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Guard Your Master Plans

Citizen land use guides are challenged

August 1, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
and Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

All over Michigan, people who have worked hard to enact sound master plans and zoning ordinances — the essential guidelines for deciding what gets built and where — are watching local officials violate these legally enforceable planning rules on a regular basis. The result is more sprawl, more congestion, less open space, and growing civic disputes in dozens of townships and counties.
Fast-growing Meridian Township, east of Lansing, is typical of the clash between existing residents and new developments. Former Meridian Planning Commission chair Joan Guy recently analyzed how the township responds to developers’ requests to rezone land from residential to commercial uses. Between January 1997 and May 2000, the Meridian Township Board violated the township’s master plan in 61% of the rezoning requests it approved.
When local governments ignore the public’s will, they threaten the entire basis for local land-use decision making. Early in the 20th century, Michigan enacted planning and zoning laws to provide citizens and local governments with the authority to guide development in the best interest of the overall community. Master plans set out principles for improving quality of life and ensuring orderly growth. Zoning ordinances establish regulations that put the master plan into effect.
In recent years countless Michigan communities have updated both documents to protect neighborhoods, reduce congestion, and conserve natural green spaces. Development interests have attacked many of the new conservation-based land use plans, however, as regulations that threaten their bottom lines.
Giving in to this growth-at-any-cost strategy establishes precedents that undermine the validity of local land use laws. In a 1997 case involving Troy, for example, city officials refused to rezone a large parcel for a new mall because it violated the master plan. Oakland County Circuit Judge Denise Langford Morris, however, ruled in favor of the developer because the city had previously approved so many similar rezoning requests.
Citizen involvement is the last defense of local land use planning. Residents now must be more mindful than ever to hold officials accountable for making decisions that are consistent with the community’s values and development goals.

—K.S. and P.C.
Michigan Land Use Institute

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