Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Whitewater Township Protects Its Agricultural Heritage

Whitewater Township Protects Its Agricultural Heritage

Simplified, flexible zoning rules better for landowners, countryside

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

Everyone knows that the foundation of a classic film is the script, and that a comfortable home originates with its design. Yet as northwest Michigan focuses on how to safeguard its agricultural landscape, the civic conversation too often shifts away from one of the primary sources of the problem: outdated township zoning ordinances.

"Few people have made the mental connection between their disintegrating environment and the land use regulations and ordinances that govern their community," says Joe Anderson, who last summer was named chairman of the Whitewater Township Planning Commission in Grand Traverse County.

A life-long resident of northwest Michigan, Mr. Anderson has attended land use design courses at Harvard University and spoken with many of the nation's noted community design specialists. With the support of farmers and the township board, Mr. Anderson put his contacts to work and hired Joel S. Russell, a planner from Massachusetts who specializes in writing zoning ordinances to protect farmland and rural areas.

Mr. Russell's ordinances are based on the following principles:

* Simplify rules to reduce the number of defined zones.

* Encourage the building of businesses, offices, schools, recreation centers, homes, and churches in much closer proximity.

* Make provisions more flexible to enable farmers to earn a living and stay on their land.

Modernizing Whitewater's zoning ordinance comes at an opportune moment. Located east of fast-growing Traverse City, the township still has nearly one-third of its 35,000 acres still used for agriculture. However much of that land is draped across scenic ridges that developers now are scouting for building sites. Also, a busy connector highway, M-72, that is attracting strip development such as the new Turtle Creek Casino crosses the township between Traverse City and Kalkaska.

Mr. Russell's analysis of the township's zoning ordinance commended the work of previous township officials, especially in protecting the environment, but identified several areas that could be improved:

• The ordinance is quite complex, and few in the township "seem to understand it fully."

• It allows housing lots of 1/4-acre to one acre, which could "eventually carpet most of the northern half of the township with cookie-cutter residential development." In the southern half of the township lot sizes are required to be at least five acres, "but this consumes even more land per house."

Mr. Russell's suggested remedies to conserve farmland include the following:

• Allow a wider range of uses on agriculturally-zoned land, including the right to operate small businesses.

• When developing farms for housing, use a "sliding scale" that allows builders to increase the total number of housing units, but specifies a selected area for construction while the rest of the land stays available for farming. This method is known as "conservation planning."

• Protect the scenic views along M-72 by instituting an "overlay" district that joins the township's existing development rules with new provisions to manage the rural countryside within sight of the road.

• Enact a "special village" zoning provision to prevent any large-scale industrial development that would be "totally out of character" with the township's plan to rejuvenate Williamsburg as a traditional village center.

Mr. Anderson said Mr. Russell's recommendations are under consideration by township leaders, and new zoning amendments are likely to be proposed early in 1998.

CONTACTS: Joe Anderson, 9606 Elk Lake Road, Williamsburg, MI 49690. Tel. 616-264-8695; Joel Russell, 28 Ward Avenue, Northampton, MA 01060. Tel. 413-584-7228, fax 413-584-7182.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org