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Acting As a Region to Tame Sprawl

Grand Rapids leads the way in Michigan

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

The overall track record so far, however, is still impressive. Metro Council has promoted a level of public interest within and beyond local government that matches the seriousness of the choices the region faces. Grand Rapids is breaking ground for a new way to curb sprawl through regional cooperation, and has become a surprise leader in the state and national "Smart Growth" movement.

"It's more than talk here," said Eric R. DeLong, a Grand Rapids assistant city manager." We've accomplished some things that could not be done without the suburbs working with the city and with each other."

An "Urban Service Boundary," First in the Midwest
Water and sewer contracts generally are about as interesting as watching mushrooms grow in a cave. Not to Mr. DeLong. He helps oversee Grand Rapids' $60 million-a-year system, which provides drinking water and treats waste under contract to five cities and nine townships representing roughly half the region's homes and businesses.

When the city's contract with Grand Rapids Township expired in 1997, Mr. DeLong and his colleagues began thinking hard about how to use the vast network of pipes to rein in sprawl.

Intensive development — business parks, malls, large subdivisions — can only be built where water and sewer lines are available. Traditionally Grand Rapids, like most other providers, would automatically extend lines to customers to encourage new development.

What happens, though, if a city decides to limit where public utilities go? Infrastructure then can serve as a built-in regional regulator.

That is precisely what Grand Rapids and its customers are doing. City officials worked closely for two years with colleagues from Ada and Gaines townships, and from East Grand Rapids and the North Kent Sewer Authority, to draw an urban service boundary, an actual line on a map that determines how far water and sewer lines will extend into the countryside over the next generation. It is the first of its kind in the Midwest.

In January, three townships (Cascade, Grand Rapids, Talmadge) and two cities (Kentwood, Walker ) signed a unique agreement to set the growth boundary in place. The nine other cities and townships are expected to approve the agreement as their old contracts expire.

How strong is the boundary? Mr. DeLong explains that it is flexible at the start, but will become more rigid.

"This is what it takes to get people comfortable with the idea that we want to grow, but in a way that in 30 or 40 years our land and natural resources are still around and we are still recognizable as Grand Rapids," said Mr. DeLong. "It takes encouraging denser development than we've had here in the last couple of years."

Michigan Has Suffered
In theory, the idea of "regionalism" has been around for decades. Metropolitan areas are a collection of cities and townships that share borders, civic institutions, transportation, and resources. Social scientists have long encouraged local governments to coordinate on how they make decisions on big picture issues like managing development, maintaining transportation systems, investing taxpayer dollars, and protecting the environment.

In practice, however, regionalism is a feared concept, especially in Michigan. The state's 83 counties and 1,800 local governments generally guard their power and are suspicious of neighbors who compete for tax revenue.

Michigan has suffered enormously from this fragmented governing approach. The hollowing out of Detroit, Lansing, and Flint, among other cities, was accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s by suburban boosters beckoning to families and industries.

Now the trend is becoming magnified as people leave the congested and high-cost suburbs, only to crowd into once-rural a reas. Studies by the Legislature, a task force appointed by the Governor, and the Michigan Society of Planning Officials show the state is losing 100,000 acres of farmland each year, and urbanizing the countryside at a rate up to five to seven times faster than population growth.

Regional cooperation to rejuvenate the city center and manage growth is "more than talk here," says
Assistant City Manager Eric DeLong.

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