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At Last, Michigan’s Leadership Unveils an Agenda to Solve Sprawl

House Speaker Johnson puts credibility on line

May 4, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

A startling message from one of Michigan’s highest ranking conservative leaders rocketed across email directories and fax lines of sprawl-fighting organizations last month. House Speaker Rick Johnson, a Republican from LeRoy, personally introduced a legislative package that actually forms a cogent statewide vision to manage growth, rebuild cities, assure clean water, and conserve farmland.

"As a northern Michigan farmer, I have a deep appreciation for this legislation," said Mr. Johnson. "Land use and the environmental concerns that come with it will be vital to the continued prosperity of our state. That’s why I have made this a priority for the current legislative session."

For planners, municipal leaders, and others in the field who’ve documented the consequences of poorly planned development, Mr. Johnson’s announcement was regarded as a turning point. By joining together the following ideas — halting sprawl, cleaning up rivers and lakes, strengthening cities, preserving farmland, and advancing economic development — the House speaker validated the striking need for a state role in deciding how land is used in Michigan.

Just as importantly, by announcing his land use agenda so publicly, the speaker simultaneously put his party’s leaders and business allies on notice that fighting suburban sprawl, protecting farmland, and revitalizing cities were political issues that had finally arrived. Not since former Governor William G. Milliken supported a serious, but ultimately unsuccessful effort in the 1970s to modernize Michigan’s planning laws, has a senior Republican lawmaker so prominently addressed the need for the state to become more involved in helping local governments design better places to live.

Among the measures that Mr. Johnson touted is a proposal to coordinate planning and zoning actions among neighboring local governments. Such a new approach could help avoid the spillover costs, for instance, of increased taxes, traffic, land prices, and small business failures in many townships if one neighboring township opens its doors to a new 200-acre mall.

Another proposal is to keep families in agriculture by allowing townships to reduce taxes for farmland. That proposal would tax farmland according to its current agricultural use and not on its much higher potential value as a place to build new subdivisions. Farm families would save thousands of dollars annually if the measure is approved, and it could protect tens of thousands of acres of Michigan’s best farmland.

A third measure to strengthen urban areas would provide low interest loans to cities that want to enlarge sewage treatment plants that now cause filth to overflow into the state’s rivers and lakes.

Mr. Johnson’s nerve is almost breathtaking. After all, many in his party are still mired in divisive right wing politics of "deregulation" and "private property rights." Adherents of the old rhetoric, including the development business interests that promote it, remain convinced that private self interest takes precedence over community values and that government has no proper role in overseeing any uses of land.

But by publicly seizing the issue, Mr. Johnson also is displaying how far sprawl has come as a political concern in Michigan. Consider that it was only two years ago that former Speaker Charles Perricone buried a promising sprawl-fighting proposal from a group of Grand Rapids area lawmakers by naming a land use study committee that did next to nothing. And three years before that the governor himself signed a disputed new law that actually accelerated the rate at which large parcels of valuable farmland could be cut into lots for new subdivisions and shopping centers.

To be sure, the homebuilders, realtors, and other assorted proponents of doing nothing are sharpening their talons to tear the legislative package apart, as they have to other promising sprawl fighting and urban redevelopment initiatives in years past. Their antidote to increasing traffic congestion, stormwater overflows, urban decline, and environmental degradation caused by sprawl is to grow outward even faster, just as Michigan and America have done for nearly half a century.

Citizens across Michigan, however, are rejecting that formula. Although the state is among the slowest growing in terms of population, the new census results show Michigan is spreading out faster than almost any other state. Michigan, for instance, is among the national leaders in the amount of land paved over for new sprawling development. Detroit is now the sixth most congested metropolitan region in the nation. The state loses tens of thousands of acres of prime farmland annually. And sewage overflows, caused by more water flowing at a faster rate off of more pavement, regularly fills lakes and streams with fecal contamination in Detroit and dozens of other communities around the state.

Last year, in at least 12 townships and counties, voters booted out of office their "growth at any cost" board members and commissioners. They voted in new leaders who vowed to control sprawl and be more sensitive to environmental concerns. Mr. Johnson clearly heard that political message. With his bold and coherent vision to begin slowing sprawl and more vigorously protecting the environment, Mr. Johnson has put his own prestige and the credibility of his party on the line. For the sake of all residents and our magnificent state, it’s vital that he succeeds.

Keith Schneider, an environmental writer, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a 2,200-member research and advocacy organization in Benzonia. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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