Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Rural Northwest Michigan Takes Big Steps to Block Sprawl

Rural Northwest Michigan Takes Big Steps to Block Sprawl

Farmland, open space measures approved

December 20, 2002 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Keith Schneider/MLUI
  In November voters in Bear Creek Township turned down a proposal to build a new big box shopping center on 70 acres of farmland outside Petoskey. John Rohe, a local attorney and land use advocate, was a leader in the citizen campaign to defeat the shopping center.

TRAVERSE CITY - Record population growth that is fostering rapid home and business development also is prompting communities in northwest Michigan to take the most formidable steps in the region’s history to manage growth.

Five of the region’s seven counties, and more than half a dozen townships have either passed or are in the final stages of approving new master plans, zoning ordinances, purchases of development rights programs, and other growth management tools.

In addition, voters approved two referendums on election day in November to strengthen protections for farmland and open space in rural townships outside Petoskey and Traverse City. And last September, a proposed $90 million highway bypass in Emmet County was defeated.

Flourishing Debate
By no means is the battle between development interests and growth management advocates settled in northern Michigan. On election day voters also narrowly turned down, 19,639 to 18,289, a property tax increase in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties to finance expansion and improvements in the region’s public transit system.

In Antrim County, property rights advocates in October also convinced the nine-member county board of commissioners to rescind an ordinance they approved a year ago to safeguard wetlands. The Constitutional Property Rights Association, a citizens organization, asserted that Antrim County overstepped its authority in approving the ordinance, which it viewed as infringing on the rights of landowners. "What’s wrong with this ordinance is that it’s against the law,” said Edwin Martel, a landowner and the group’s secretary.  (See: Defending Wetlands and New County Law )

Passion and Progress
Still, when tallied up, advocates of managing the region’s development are prevailing in the majority of the civic disputes over new construction in northwest Michigan. “People are pretty passionate about protecting open space and the rural character,” said Mary Pitcher, the Republican chairwoman of the Board of Commissioners in Benzie County, which approved a new master plan last year and just adopted a related plan for protecting natural resources and open space. “The interest and awareness is there.”

At the heart of the civic activism is a recognition that the very same growth trends that have helped to build northern Michigan’s new prosperity could also prove to be the region’s permanent undoing. The population of the seven-counties stretching down the coast of Lake Michigan from Emmet to Benzie counties and inland to Wexford County, was 231,274 last year, a 23 percent increase from 1990. Nearly 500 more people arrive each month, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Ms. Pitcher and other elected leaders say they are trying to achieve “balance” in making decisions that involve economic development and conservation. But it’s more than that, says Margaret Comfort, a consultant and planning commissioner in Antrim County’s Forest Home Township.

A region that spent a century riding a boom and bust economy based on unquestioned use of its natural resources now finds in the new century a much brighter and more durable economic future in conserving them. The region’s rural quality of life and easy access to green spaces are now the most important economic assets, say regional chambers of commerce.

The often heated disputes over constructing new projects on farm and forest land, or efforts by local governments to oversee uses of private property reflect a historic transition in expectations about what is best for individuals, the community, the economy, and the land. “It’s like the transition from adolescence to adulthood,” said Ms. Comfort. “Adolescents are completely focused on themselves and what’s happening now. Adults look at what’s good for the long-term. This region is maturing.”

Bear Creek Victories
Telling evidence of northern Michigan’s new resolve to manage growth occurred late in 2002 in Bear Creek and Resort townships, the rural communities that surround the city of Petoskey. In September, after a 15-year fight, the state Department of Transportation announced it was abandoning its plan to build a 10-mile-long, $90 million bypass through Emmet County’s most fertile farmland. The Transportation Department wanted the highway to relieve congestion on US 31, the main north-south corridor through Petoskey. (See: $90 Million Highway Ditched in Petoskey)

Township leaders joined with farmers and many residents in arguing that the new highway would ruin the agricultural economy and invite sprawling development that would make traffic worse. Opponents called on the state to support an alternative that involved modernizing existing local roads and building several smaller connecting routes closer to Petoskey. In a surprise, the Transportation Department assented and agreed to finance a study of the alternatives led by local leaders and citizens.

Then in November, by a two to one margin, 1,276 to 616, voters in Bear Creek Township turned down a Lansing-based company’s proposal to build a new big box shopping center on 70 acres of farmland outside Petoskey. The vote culminated more than two years of acrimony spurred by the Strathmore Development Company’s plan to build a 400,000-square-foot superstore, and 250 apartments and homes along US 131.

Only five years earlier Bear Creek leaders had resisted public opposition and approved a new Wal-Mart just next door. At that time township leaders said such big box developments would stop there.

During public hearings on the Strathmore proposal Bear Creek residents reminded the township board of the promise. The development company argued that the market would support more shopping and convinced the township planning commission in 2001 to approve their proposal by a 4-2 vote. The elected township board overturned the planning commission decision, on a 3-2 vote.

The proposal then headed to court where Strathmore and the township negotiated a court-sanctioned agreement, completed earlier this year, which reduced the store to 175,000 square feet. The developers asserted the court decree was final and precluded a referendum but judges in the circuit and the appellate courts disagreed. Opponents gathered signatures for a referendum, put the issue on the November ballot, and then campaigned to overturn the agreement and block the development.

“Changes to our landscape are incremental and often imperceptible from one day to the next,” said John Rohe, an attorney who lives in Bear Creek Township, and helped defeat the Petoskey bypass and the Strathmore development. “Only when we visualize changes over the years or decades does the future look grim. To the great credit of this region there are a number of folks willing to fearlessly consider the legacy by which we will someday be remembered.”

Farmland Preservation in Grand Traverse, Leelanau Counties
The same values are apparently held by residents and elected leaders of other northwest Michigan communities. Voters in Grand Traverse County’s Peninsula Township, who eight years ago approved a property tax increase to purchase farmland development rights and establish a nearly 10,000-acre agriculture preserve north of Traverse City, handily approved a second tax increase on election day, 1,838 to 1,302. It was a much wider margin than the 1994 vote.

“The main factors leading to this vote were probably the success of the program and the fact that it is well appreciated in the community," said John Wunsch, a musician and Peninsula Township resident who helped manage the 2002 campaign. “The ability to actually pass another tax increase in these tough economic times  was helped by the fact that in the absence of further funding from the last millage we were again seeing farms on the market that should stay in farming, or at least that many in this community felt should stay in farming. We also have some dedicated farmers who are willing to keep farming these farms if we can only keep them from being lost to development.”

Leelanau County, which now has nearly 22,000 residents, 5,000 more than in 1990, also is a testing ground for growth management initiatives. In October, the county board of commissioners approved a new purchase of development rights ordinance that qualifies farmers for any local, state, or federal farmland preservation program. The decision came after months of persistent work by growers and conservationists to convince the county commission that permanently protecting Leelanau’s farmland was vital to the regional economy, the culture, and a way of life. Leelanau was the second county in Michigan to approve a so-called “PDR” program.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and regular contributor to the Detroit Free Press, the New York Times, and Gristmagazine.com  is the program director at the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. For more of the Institute’s penetrating reporting on growth management in Michigan see their Web site at http://www.mlui.org. A version of this article was published in the December 2002 edition of Planning and Zoning News

Michigan Land Use Institute

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