Michigan Voters Will Reward Efficient Land Use Strategies
Electoral muscle in taming sprawl
January 18, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
As the 1998 race for governor gains definition, the traditional indicators show Michigan has rarely done better. Unemployment is at record low levels. Personal income is up. And Detroit seems on the edge of a true economic awakening.
Yet according to other measures, a different picture emerges. Highways are jammed. Adults are working two jobs to stay afloat. Civility is waning. Cynicism is rampant.
Indeed, what the conflicting trends most clearly point to is that we are in an age of vast transition. What often distinguishes such historical periods of uncertainty and change is the emergence of an organizing principle, a new governing vision that matches the seriousness of the choices people and their communities confront. In the 1998 governor’s race, the candidate that is the first to articulate the vision, and establish a framework for putting it into effect, also is likely to be the winner.
Here’s a suggestion for that new vision. During the last 18 months, a promising neighborhood-based political movement has emerged across Michigan. It is focused on establishing new land use policies at the state level and local levels to halt the sprawl that is clogging the suburbs and chewing up the countryside. The governing vision also is aimed at redirecting state economic development programs to improve Michigan’s cities and encourage the construction of affordable neighborhoods near downtowns where homes, shops, businesses, schools, and civic institutions are in close proximity.
The political leader that embraces this vision will discover such goals are attracting significant support from influential constituencies — the business communities in Traverse City and Grand Rapids, farmers, urban civic groups, environmental organizations, and many Main Street business owners.
The Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, for instance, has sponsored a five-county program to provide local government leaders the education, professional planning assistance, and political support to curb sprawl. Thousands of acres of farm fields have been preserved solely for agriculture as a result of new zoning in rural townships. Developers are investing millions of dollars in architecturally distinguished projects in downtown Traverse City that offer a mix of housing, offices, and retail space.
In Kent County, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has played a leading role in establishing a regional development plan that calls for eliminating what it called the "insidious" effects of growth. Washtenaw County leaders are considering a citizen-led plan to conserve farmland. Otsego County citizens are organizing to reduce the cost of schools, roads, and taxes by stemming sprawl. Detroit officials are encouraging reinvestment in old industrial areas. Suburban residents in Oakland and Macomb counties have begun to study tools to reduce traffic congestion, lower housing costs, and reverse a declining quality of life caused by sprawl.
The drive to establish effective land use policy, in short, is restoring something that Michigan has sorely lacked: a sense of shared mission. The dismaying march of the same old ugly buildings, cookie cutter subdivisions, giant malls, and congested roads is no longer universally viewed as an inevitable and necessary facet of economic growth. Rather, the web of public subsidies, programs, and policies that helped to foster sprawl is now viewed as producing manifest social and environmental costs.
Highway spending opened the countryside to development, and simultaneously carved up neighborhoods that irreparably damaged cities.
Tax code provisions encouraged new construction in the countryside and discouraged investment in cities, leading to endemic joblessness, declining schools, and crime.
Local zoning directed businesses to be set far back from the street, and required an absurdly large number of parking spaces. The result is a suburbanized landscape dominated by cars and asphalt.
Leaders seeking to reverse these trends are calling for government to collaborate with the public to set formal goals for the state, much as New Jersey and Oregon have done. They also are seeking new legislation that would require coordination between state agencies, and between the state and local governments, to achieve those goals.
Thus, transportation spending would favor modernizing existing roads rather than building new gold-plated highways that ruin neighborhoods and the environment. Investments in education would be directed primarily toward existing schools and improving curriculums rather than new construction. Subisidies would be redirected to provide incentives to construct affordable housing for working families instead of encouraging large lot subdivisions and natural resource exploitation in rural areas.
These ideals can be achieved only through a combination of new leadership, changes in state law, and new tools and governing authority for counties, cities, and townships. If they occur, though, it would give citizens the things many say they want most: the economic and physical security that comes from communities that have more choices for where people can live, how they get around, and where they feel a true sense of belonging.
The two political parties have not yet spoken to these needs. That probably accounts for why less than half of voters actually go to the polls. In fact, the inability to build safe, attractive, affordable, and dynamic communities represents one of the worst outcomes of an overarching governing strategy that has outlived its usefulness. Democratic and Republican leaders in Michigan continue to support programs, developed 50 years ago, that are literally tearing communities apart.
In northern Michigan, for instance, population growth and new construction is utterly changing the face of small towns. The problem is not how many people are arriving in the region. Rather it is how communities grow. The land-hungry pattern of development, supported by public subsidies and financial incentives, is out of scale. The fear is that northern Michigan, and its ample natural resources and wonderful small town way of life, will succumb the same way so many other splendid places in the state already have.
Ending destructive patterns of development means that northern Michigan leaders need to build alliances with leaders in Detroit to encourage new investment in cities. It means working with the farm community, recreation businesses, and other industries that cannot function without protecting large parcels of land. It means the business community is drawing closer to the state’s prominent environmental organizations in order to learn about public education and grassroots organizing.
It is for this reason that the work to gain land use policy reform has such promise for governing. It is providing the basis for a broad coalition of untraditional allies to work together. By building new alliances, a future can be achieved that creates the economic and cultural conditions to build beautiful cities and towns again, reduce municipal expenses, protect natural resources, conserve farmland, and encourage handsome places that people feel good about.
Without any leadership at all from the governor’s office or the legislature, this vision of what’s possible is gradually taking shape in many Michigan communities. Changing the pattern of development has become an organizing principle that shows great promise for improving people’s lives. In an election year in which polls show Gov. Engler is vulnerable and people are hungry for a new direction, it is a governing vision that is ripe for either party to make their own.