Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / In Lansing, A Legislative Breakthrough

In Lansing, A Legislative Breakthrough

17 bill signings reflect growing Smart Growth momentum

January 8, 2004 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Brighton Republican state Representative Chris Ward, seen here with Governor Jennifer Granholm, said his successful legislation would preserve open space and facilitate affordable housing projects.

Though ferocious political partisanship characterizes much of their work on almost every economic and social issue, Republican lawmakers and Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm are nevertheless forging a remarkable bipartisan consensus around an untested economic development strategy based on curbing sprawl and revitalizing Michigan cities.

The rare partnership between senior state leaders was initially constructed early in 2003 when Ms. Granholm joined with Republican leaders of the state House and Senate in naming a bipartisan panel to recommend steps to change sprawling patterns of development and make Michigan more economically competitive.

The relationship strengthened during the spring and summer as the 26-member Michigan Land Use Leadership Council debated how to change patterns of development in ways that serve cities and suburbs, better retain the state’s best and brightest workers, protect farmland and the environment, and improve the state’s economy.

And since last August, when the council published 160 recommendations for state action, both the governor and Republican leaders have confounded their critics and supporters. Instead of letting the recommendations get dusty, as reports by blue ribbon panels usually do, Ms. Granholm and the Republican-led Legislature have used them as a guidebook for political cooperation that is producing reforms in policy and law that will actually make a difference in how Michigan looks and feels in coming decades.

Over the last four months, the governor has signed two executive orders and 17 bills passed by the Legislature that, among other things, empower municipalities to get tough on owners of blighted property, help expedite redevelopment of abandoned brownfield sites, and raise the cap on bond money available for such projects. Other measures signed by the governor encourage regional planning and permit townships to include open space in their mixed-use zoning laws.

Not since Maryland passed land use policy reforms in 1997, has a state taken such extraordinary political steps to begin to reduce the harmful consequences of how it grows.

A String of Successes
“Together these new laws will help local planning officials to look at an entire area or region when developing land use plans,” Gov. Granholm said in a statement released by her office after she signed the bills on December 18. “Looking only to city limits and township boundary lines will not allow us to solve the challenges we all face. To make headway against urban sprawl, we must think regionally and use new tools.”
Political observers say that this breakthrough, and the other bill signings that quickly followed it, are a credit to both parties and come after of years of work in Michigan to study the consequences of sprawl, organize at the grassroots, educate the public, and build the political will to respond. Michigan Environmental Council President Lana Pollack, who as a member of the land use council initially told her colleagues that she could only give it a “50-50” chance of success, agreed that the flurry of legislative activity has encouraged her, albeit with some reservations.

“It’s still too early to say we have changed the face of Michigan,” Ms. Pollack said, “but we do seem to have momentum. I am very encouraged that land use reform has so many friends in the Legislature. We know where the governor is on these kinds of issues; the question is where is the Legislature? But it was a great start at the end of the year.”

Taken together, the actions by the governor and the Legislature mark the most serious state-level attempts since the 1970s to boost Michigan's prosperity by reigning in sprawl, revitalizing cities, enhancing agriculture, and protecting natural resources. They also mark Michigan as one of the few states where strong cooperation between Republicans and Democrats is driving successful land use reform.

Five days after signing the regional planning and open spaces legislation, the governor signed a bill increasing brownfield redevelopment funding, on December 23rd, and then, on December 29th, a six-bill package that expedites private redevelopment projects on abandoned land.

Ms. Granholm is also using her executive powers to facilitate Smart Growth policies. In October she established the Department of Labor and Economic Development to help streamline and harmonize the state’s many different, ongoing economic expansion projects. In mid-December she officially directed the Michigan Department of Transportation to begin using a technique known as “context sensitive design,” which protects communities from unwise development by mandating strong citizen participation in designing and building local roads. She signed the executive order when a bill that would make such a change permanent stalled in the Legislature after road builders lobbied against it vigorously.

Budding Bipartisanship
Significantly, the first two Smart Growth initiatives passed by the state Legislature and signed by the governor were authored, respectively, by a House Democrat and a House Republican: Chris Kolb of Ann Arbor and Chris Ward of Brighton.

Representative Kolb’s legislation enables local communities to unite their development plans with those that lie across jurisdictional boundaries. This move to encourage cooperation instead of competition among townships and municipalities for new development attracted 32 co-sponsors — including 12 Republicans. Ninety-seven of the state House’s 110 members voted for the two-bill package; the state Senate approved it unanimously.

Rep. Ward’s three-bill package attracted similarly strong support. His bills promote mixed-use development within counties, townships, cities, and villages by allowing green space and other open land designations within areas slated for commercial or residential development. This gives Michigan communities the ability to identify and preserve open spaces while still benefiting from much-needed investment dollars. The opportunity to simultaneously ensure both investment dollars and open space preservation drew nearly unanimous support in both state chambers. The representative, who chairs the Local Government and Urban Policy committee, added that the bill has some other, additional benefits.

“Enhancing clustering abilities will assist developers with providing affordable housing,” Rep. Ward said.

Republican state Senator Patricia Birkholz of Saugatuck, who was also a member of the land use reform council, found strong bipartisan support for her bill that quadruples the cap on brownfield redevelopment bond funding to $80 million.

Similarly, the six bills that better expedite private redevelopment of abandoned properties, known as the Land Bank Fast Track package, also enjoyed wide, bipartisan support and rapid movement through the Legislature. The coalition of representatives that supported these measures crossed both party and geographical lines. It included Republicans David Robertson of Grand Blanc, Gene DeRossett of Manchester, and Ed Gaffney of Grosse Pointe Farms, as well as Democrats Alma Stallworth of Detroit, Ruth Ann Jamnik of Ypsilanti, and Mr. Kolb.

Their package enables communities to create intergovernmental authorities among counties, township, and municipalities for limited bonding powers that can expedite title foreclosures and aid developers in conveying, demolishing or rehabilitating property — traditionally very stubborn obstacles to the private redevelopment of abandoned land.

Two Republican House members — Jim Howell of St. Charles and Ed Gaffney of Grosse Pointe Farms, joined Detroit Democrats Steve Tobocman, Bill McConico, Ken Daniels, and Morris Hood as sponsors of an anti-blight package, known as Quality of Life Zoning. The six bills (a seventh is still awaiting passage) enable communities with at least 7,500 residents to create a hearing process to address blight problems such as property maintenance, illegal dumping, and abandoned vehicles more swiftly and firmly.

In the Pipeline
When the Legislature resumes its work next week, at least 48 additional land use reform bills will be before a variety of state Senate and House committees. While they cover a wide range of issues, from agricultural land ownership to transportation facilities and billboard signage, the largest number offer remedies for Michigan's many troubled urban areas. 

One significant reform that has yet to become a formal legislative proposal is "commerce center" designations — a method for accelerating development in town centers. According to Michigan Municipal League Legislative Associate Kelly Dunn, her organization is working with the governor’s office and legislators to draft commerce center legislation that will affect all cities and villages throughout Michigan.

Political observers predict that, with commerce centers and other pro-Smart Growth legislation to come, lawmakers will attack the huge problem of sprawl with bills that take small, incremental steps that solve specific, well-documented problems. They suggest this is why the governor has avoided sweeping or grand gestures on the subject and instead seems to be concentrating on making steady, if somewhat quiet progress.

“It is my hope that the Legislature will continue to deliver on the recommendations made by the Land Use Leadership Council,” Gov. Granholm said, “because the people of Michigan clearly have said they want to preserve a certain quality of life in this state.”

Charlene Crowell is the Institute’s policy specialist in Lansing. You can reach her at Charlene@mlui.org.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org