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Breaking the Sprawl Addiction

A twelve step program

March 1, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

    9. Require local governments to cooperate, and establish an effective regional framework for making decisions on large projects.

Garfield Township's growth and development is a clear example of how one township's decisions affect an entire region.
Garfield's sprawl represents the outcome of a master plan and zoning ordinance that stressed jobs and development above any other social value. "The township board had a vision," said Gerry Harsch, the township planner since 1972. "They wanted to ensure people had places to work and encouraged more jobs by planning for industrial parks. They wanted more money to stay in the community and as early as 1976 they were preparing for a shopping center on land owned by the Oleson family, which became the Grand Traverse regional mall. They envisioned room for people to build houses in a country setting."
Yet those choices, made solely by Garfield's leaders in the early 1970s without coordinating with any neighboring government, influenced every community within 50 miles of Garfield as well as a host of downstate townships that lost their economic base when jobs transferred north.
By establishing a high-wage manufacturing sector, Garfield ended the uncertainty that for generations marked the region's seasonal economy. Some of the new jobs were taken up by local residents, but workers from other parts of the state also began streaming into the Grand Traverse region with their families.
By spending taxpayer funds on roads, water, and sewers to support the new residents and workers with malls, services, professional offices, and subdivisions, Garfield became a magnet for more economic activity resulting in every county in northwest Michigan experiencing record population growth. And those same local governments now are facing increasing political pressure from builders to rezone for sprawling construction patterns just like Garfield's.
Now the projected costs for Garfield to keep up with its own spiraling growth are compelling township leaders to join a regional discussion about managing it.
The time has long passed when local governments can make decisions without regard to their neighbors. Asuperstore in one township can empty Main Street in another. Anew freeway in one county will draw traffic from four others. Modern decisions have to be made in real life context, and that context is now regional, especially if the region's taxpayers are expected to participate.

    10. Reconsider the role of state government.

It's true that local governments have considerable authority for deciding how to grow. But they can't halt sprawl by themselves. The state government needs to play a much larger role by devising new tools and ideas to change patterns of development.
Maryland, Tennessee, and Wisconsin are three states that took the lead in the 1990s to set statewide planning goals to discourage sprawl, and then enacted new laws to attain that goal. Maryland's Smart Growth Act, which bars most spending by state government that encourages sprawl, is widely regarded as the most effective.
The state of Michigan, meanwhile, has done nothing, even though the case for change is very strong. Michigan has the most segregated cities in the country. Its big cities are among the economically weakest in the United States. And Michigan is among the fastest sprawling states in the country, even though its population is among the slowest growing.
Reversing these trends will take more activism by citizens and focused work by the Legislature to set statewide goals for local governments and state agencies. These include promoting downtown redevelopment; providing a range of transportation choices; protecting the environment; safeguarding farmland and forests; promoting less costly development patterns;encouraging traditional designs for new neighborhoods; and fostering cooperation among local and state government. Communities would receive state funds to update their master plans and zoning, and state agencies would not fund sprawling projects.

    11. Require state agencies to abide by local land use plans.

There's nothing like a new freeway, sewer line, state-financed industrial development, or school to bust up a good master plan and promote sprawl. Acme Township in Grand Traverse County is learning that right now.
Last year,Acme passed a new master plan that sought as its top priority to contain sprawl, and preserve farmland and natural lands. The plan does so by encouraging homes to be built in clusters in agricultural areas, by setting aside wide corridors for greenbelts, and by planning for a new compact commercial downtown surrounded by neighborhoods.
No sooner had Acme approved the plan than the state Department of Transportation and the Grand Traverse County Road Commission announced plans to widen state route M72 from two lanes to four through the entire township. Both agencies are exempt from following local government planning programs.
The increase in traffic is sure to make the farmland along the highway even more attractive to developers. Meijer already is proposing a superstore along M72. Acme Township is debating what kind of zoning regulations it can put in place along the widened highway to meet the goals of its new master plan.
The solution is to pass a new state statute that requires state and county agencies, including the state Department of Transportation, the Economic Development Corporation, and county road commissions to abide by the requirements of community master plans and ordinances that seek to halt sprawl.

    12. Establish impact fees on open space development.

As the experience in Garfield Township shows, new development costs communities by requiring investments in more infrastructure, schools, emergency services, highway repair, and utilities. But because such costs are almost always spread among all residents in the form of higher fees and taxes, developers receive these services as a publicly funded subsidy, making it much easier to build on greenfields.
The solution is to end the practice of taxpayers sharing the cost of sprawling development. Developers should pay impact fees up front so that the full costs to a community from building on greenfields will be covered by the new residents. Impact fees make it less attractive to build on undeveloped land, and more economically efficient to build where there is existing infrastructure.

CONTACTS: Gerry Harsch, Garfield Township Planner, Tel. 231-941-1620; Bob Russell, Chairman, Grand Traverse County Board of Public Works, Tel. 231-223-7315; Charles Blankenship, President, Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation, Tel. 231- 946-1596; John Pelizzari, Old Kent Bank, Tel. 231-922-4180; Mark Ritter,Acme Township Supervisor, Tel. 231-938-1350.

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