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Land War's Hard Lines Spark Recall Vote

Supporters of low-density development want Elmwood Township trustees out

February 8, 2004 | By Johanna Miller
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gail Dennis
  Cedar Creek Commons, located in northwest Michigan’s Elmwood Township, uses a land planning technique known as “clustering” to help preserve open space. But some citizens argue the township misuses the technique to boost housing density beyond acceptable levels.

ELMWOOD TWP. — On Tuesday many residents of this rural, rapidly developing corner of northwestern Michigan will vote in an intensely controversial recall election that was triggered by a long, bitter dispute over development and open space preservation. The vote decides the fate of six of the seven members of Elmwood Township’s Board of Trustees, but also begs a larger question: How can the township modify its zoning ordinance and master plan to better protect the area’s rural character while accommodating skyrocketing growth?

Elmwood is hardly alone in facing that question; it is being asked with increasing urgency in townships across the state. Although recently enacted state legislation takes some initial steps to allow Michigan townships, counties, and other local jurisdictions to coordinate land use decisions, those laws offer no way to resolve disputes such as the one raging here in Leelanau County. The Elmwood battle has catapulted the township to the forefront of an increasingly energized statewide discussion on how to curb sprawl and promote Smart Growth. But it has done so by pitting neighbor against neighbor, as well as a local citizen group against the township trustees in circuit court.

A Long Battle Finally Peaks
The current recall campaign began last August after the group, Elmwood Citizens for Sensible Growth, successfully took the trustees to court three times, won a July 2003 referendum that strongly repudiated two of the board’s land use policies, and then saw the board again refuse to change those policies. Many ECSG members responded by mobilizing a new organization — Save Open Space Elmwood (SOS) — that forced Tuesday’s recall vote.

SOS members say the recall is necessary because the board repeatedly failed to uphold the law, follow the master plan, or consider the public’s interest when making land use decisions. Township trustees reply that the recall is unjustified because they have paid careful attention to citizens’ interests and have not committed criminal acts. The trustees maintain, as do their supporters, that they followed the law when they attempted to change the zoning ordinance that is at the center of the heated controversy. 

If the battle, which began three and a half years ago over the density of a proposed housing development, results in a successful recall it will reinforce a growing resolve at the county’s grassroots to respond to the region’s rapid development with strong land use laws. A failed recall would reaffirm what some observers say is the traditional approach not only of the Elmwood trustees but also of some other township boards in Michigan — overriding public sentiment and master plans that preserve open space in favor of aggressive development.

Both sides of this debate do agree on one thing: Because it is the population center of one of the fastest growing counties in Michigan (Leelanau County grew by 27 percent between 1990 and 2000), Elmwood Township must break through the paralysis over land use decisions and make some crucial, lasting decisions soon.

But Steve Van Zoeren, cofounder of ECSG, says that before anything like that can happen the current board should be recalled due to what he called its consistently egregious behavior.

“Over the past two or three years the board has violated the norms of good government in our township’s politics, and so it’s appropriate that they are recalled,” he said. “We can’t afford to wait until the general election. With every passing moment the township is looking for new ways to establish precedents which will commit the township to an unsustainable course of development on our agricultural lands.”

Elmwood board members expressed rancor about the recall, and confidence they will prevail. "Anybody has the right to recall, but it's sad when they use lies, misleading and deceitful information to accomplish their goals," Terry Lautner, a board member, told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. "The board has always taken the best interests of the whole community to heart and that's their objective, to represent the whole community of Elmwood."

"Let the people speak and the right thing will be done," added John Stanek, another member of the board facing recall.

Different Interpretations Spark Court Battle
At its core, the dispute is centered on two starkly different interpretations of the same zoning ordinance. The debate began in earnest in June 2000 when the township trustees approved a permit to build Lincoln Meadows — 78 homes on 138 acres of land in a district zoned agricultural/open space. Then and now, ECSG asserted that the Elmwood ordinance allows only one home per 10 acres in its agricultural district. But township trustees maintained that another part of the ordinance permits the use of what’s called “clustering” — grouping homes closer together to preserve more wide-open green space — to raise density levels to one home per one acre in the agricultural/open space district. ECSG also supports clustering, but says the township is attempting to misuse that tool to reach the higher, one-unit-per-acre density that most citizens oppose and the ordinance actually forbids. 

This sharp difference in interpretation led ECSG to take the township to circuit court three times. Each time Leelanau County Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers ruled against the township. He ordered the township board to remedy what he determined was an inconsistency in the disputed ordinance and then review the Lincoln Meadows project in light of those changes. His last ruling on the matter, issued September 19, 2002, ordered Elmwood Township to pay ECSG’s legal costs and admonished the board for failing to properly amend the ordinance.

The judge wrote that his patience was “sorely tried” by the township and that the “problem between Elmwood Township and its citizens stems from the township conducting business in disregard of the rights of its citizens. Like it or not, the township board must work with and for all township citizens.”

Birth of a Recall Campaign
The township responded to the judge’s ruling by drafting a new zoning ordinance and amending its old one. But ECSG said those revisions were unsatisfactory because they still allowed the higher, one-house-per-acre density. The group then successfully petitioned for the July 2003 referendum, which would strike down the higher-density ordinance. The referendum passed in a three-to-one landslide, but the township responded by asking the judge for yet another interpretation of the ordinance even as it proceeded to approve the long-contested, high-density, clustered development plan for Lincoln Meadows. The SOS group emerged, announced that this board action was the final straw, and launched the recall campaign.

“The township simply will not take no for an answer,” said Chris Bzdok, attorney for ECSG. “Their attempts to re-write the rules have been rejected by the voters and by the courts over and over. Yet they have not changed their behavior.”
Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s recall election, the community has many deep wounds to nurse. Meanwhile, any solution that could truly protect farmland while effectively managing growth is lost in a political sandstorm.

No Real Solution In Sight
Even if the recall succeeds, supporters of Smart Growth planning principles say the township’s problems with development are far from over because its zoning ordinance and master plan, no matter who interprets them, do not adequately address the problems the township will face as its rapid growth continues. They add that the only hope is that after the election citizens on both sides of the recall issue work together to fix Elmwood Township’s master plan and zoning ordinance in ways that promote more compact, more centrally located development and avoid the slow, death-by-a-thousand-cuts process that turns Michigan’s farmland into sprawling suburban development.

“It’s going to be many years to recover from this, regardless of what happens,” Elmwood Township Planner Bill Swanson said of the recall. “In other communities who have had recalls, it intensifies the animosity. But we’ve got to move forward. We’ve got to conduct business.”



ELMWOOD TWP, Feb. 11, 2004  In a surprisingly heavy turnout, voters here decided not to recall supervisor Noel Flohe, clerk Connie Preston, and trustees John Gallagher, Terry Lautner, James O'Rourke, and John Stanek from the township board. Just over 1,400 of the township's 3,500 registered voters cast ballots. Although individual vote tallies varied, the recall was defeated by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. 

Johanna Miller is a project organizer for the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Leelanau Smart Growth Coalition. You can reach her at joey@mlui.org. For more information on the coalition, go to www.mlui.org/leelanau.

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