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Granholm Names Milliken, Kelley to Head Smart Growth Commission

Governor’s decision energizes lively legislative debate

January 9, 2003 | By Jim Lively
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Joey Miller/MLUI
  Former Governor William G. Milliken, widely regarded as Michigan's greatest environmental statesman, will soon lead a commission to reccommend ways to halt sprawl.

Barely nine days into her first term as Michigan’s new governor, Jennifer Granholm has appointed former Republican Governor William G. Milliken and former Democratic state Attorney General Frank J. Kelley to co-chair a bipartisan commission on land use.

The decision, confirmed by a member of Mr. Kelley’s Lansing-based lobbying group and other officials, puts two of the state’s most respected statesmen at the head of a commission that could significantly change patterns of development in Michigan. Mr. Milliken is widely regarded as the state’s most environmentally conscious governor and in the 1970s proposed legislation to modernize the state’s land use practices in order to conserve natural resources. For his part, Mr. Kelly established an environmental division in his department before there was ever an Earth Day.

Moreover, yesterday Gov. Granholm reacted to former Governor John Engler’s shocking, at-the-buzzer veto of bipartisan legislation to establish the Detroit Area Regional Transit Authority (DARTA) by announcing that prompt re-enactment of the law was now her number one legislative priority.

Smart Growth Takes Priority
The two actions mark Ms. Granholm and her young administration as the most aggressive proponent for Smart Growth in Michigan’s history. Contacted today at his Traverse City home, Mr. Milliken declined to comment on his appointment to Ms. Granholm’s commission. A member of Mr. Kelley’s staff said the official announcement is expected next week. During the campaign for election last year Ms. Granholm promised such a commission to begin formally tackling Michigan’s sprawling patterns of development, which are among the worst in the nation.

But even as Smart Growth proponents await details of the Smart Growth Commission's mission and work plan,  advocates and opponents of managing growth in Michigan said it is obvious that curbing sprawl, solving congestion, conserving farmland and other so-called Smart Growth priorities are now squarely in the spotlight in Lansing.

Indeed, they said, with Mr. Engler’s administration now a memory, issues he long kept off the Legislature’s agenda are now coming to the fore. Lobbying groups such as the Michigan Homebuilders Association and the Michigan Association of Realtors no longer have the luxury of a governor who, like them, was opposed to substantive, statewide legislation that changes the rules on land use planning issues.

One prominent Smart Growth advocate, Scott Everett, who is the director of the Central Great Lakes Regional Office of American Farmland Trust, said new battle lines are quickly being drawn. “There is more activity on land use issues than at any other time,” he observed. “It’s been a grassroots issue since the early 90’s. But we’ve never had somebody at the top lead, educate, and point out that local challenges are a result of poor development and infrastructure. We’re about to see the grassroots meet leadership from the top.”

Farmland Preservation A Test
The opening shot in the land use debate may well come when Republican state Senator Patricia Birkholz of Saugatuck re-introduces a measure she sponsored last year as a state representative that establishes a “Transfer of Development Rights” (TDR) pilot program. TDR, a privately funded planning tool that has helped control sprawl in several Eastern states, will sharply accentuate the difference between groups that are pushing for substantive land use reforms and those that prefer merely tweaking them, such as the realtor and homebuilder organizations. The outcome of the TDR debate could well decide the fate of other Smart Growth proposals.

“We are absolutely opposed to TDR,” said Lee Schwartz, assistant vice president for legislation and policy for the homebuilders. “It’s an ‘other people’s money’ scheme that makes the developer pay for development rights. Ultimately those costs get passed along to the homeowner.”

But using “other people’s money” is exactly what makes it so attractive to Smart Growth advocates and Gov. Granholm, who supports the concept and is facing a $1.5 billion state budget deficit. The process, which Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey have used very successfully redirects growth from farmland to urban areas by allowing developers to buy development rights from farmers in designated rural areas. But instead of then building in those areas, they recover their investment by gaining the right to increase development density in existing urban communities that join the program.

Ms. Granholm’s public support of TDR — the first gubernatorial endorsement of a significant land use policy change since Mr. Milliken left office in 1982 — has forced other players in the land use policy debate to begin taking sides in what promises to be a vigorous debate. For example, the Michigan Townships Association, whose members spend the most time on the front lines of land use battles, has now decided to favor TDR, albeit with a caveat.

“We support TDR’s as long as they are controlled at the township level,” says Bill Anderson, legislative liaison for the Michigan Townships Association (MTA). “It would be interesting to at least get a pilot program going in the state.”

The Michigan Farm Bureau supports the concept more strongly; it favors immediately launching a full, statewide system. In this they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the American Farmland Trust, Michigan Society of Planning, as well as the Michigan Environmental Council and the Michigan Land Use Institute.

Doubts From Development Community
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, has joined the realtor and homebuilder groups to oppose TDR. Yet the Chamber does support other, quite meaningful land use reform; it recently inaugurated a statewide program to fight sprawl by directing new school construction back to city centers.

While DARTA and TDR seem destined to be hot topics in the Legislature, they are not the only ones. Another issue likely to emerge is TDR’s older, more expensive sister, PDR — Purchase of Development Rights. This program, which five Michigan counties have already adopted, allows local citizens to tax themselves and use the money to purchase farmers’ development rights to curb sprawl. However, for local programs to really take off, it will require significant matching funds from the state. And while the Chamber, realtors, homebuilders, and Smart Growth advocacy groups all say they support PDR to varying degrees, Lansing’s looming ocean of red ink makes it unlikely there will be any state funding without a new source, which could include a statewide millage effort.
Mark Wyckoff, director of the Planning and Zoning Center, predicts that the legislative debate on Smart Growth will be a genuinely hot topic in Lansing for the first time in recent memory.

“For at least a decade, the needed reforms have been very apparent,” he wrote in the December issue of Planning and Zoning News, a state publication he publishes. “What [has been] missing is a political majority in both houses and an agreeable governor to act on those needs. Governor Granholm’s ‘Securing Michigan’s Future’ plan and her ‘One Michigan’ theme present an incredible opportunity to advance land use issues in her administration.”

And while the home builders and the realtors say searching for common ground with their traditional land use reform opponents is important, Mr. Everett of the Farmland Trust is clearly skeptical.

“The line has been drawn by the home builders on TDR,” he said. “There is an obvious conflict with the homebuilders on anything that is proposed that preserves farmland — they’ll oppose it. Homebuilders want zoning changes for free, rather than buying them on the free market. But it’s not the local government’s job to make them rich.” 

Jim Lively, a regular contributor to the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, is the planner at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at jim@mlui.org.

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