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It Ain’t Even Close

Statewide hearings reveal overwhelming support for curing sprawl

May 11, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Pat Owen/MLUI

Governor Jennifer Granholm issued a remarkably clear-sighted executive order in February that charged her Michigan Land Use Leadership Council to make recommendations to, among other things, “promote urban revitalization and reinvestment.” She also wants to foster “cool, hip cities” in Michigan, like Ann Arbor where street life thrives.

LANSING – Reflecting a powerful civic consensus for state action on sprawl, hundreds of citizens from across Michigan attended a series of public hearings late last month and in overwhelming numbers urged the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council to take bold steps to rebuild cities, coax governments to work together, and enact new policies to rein in runaway development.

More than 1,000 citizens attended the council’s 12 public hearings, held in six cities over two days in late April. Collectively, their comments formed a challenge to the cautious tone the council has so far displayed in its own public deliberations. The comments also revealed how isolated sprawl’s proponents — mostly home builders and other business interests who capitalize on the inefficiencies of poor land use planning — have become.

As the council prepares to convene here tomorrow for its third working session to recommend ways to curb Michigan’s sprawl, council members who attended the hearings said they were galvanized by what citizens said.

“Although many of us deal with land use issues every day in our work, there was a freshness from hearing about it from folks who are out there,” said Colin Hubbell, an urban developer from Detroit and a member of the council. He attended hearings in Pontiac on April 21, and Detroit on April 28. “From farmers to developers to environmentalists to builders to local government officials, there was a human element brought to the issue.

“The issue of sprawl, the issue of uncontrolled, uncoordinated land use is on people’s minds,” Mr. Hubbell added. “That was validating to hear. We are representing issues and policy that affect the quality of people’s lives. The public hearing process gave people the opportunity to convey their concerns. It provides ammunition as we attempt to address or propose policies that will give us more coordination that will check uncontrolled growth. It furthers our charge. We’re hearing it from folks. This is not our own personal agendas.”

Sprawl Loses by a Landslide
In Marquette, citizens by a 10-to-1 margin expressed concerns about how fast the region was developing, and called on council members to help encourage growth in the Upper Peninsula that enhanced rather than diminished the region’s forests, natural resources, and small-town quality of life. Two homebuilders and one realtor were the only people who said the state should do nothing to intervene in land use planning.

In Detroit, the testimony was even more lopsided. Citizens urging support for new state and local policy to improve patterns of development outnumbered opponents of any action by a margin of at least 15 to one. There were also strikingly high margins of citizen support for sprawl-fighting measures at all of the other hearings: Gaylord, Grand Rapids, Pontiac, and Lansing.

Wendy Barrett, an environmental engineer who testified at the hearing in Detroit, told the council that in the 1990s southeast Michigan built 54 percent more homes than there were new households. “So this is a shell game,” she said. “We are just creating new holes as people move into other, new places. This is eroding the tax bases in all of our inner suburbs. We are beginning to see this even in such places as Troy. Right now if it’s a good social measure, the Detroit area is in the bottom 10; if it’s a bad social measure, we’re in the top 10.”

Fay Hanson Smith, a resident of White Lake Township who testified at the Pontiac hearing, said she supported strong measures to curb sprawl and help local governments contend with aggressive developers. “Every landowner in a community has property rights,” said Ms. Smith. “And with those rights come responsibilities.”

Scattered Pockets of Resistance
“There’s public support for action. No question,” said Gilbert M. White, president-elect of the Michigan Association of Realtors and a council member who attended hearings in Pontiac and Lansing. “In terms of how the state intervenes, there is no clear public consensus. I don’t think the public favors a centralized state agency or a heavy-handed top down approach. I heard people say they were pretty comfortable that whatever we recommend, the delivery vehicle has to be at the home rule level — the township, city, village.”

A scattering of homebuilders at each of the public hearings adamantly opposed any state action on sprawl. Their opposition focused on perceived threats to property rights and a risk that any state guidance on land use decisions would hinder builders’ access to open land.

“Sprawl is just Americans choosing where they live,” said Boyd Cannon, a builder from Livingston County who testified in Lansing.

W. Jack Hurula, Secretary-Treasurer of Jayda Construction in Jackson County, testified in Lansing that “urban sprawl is government misinformation.”

Officials, Experts See a Major Problem
One surprise that emerged at all the hearings was the strong support from local government officials for state assistance in grappling with sprawl. Tony Kulick, director of planning and community development in Mount Pleasant, told council members in Lansing that, “Smart Growth requires smart planning. We have over 1,000 units of local government. The time is now for Michigan to move from the bottom of the pile.”

Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, Republican House Speaker Rick Johnson, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema appointed the bipartisan, 26-member Michigan Land Use Leadership Council in February. It is the most substantive, state-sanctioned effort since the 1970s to grapple with Michigan’s sprawling patterns of development, which are among the most environmentally, socially, and economically damaging in the nation.

According to a long list of government, university, and think tank studies Michigan is the most racially and economically segregated state in America. It is losing farmland faster than almost any other state. Sprawl is producing Third World water pollution problems caused by flooding sewage systems which each year dump tens of millions of gallons of untreated filth into the state’s streams, rivers, and lakes.

The Detroit region has some of the worst traffic congestion and highest rates of pedestrian injuries and fatalities in the country. Rapid disinvestment and social decentralization is occurring in almost all of Michigan’s cities; the phenomenon is now threatening the well being of many suburbs as well. Michigan also has a higher rate of out-migration of its 25-to-34-year-old workers than all but three other states.

In 2002, Gov. Granholm campaigned and won in part on promises to govern in an inclusive style and to begin taking sure steps to cure sprawl. On February 27, 2003, she issued a remarkably clear-sighted executive order that charged her Michigan Land Use Leadership Council to make recommendations to her and the Legislature “to minimize the negative economic, environmental, and social impacts of current land use trends; promote urban revitalization and reinvestment; foster intergovernmental and public-private land use partnerships; identify new growth and development opportunities; and protect Michigan’s natural resources, including farmland and open space, and better manage the cost of public investments in infrastructure to support growth.”

Challenging Council’s Cautious Tone
The governor set an August 15 deadline for the council to complete its mission. The panel’s first two sessions, in March and April, divided time between presentations from land use experts from Michigan and several more states, and cautious discussion among panelists about the council’s guiding principles and direction.

The meetings were distinguished by an apparent desire by most council members, expressed warily in almost every instance, to find common ground on deeply divisive issues — property rights, government oversight of land use, local control, environmental protection, urban investment. But the guarded discussions bled away the proceedings’ sense of urgency — urgency caused not only by the magnitude of the problems, but also by the August deadline for producing recommendations.

The powerful message for action expressed by citizens at all the public hearings, say council members interviewed for this article, could well be the catalyst for the council in its third working session tomorrow to more directly confront its gubernatorial charge.

“Diverse interests must find common ground,” said Nancy Hawley, a Jackson County farmer who testified in Lansing.

“I was really glad to go to the Marquette hearing,” said Helen Taylor, executive director of the Michigan Nature Conservancy, and a council member. “People expressed heartfelt feelings about the Upper Peninsula and what it means to live there. They want it to grow and retain its character. That reinforced what we are doing on the council and its importance. Even constituencies you might not expect were saying there was a need for action.”

Keith Schneider is a journalist, columnist, editor, and deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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