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Council Hones Michigan Smart Growth Program

Four months of debate yields reasoned plan

July 9, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Keith Schneider
  Late during a day of line-by-line review, David Hollister, the director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth (seated), meets with aides to consider the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council’s preliminary recommendations to solve sprawl across the state.

LANSING -- After four months of debate, and bolstered by overwhelming public support for its work, Governor Jennifer Granholm’s sprawl-fighting task force agreed on Monday to the broad outlines of a program to encourage economic growth, rebuild cities, protect property rights, and curb Michigan’s wasteful patterns of development.

Given the wide range of interests represented, the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council’s preliminary report, due to the Legislature next month, offers a surprisingly unified vision of how the state can foster Smart Growth. It documents the consequences of sprawl in Michigan, and suggests more than 100 specific steps that state and local governments should take to slow and eventually reverse the state’s damaging “build anything, anywhere” development trends, which are among the nation’s worst.

Those steps range from the easily recognizable — improving the state’s inventory of natural features that need protection — to trend-setting. Many of the recommendations encourage the state to direct its own investments to local governments in ways that encourage them to work together, a novel move to encourage what the panel called “multi-jurisdictional” cooperation in zoning and other planning decisions.

“It’s coming together,” said Dan Gilmartin, a council member and deputy executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, in an interview. “But we still have a lot of work to make the individual recommendations fit into the broader view of land use for the state.” 

Attitude Adjustment
In essence the council urges the Legislature to embrace a new attitude about development and provide local governments new tools and authority to be much better stewards of Michigan’s cities, suburbs, and countryside. The payoff: Cleaner, greener, more economically competitive communities that are also friendlier, wealthier, and culturally richer.

“We’re positioned to make good recommendations, including steps for farmland preservation,” added Wayne Wood, a council member and president of the Michigan Farm Bureau.

The Michigan Land Use Leadership Council consists of business and civic leaders appointed in February by the Democratic governor and the Republican leaders of the state House and state Senate. Six members of Ms. Granholm’s cabinet also participate but do not vote. The panel is co-chaired by former Republican Governor William Milliken and former Democratic Attorney General Frank Kelley.

Gov. Granholm charged the council with making Legislative recommendations that “minimize the negative economic, environmental, and social impacts of current land use trends” and “identify new growth and development opportunities” that revitalize cities, protect farmland and open space, and reduce government costs.

The council has met monthly since March and held public hearings across the state in April. Throughout the proceedings council members and citizens have focused on changes that state and local governments should make to influence market decisions about what to build and where to build it, as well as individual decisions about where to live and work.

A Consensus on Sprawl’s Consequences
In the often tense discussions that have unfolded among council members, and in public testimony, it became clear that Michigan leaders and citizens now understand one of the central facts about sprawl: This uniquely American, highly land-consumptive pattern of development is almost entirely a result of government spending practices and policies that influence personal choices and business investments.

The council’s preliminary report reflects that understanding. It states that the billions of dollars Michigan’s many governmental units have spent over the years for highways, sewers, schools, economic development grants, subsidies, tax breaks, and other taxpayer-supported programs played a huge role in producing the state’s spread out, drive-thru communities. It carefully explains why these fiscal policies — which encouraged the building of virtually anything, anywhere — proved so damaging over the past 50 years. And it confirms the long-term value of making more careful decisions about where and how new projects are built.

“The council is close to speaking with one voice on most of these critical issues,” said Colin Hubbell, a council member and founding partner of the Hubbell Group, a Detroit development company. “The report takes into account the balance between the bold steps that are needed to solve the problem on the one hand and political palatability in the Legislature on the other. We’re thinking bold enough. I’m satisfied we’re doing that.”

Helping Cities, Suburbs, and Farms
The panel, for instance, calls for a series of new investment strategies in local planning, transportation, land preservation, and downtown development that, if approved, could rein in another generation of spread-out development. Essentially, the council has designed a new state policy of “porous containment,” in which cities, suburban downtowns, and small towns are encouraged, through new planning tools and careful targeting of investments, to receive the majority of new construction.

Specifically, the council recommends the state make cities more attractive to businesses and residents, particularly whites that have fled them for the suburbs, by making larger investments in public transit, good schools, technical assistance, housing, and parks in urban areas.

But the council also recommends the state strengthen suburbs by helping local governments build livelier downtowns, new housing that people of all ages and classes can afford, and by making it easier to get around, especially without a private vehicle.

And the council urges the Legislature to protect Michigan’s countryside by establishing aggressive programs to preserve farmland and zoning laws and incentives that encourage new construction within, rather than outside of, small towns.

The council also urges the state to refrain from investing in new highways and other infrastructure that spread housing, jobs, and retail development in ways that damage natural areas.

The preliminary report does not suggest prohibitions on new construction. Rather, it says that a careful blend of new planning and zoning rules, and public investment for infrastructure, jobs, and land preservation will encourage local and state governments to work together to encourage new development in the most appropriate areas, particularly in cities and suburban downtowns.

Evolution, Not Revolution
In short, the council recommends that Michigan abandon its conventional approach to development and urges the Legislature to solve the problem that inspired Gov. Granholm and Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema to appoint the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. That problem, as the governor herself stated when she opened the council’s proceedings last March, is that Michigan is “gobbling up land at a rate that our population won’t support, the land base won’t maintain, and that we can no longer tolerate.”

The council’s recommendations also reflect the overwhelming sentiment expressed by more than 1,000 citizens who spoke at statewide public hearings in April and by another 1,600 residents who sent their comments to the group in writing: Sprawl must be curbed. Such strongly stated positions from both an appointed body and so many citizens clearly challenge the Democratic governor and the Republican-led Legislature to quell the increasingly fierce rivalry that has erupted between them and instead collaborate on legislation that is crucial to Michigan’s future.

The preliminary recommendations are evolutionary, not revolutionary, according to several observers. Council members said in interviews that if the Legislature embraces the ideas the report advances, local governments will have more resources and opportunity to work with each other and the state to design communities in the 21st century that are attractive, convenient, healthy, and safe.

The Michigan Land Use Leadership Council’s next meetings are on August 3 and August 4 in Lansing. Panel members said they expect to reach final agreement on the report, which will then be sent to the Legislature in time to meet the August 15 deadline set by Gov. Granholm.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and columnist, is the deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah. He can be reached at keith@mlui.org.

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