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Lansing Takes Hands-Off Approach

Engler backs away from issue he discovered

August 1, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In 1992 a blue-ribbon panel chosen by the Engler Administration found that the deteriorating rural and urban landscape was one of the most pressing environmental issues facing the state. The panel's report, Michigan's Environment and Relative Risk, sparked a well-organized and thoughtful response throughout the state to address the problem.

And yet, in a forceful demonstration of the power that monied special interests wield in Lansing, the reform bills themselves became the vehicles that actually made the state's land use laws even worse than before.

The report:
Identified a need for a sound and workable planning process that considers the effect of haphazard development on the environment.

Provided a solid factual base for the growing neighborhood movement to halt sprawl in Michigan.

Caused Michigan's environmental groups to place stopping sprawl at the top of their priority lists.

Spurred a citizens movement, which is especially active in the Grand Traverse region and in Washtenaw County, to seek changes in the patterns of development.

Prompted follow-up studies by the Legislature, the Department of Agriculture, the Michigan Society of Planning Officials, the Natural Resources Commission, and the Americana Foundation.

"Perhaps no other state has studied its land use patterns, and their social, economic and environmental consequences, so extensively as Michigan," said a 1997 report by the Michigan Environmental Council.

All of the follow-up studies reached similar conclusions:
Michigan is losing nearly 100,000 acres of farmland annually, or more than 11 acres each hour.

Cities and towns are spreading out at a rate up to eight times faster than the growth in population.

Three of the state's top industries -- agriculture, timber production, and tourism -- are threatened by degraded natural resources and fragmentation of wild and recreational land.

Urban sprawl is costly; requiring new roads, sewers, emergency services, and schools, and growing expense to maintain existing roads and public infrastructure.

Sprawl also has turned Michigan's metropolitan areas into "the most [racially] segregated places in America," concluded David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., in a national demographic analysis reported in the Lansing-based Planning & Zoning News.

The Administration's Response
The land use reform issue transcends party lines. For example, both Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, have made halting sprawl the central platform of their administrations.

Even so, despite the forceful conclusions of the Relative Risk report and the consistent findings of the follow-up studies, the Engler Administration did not respond with the leadership other governors have shown to rein in suburban sprawl and preserve farmland.

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