."

A Traditional Village

Whitewater Township, which is experiencing significant growth because of its location along state highway M-72, has a reputation in northern Michigan as a planning leader. The former planning commission chairman, Thad Ketchum, helped write some of the region's first and most effective zoning provisions to conserve open space and farmland.

The township's new Village District amendment was written by Joel S. Russell of Northampton, Massachusetts. A nationally-recognized authority on writing ordinances for rural areas, Mr. Russell recognizes that for such communities to thrive there must be clear distinctions between the working countryside and bustling small towns.

In order to revive Williamsburg as a choice place to live and do business, Mr. Russell included "architectural design standards" in the Village District that are the first to be adopted by a northern Michigan township. These standards encourage builders of new homes and businesses to adhere to traditional principles. Among them are:

• New buildings must be constructed near the curb to provide a sense of enclosure to the village's streets.

• Exterior walls must be wood, brick, stone or other materials traditionally used in Whitewater Township. • Roofs must have a minimum 8:12 slope, a pitch of classical proportions seen on historic buildings throughout the region. Flat roofs are permitted only if they are hidden by a raised cornice.

•Windows must be taller than they are wide, consistent with the vertical proportions seen on historic buildings.

• Buildings with trademark architecture -- such as a conventional McDonald's -- are prohibited. Franchise companies must submit designs to the township that are compatible with historic architecture.

"We view this as a basic document that lays the pattern for a traditional village," said Mr. Anderson. "As we continue to amend our zoning ordinance, we will have the chance to refine it."

Whitewater Township is expected to complete a new master plan early in 1999, and to finish the rewrite of its zoning ordinance by the end of the year. ~K.S.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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