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Grassroots Voters Start 'Smart Growth' Election Fire

March 1, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

What do Smart Growth activists like me want? Unambiguous evidence that our work matters.

It's not easy to get in Michigan. Political leaders at every level of government see it as their primary job responsibility to encourage new development — any sort of new development — despite social and environmental costs. Add the real estate industry's political muscle, and the result is a formidable barrier to local residents' common-sense solutions to sprawl.

Sometimes, however, the people prevail. And those wins fire up all of the things we do to help the grassroots movement spread.

November 8, 2000, was that kind of inspiring day. Local election results across Michigan showed that, in nearly a dozen townships and counties, candidates who said they would rein in sprawl, reduce traffic, and protect the environment won big.

In Monroe County's Milan Township and at least two other townships, voters threw out their entire "growth at any cost" boards and elected new Smart Growth slates. In four Macomb County townships, voters ousted pro-development incumbents and elected supervisors who promised to create more compact and walkable communities by strengthening master plans and zoning ordinances.

These historic election results should settle any dispute over whether voters care enough about traffic congestion, sprawling communities, environmental degradation, and farmland losses to make their leaders care, too. The message for Lansing is unmistakable. Take sprawl seriously. Work for sensible solutions. Or face defeat.

The Smart Growth victories across Michigan also resonated with us at the Institute. We know many of the winning candidates and have worked in several of the communities.

The well-organized civic group, Milan Area Concerned Citizens, elected four of its own members to the Milan Township Board. The Institute worked closely with the group's successful 1999-2000 campaign to defend 1,000 acres of farmland from an industrial development.

Anne Woiwode, program director of the 17,000-member, Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, was one of five new leaders whom voters in Ingham County's Meridian Township elected to replace a pro-development township board. Scott Everett, director of American Farmland Trust's Great Lakes Region, won a five-way trustee race in neighboring Alaiedon Township on his platform of wise land use.

In west Michigan, Republican Tom Jessup won the seat of Casco Township Supervisor by a margin of three to one after campaigning against sand dune mining and for farmland preservation. Two of Mr. Jessup's most important supporters in his bid to replace an 18-year incumbent were Joyce and Bill Petter, active Institute members.

Arcadia Township, which hugs Lake Michigan in northwest Michigan's Manistee County, replaced its entire township board with leaders who said they would protect the coastline and the township's rural culture. A primary motivator for voters was a series of dune blowouts that occurred after a developer, in 1998, built a golf course on a ridge high above the lake without adequate local or state controls.

Filer Township, also in Manistee County, elected outspoken environmental activist Dana Schindler by a margin of two to one as its new township supervisor. We worked with Ms. Schindler in the late 1990s to defend residents against the hazards of hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas that oil and natural gas wells produce.

Here in Benzie County voters elected Don Howard, who called for sensitive patterns of development, to his first term on the county commission.

The Smart Growth fire is spreading among the grassroots. It's only a matter of time, perhaps as soon as the 2002 election, when this common-sense development movement will decide the state's legislative and gubernatorial elections.

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