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Acting As a Region to Tame Sprawl

Grand Rapids Leads the Way in Michigan

May 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

"Blueprint"Sets a Path for Reform
At the core of what sets Grand Rapids apart from every other region in Michigan is a progressive planning document completed in 1994 the "Metropolitan Blueprint." It has been approved by all 29 member governments of the Metro Council as a guide for development in the region over the next 20 years.

The Blueprint calls for battling "formless, concrete communities with little individual identity" by:

  • Preserving an extensive network of open lands and natural areas.
  • Establishing compact business centers served by mass transit.
  • Encouraging compact neighborhoods and communities close to the business centers that also would be served by mass transit.
  • Using boundaries on extending water and sewer systems to limit sprawl.

In addition to the urban service boundary, the region has the following projects relating to open space preservation:

  • In 1995 Alpine and 11 other townships joined with the Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University and the Metro Council to form the North Kent Townships Association. The goals are to work cooperatively, advocate for new state and local policies to protect farmland and preserve open space, and draft new measures to prevent sprawl.
  • In 1996 Cannon Township established a watershed protection program for Bear Creek that directed homes and businesses to be built at least 100 feet from the banks, and required developers to preserve a 25-foot buffer of trees and vegetation in their natural state.
  • In 1998 Kent County agreed to a $6.5 million plan to preserve open spaces by buying hundreds of acres of land for public parks.

Transportation a Weak Link
In the midst of so much progress, there are some predominant challenges. The City of Wyoming, a founding member of the Metro Council, withdrew in 1992 after concluding that the cooperative approach would deny their residents the opportunity to vote on issues. Residents of Cascade Township, one of the region's wealthiest, have twice voted down proposals to join Metro Council because they saw no need for another layer of government.

Others worry that Metro Council is not strong enough in responding to growth as new construction occurs farther from the city center, outpacing improvement in urban neighborhoods. "So far, it's like we're taking baby steps," said Paul Haan, director of the Creston Neighborhood Association. "I'm eager to break into a full tilt run."

But the biggest weakness by far, say supporters and critics, lies in the region's road-dominated transportation plan and the unwillingness to adequately support public transit. The Blueprint's top priorities call for developing compact business centers and neighborhoods served by transit. Aside from modestly promoting bus service and conducting some preliminary location studies, little has been done to achieve these goals.


Leadership Counts
Farmer, Organizer Makes the Connections

An apple grower with a knack for grassroots organizing, Sharon Steffens helped set up picket lines in 1972 and 1974 at several west Michigan apple processors to raise the prices paid to growers. She’s adopted a similarly fearless approach since 1994 as Supervisor of Alpine Township and as a champion of policies to manage growth and encourage regional government cooperation.

Under her guidance, Alpine strengthened its program to protect farmland, launched the region’s first project to restore a trout stream damaged by sprawl, and helped organize an alliance of 12 townships to advocate in the state Legislature for better farmland protection and growth management policies. Mrs. Steffens also is a force within the Grand Valley Metro Council, and one of its primary local boosters.

Although Alpine has a population of more than 12,000, most residents live in the township’s suburbanized southeast corner. Eighty percent of the land is owned or managed by 147 farm families. Many of them have grown apples and cherries on the famed west Michigan fruit ridge for more than a century. Alpine Township protects the agricultural economy with a zoning ordinance that prohibits cutting most farmland into parcels smaller than 20 acres.

The measure, which Mrs. Steffens has worked hard to support and enforce, protects the bulk of Alpine’s land for future generations to farm. “That’s high ground, just the kind of land developers would love to build subdivisions on for people trying to leave the city,” she said.

She also knows that zoning alone is not the answer, saying of her work with the Metro Council, “It became pretty clear to me that if we were going to maintain our agricultural lands here, then we had to do something to help improve people’s lives in the city. There’s a direct connection between what happens there and what happens here.” ~K.S.

CONTACT: Sharon Steffens, Alpine Township, 616-784-1262, ext. 101.

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