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Driving Away Sprawl

Petoskey faces its future and says let's try something new

December 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

PETOSKEY, MI — There isn’t any mystery about the cause of Joe Hoffman Jr.’s discomfort. It’s right there, just below the broad ridge his family has farmed since 1877. Every evening, like corn popping on a giant skillet, the lights switch on in the subdivisions on the edge of Petoskey, the nearest city. First one. Then another and another; a sudden wash of white light from new homes and cars and street lamps. Each month, it seems, they draw closer, an unyielding advance that hides the stars and threatens to obscure a way of life on the northern coast of Lake Michigan.

For some in the region’s farm community, Petoskey’s sprawl has meant fast-rising land prices and enormous riches when the time came to sell out. Hoffman, a stout, baby-faced man of 35, never counted himself among those who saw speculative opportunity in growth. The land was a birthright and each conversion of a neighbor’s field for new homes left Hoffman feeling diminished. But he kept such thoughts mostly to himself.

Then several years ago Hoffman learned that the state Department of Transportation wanted to build a $70 million highway bypass around Petoskey. The proposed route would have carved a 300-foot wide swath through the family’s hay and corn fields. It also would have split up nearly a dozen other farms that make up the core of Bear Creek Township’s thriving dairy, vegetable, and row crop industry.

Hoffman responded by working with several neighbors to establish an 1,100-acre national historic agriculture preservation district comprised of his farm and three others. The historic designation gives growers significantly greater legal safeguards against big construction projects. "When we started working on this, I was just worried that the road was going to cut up our farm," Hoffman said on a blustery, snowy November evening." But as we learned more, it wasn’t much of a stretch to also see that it wasn’t going to do much good for the other farmers around here."

The historic designation, along with several other innovative legal and political responses developed by the region’s farmers, has turned the Petoskey bypass into the defining land use and transportation debate in Michigan. (See sidebar). Moreover, the outcome of this struggle, pitting the families of a working rural landscape against the region’s business leaders and the politically powerful highway builders, could provide lessons for other rural communities across the nation. It could even influence the Congressional discussion in 1997 over renewing the national transportation bill.

In Petoskey and in Washington, the issues are identical. Is it time to dramatically alter a 50-year old transportation policy devoted to moving cars by building more roads? Or is it saner and less expensive to repair existing highways while encouraging other forms of transportation, and even new patterns of development, that coax people out of their cars? American Farmland Trust has been a leading advocate of the latter strategy. And for good reason. AFT has asserted that America’s auto-oriented transportation policy has produced ruinous sprawl in every state, caused more than 1 million acres of prime farmland to be paved over each year, and wrecked the cohesion and livability of countless rural communities.

"We’ve come a long way from the days when transportation was designed to get farmers out of the mud and allow goods to go to market," said Hank Dittmar, executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a national coalition based in Washington that is working to reform transportation policy. "Now road investment in rural areas is largely about land conversion, from farmland and recreational space to Wal-Marts and McDonalds.

"That is a process of disinvestment in small towns, and a process that creates a situation where farming is less and less viable. Farmers understand this. And at least part of the fight in Congress this year is directed at reversing this process."

Few states exhibit more scars from road building than this one. Last year, a state task force concluded that Michigan was losing 10 acres of farm land an hour to highway-influenced sprawl; nearly 100,000 acres a year. The report, prepared with the assistance of Dennis Bidwell, AFT’s Director of Land Protection, has resulted in one significant policy change. In December, the legislature approved a new measure that allows local governments to preserve agricultural land by establishing programs to purchase development rights from farmers.

In Petoskey, the proposed bypass has considerably advanced the civic debate over farmland preservation by focusing on the links between road building and sprawl. The surprise, if there is one, is that it didn’t happen here sooner.

This city of 6,000 is well-known for its tree-lined streets, Victorian architecture, and breath-taking views of the enamel blue waters of Lake Michigan. Just beyond the city boundary, green forested hills as round as a cat’s back overlook miles of prime farm land in Bear Creek and Resort Townships. Industrial and professional families of Chicago and Detroit have sought out the region as a summer playground for 100 years. The problems began when their heirs began to view Petoskey as a place worthy of full-time residence.

The population of Emmet County has now increased to some 28,000 people, 54 percent more than in 1980. During the summer, the population swells to more than 45,000 people. The vehicle population is growing even faster.

Most of the growth has been in the two townships on the city’s outskirts. And more is coming. Houses are popping up on the ridges to take advantage of views of the big lake. Wal-Mart has arrived. A $600 million development is being built along Lake Michigan that could soon add more people. In 1996, the National Trust For Historic Preservation named Petoskey one of the 11 most endangered places in the United States.

It is for these reasons, and several more, that Herb Carlson, a retired car dealer and Petoskey’s former mayor, has steadfastly supported the construction of a bypass. It would relieve the congestion that he contends could harm the area’s quality of life, and is getting worse, particularly in summer. "We have one main highway, US 31, that goes through town and its carrying more traffic every year," Carlson said in an interview. "We’ve got a problem now with congestion. And we’re going to have a worse problem 30 years from now if we don’t do something. And that’s why we proposed the bypass."

The idea first formed in 1986, when Carlson chaired a community transportation study committee that included several other prominent businessmen. With the help of the state D.O.T., Carlson’s committee convinced then Senator Bob Davis to quietly secure $28 million from Congress to pay for a beltway to carry traffic around Petoskey. The new road would depart from US 31 south of Petoskey, wind east for 9.5 miles through Bear Creek and Resort Townships, and reconnect with US 31 north of the city.

When Carlson’s committee publicly introduced the idea in the fall of 1987, it caused an immediate ruckus. The local chamber of commerce, the Emmet County Board of Commissioners, and many wealthy summer people in Petoskey supported the road because they believed it would reduce congestion near their cottages. But hundreds of residents, turning up en masse at public hearings, denounced the new road, saying it was unnecessary, a waste of money, and would accelerate sprawl.

"People understood right away what it meant, and opposition has been strong from the very beginning," said Debbie Rohe, a member of American Farmland Trust who was elected as an Emmet County Commissioner in 1992 on a platform opposing the road.

What few could have predicted, though, was the leadership role that farmers would take in the debate. The proposed bypass not only woke up farmers, it seemed to rile them. Farm leaders say it was more than the hundreds of acres that would be forced out of production, or that a highway that split their fields would make farming much more difficult. Rather it was the way it was presented. The farmers of Bear Creek and Resort Townships say they felt challenged politically in a way they never had before. Many believed state government was stepping all over their rights to decide how their land was to be used.

"And for what?," asks Al Foster, a 68-year-old dairy farmer, and supervisor of Bear Creek Township. "So that cars can move from one side of town to another on a road that is going to take them out of their way.

"It doesn’t make any sense to cut all that virgin land to hell," added Foster, whose grand parents arrived in the region in 1878. "We don’t need that road. If they had asked us, that’s what we would have told them. But they never asked. They just said this is the way it’s going to be."

Not one to duck a fight, the farm community was well-positioned to fire back. Foster and other farmers heavily influence the governing boards of Bear Creek and Resort townships. With the backing of the majority of residents, the townships opened their treasuries to hire lawyers, technical experts, and consultants. They brought forward evidence questioning whether Petoskey had "traffic problem" in the first place. And they built a formidable coalition with the Petoskey City Council, environmental groups, the Michigan Farm Bureau Federation, and hundreds of residents to oppose the new road as a menace to the farm economy and the small town way of life.

The persistent response slowed the transportation department’s planning work. Department officials there say that nearly a decade after the bypass was first proposed, they are likely, at last, to finish a formal environmental study in 1997 and forward it to the Federal Highway Administration for review. "I say at that point let the chips fall where they may," said Dave Geiger, a state transportation planner, who sounded resigned in an interview. "That’s the cleanest point to break off, if that’s what’s decided."

Such statements reflect the fact that farmers in Bear Creek and Resort townships have transformed the discussion about transportation in northern Michigan. By focusing on preserving farmland and not on moving cars, farm leaders found a way to rally their community and safeguard agriculture in the Petoskey region. It is a lesson that other rural Americans would do well to learn, and to which lawmakers in Washington ought to pay close attention.


Sidebar 1 — A Four Step Strategy


Bear Creek and Resort Townships developed a legal and political strategy that dramatically slowed the state transportation department’s planning for the Pestoskey bypass and introduced the idea of a workable alternative. The strategy, readily adaptable by other rural communities, was based on these four elements:

1. Establish historic agricultural preservation districts. Historic preservation laws give farmers legal clout to block highway construction and other large developments. Joe Hoffman established the area’s first such district. Bear Creek and Resort townships are now seeking state historic designation for as many as a dozen other farmsteads and thousands more acres.

2. Lobby Congress. Under the original 1988 appropriation, Congress appropriated $28 million for a "bypass demonstration project" only. Last year, the two townships convinced Rep. Bart Stupak, the Democrat who represents northern Michigan, to change the appropriation language and allow the money to also be used for "upgrading existing roads." The amendment means that Federal money can be spent on a less costly alternative.

3. Map out an alternative route and mobilize the public to support it. The townships worked with the directors of planning in Emmet County and the city of Pestoskey to come up with an alternative route that uses existing roads. The new route, introduced in December, would widen several country roads to make room for a two-lane highway. Public meetings are planned to gauge popular support for the new route.

4. Modernize land use regulation. Township leaders are slowly approaching what may be the toughest aspect of the issue: improving land use planning in order to better organize development. By putting schools, homes, businesses, and shops in closer proximity, it’s possible that people won’t spend so much of their time driving from one place to another.



Sidebar 2 — Alternative Transportation Plans That Worked



Selected communities across the nation are exploring alternatives to building new highways that take into account the uses of land as essential components.


Portland, Oregon — In the 1980s, the Oregon D.O.T. proposed a bypass to accommodate growth and traffic congestion in Portland. In collaboration with several other organizations, 1000 Friends of Oregon produced an alternative plan that is ongoing. The plan is based on concentrating growth around compact neighborhood-style development that takes advantage of mass transit as a central means of transportation. In doing so, Portland can avoid construction of a $1 billion freeway system. The state transportation department has now recommended against the bypass and in favor of the alternative.


Middleburg, Virginia — Middleburg lies along Route 50 that connects suburban northern Virginia and Washington, DC. Commuter traffic through the downtown was seen as a major problem. A $32 million bypass was proposed. A coalition of citizens opposed that plan and hired a consultant to reduce congestion through ‘traffic calming.’ A series of workshops was held which became the basis for a community-designed plan, which is close to completion. With strong support from the mayor of Middleburg, the Virginia D.O.T. agreed to put the bypass proposal on hold until the alternative plan had been fully considered.


Chicago, Illinois — The Illinois D.O.T. and the state Toll Highway Authority have proposed several extensions of the existing tollway system into the northwestern suburbs of Chicago. The new roads are designed to form a second bypass to the downtown area. A coalition of business, environmental, and civic groups, led by the Environmental Law and Policy Center, outlined a Citizen Transportation Plan. It includes adding another rail line to the existing corridor, building traditional transit-oriented neighborhoods near rail stops, designing a bicycle network and taking other measures to introduce alternatives to cars.


Prince Georges County, Md. — US 301, east of Washington, D.C., is a heavily congested route. In the mid-1980’s the Maryland D.O.T. proposed an Outer Beltway to relieve the congestion. Public opposition to the concept was immediate. The transportation department responded with a study of alternatives. Completed last summer, the study called for improvements to the existing corridor including expanding U.S. 301 by two lanes and reserving options for future rail transit. Other recommendations included focusing new development in compact planned communities, increasing parking fees, and establishing tolls to discourage traffic. For the time being, the Outer Beltway has been shelved.

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