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"Turfism is an Anachronism"

Granholm responds to council report, sets priorities to strengthen cities, lasso sprawl

November 4, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Keith Schneider

Governor Jennifer M. Granholm identified rivalries among local governments as the most important impediment to strengthening the state’s cities and improving Michigan’s economic competitiveness.

GRAND RAPIDS — In a stirring appeal to civic leaders to end their “allegiance to turfism,” Governor Jennifer M. Granholm yesterday set out a remarkable 12-step agenda to begin reining in sprawl. In her first extensive public remarks about the issue since launching a council to recommend solutions to the problem, the governor identified long-standing rivalries among local governments as the most important impediment to strengthening the state’s cities and improving Michigan’s economic competitiveness.

Gov. Granholm said her administration would work with citizens and lawmakers to develop statewide land use goals, and the state would locate its new offices and buildings in cities and downtowns, rather than in the countryside. She promised to speed the process of selling tax-reverted properties in order to encourage the development of new neighborhoods in the state’s cities.

She promised to continue pursuing a novel and controversial transportation policy that fixes existing roads before building new ones. She also introduced a new approach for road, highway, and other transportation construction that more fully considers the design, context, and location of new projects in order to minimize their harmful effects on neighborhoods and ecologically sensitive areas. And she called on the state Legislature to work with her in developing “commerce centers,” an idea recommended by members of the council that is designed to reinvigorate cites, downtowns, and older suburbs.

These and other measures she mentioned during her address, including directing the state Department of Environmental Quality to determine which of its programs accelerate sprawl and which ones conserve land, comprised the most comprehensive list of land use policy reforms advocated by a Michigan governor since the mid-1970s.

“This is about our land,” said Ms. Granholm. “Not Democratic land or Republican land. But our land.”

So Many Governments; So Much Fussing
Time and again in her address to some 500 west Michigan civic, business, and elected leaders, Ms. Granholm focused on what she clearly views as the most important priority: Curing what she called “the sea of jurisdictional turfism” that overwhelms Michigan's 1,800 local units of government, more than any state except Pennsylvania. She urged elected leaders, herself included — who she described as “turfists” — to follow the example set by Grand Rapids and its neighboring townships to “step out, reach beyond jurisdictional lines” to halt “the crazy way land is used and consumed in Michigan.”

“Turfism,” she said, “is an anachronism.”

Ms. Granholm also touched on the state’s budget deficit, noting that encouraging development to be more compact and efficient would help cities and the state save money. “Another reason to cooperate is we can’t afford to do it all in islands,” said Gov. Granholm. “We can stretch dollars if we all collaborate and cooperate.”

The governor’s remarks on land use and sprawl were her most extensive since March, when she personally opened the proceedings of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. The bipartisan 26-member panel, which the governor appointed with the help of the Republican House and Senate leaders, was charged with developing solutions to sprawl. The panel issued a report on August 15 that recommended 160 steps the state should take to protect the environment, improve the quality of life, and strengthen the state’s economic competitiveness. But until Ms. Granholm’s speech at the Frederik Meijer Gardens here, no senior state leader had prioritized any of the recommendations.

A Mix of Executive and Legislative Actions
Of the 12 recommendations that Ms. Granholm described as priorities, she said seven can be accomplished through executive action. For example, she has asked the state DEQ to establish a Web site to help conservancies and other preservation organizations identify state programs and funding for conserving farmland and open space. 

She said her administration will negotiate the five remaining priorities with the state House and Senate. “Let’s see some action,” she urged. “We don’t want this to be a report that sits on a shelf.”

Ms. Granholm delivered her message to a mostly conservative and Republican audience here, which received her warmly. In 1992, when Grand Rapids’ independent Mayor John Logie took office, the city and surrounding townships collectively identified sprawl as a threat to the city and the region’s economy and culture. Local governments established a regional planning agency, the Grand Valley Metro Council, to develop collaborative solutions.

Grand Rapids A State And Regional Leader on Curing Sprawl
One result of this focused, regional activity is that the city’s urban core is growing livelier with shops, recreation and entertainment centers, parks, lofts, and restaurants. Another, broader one is that Grand Rapids was one of just two Michigan cities — the other is Ann Arbor — that realized gains in its population in the 1990s.

The region also now is home to the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, a three-year-old non-profit coalition of government, business, and civic leaders. The alliance is gradually developing public support for land use measures that build the economy and conserve the rural and small town quality of the area bounded by Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Holland — which the group calls the Metro Tri-plex — one of the fastest growing and sprawling metropolitan regions in the country.

After her address Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, who was raised in nearby Grandville and represents west Michigan, told reporters that he generally supported the governor’s approach and that the Senate was taking action on a package of 10 bills that were consistent with recommendations made by the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council.

One bill would add $100 million from the 1998 Clean Michigan Initiative bond to efforts to help cities clean up old industrial sites and contaminated land for new development. Another is designed to speed the private sale of derelict homes and properties in urban areas that have fallen into state ownership. A third, which has already passed the House, gives two or more local governments the authority to establish regional planning councils.

“The Land Use Council recommendations are not a matter of telling people what they can and cannot do with their land,” said Sen. Sikkema. “It’s a matter of improving our urban areas and addressing some of the reasons that people choose to live where they do.”

Keith Schneider is a journalist, editor, and deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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