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Crunch Time in Acme

Monday court decision looms as new millage program, trustees try to slow sprawl

February 25, 2005 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


A court decides Monday whether citizens can sue to stop a mega-mall planned for Acme Township.

ACME TOWNSHIP — In the November election, during tight economic times, residents in this Republican stronghold near Traverse City voted to raise their own property taxes for the next 10 years. Yes, these conservatives actually embraced the “t-word” — taxes — and chose to invest public funds in a farm prosperity program for their township.

Many of them also are willing to go to court over land use decisions here, too. A circuit court will rule this Monday on whether a local citizens group can sue to stop developers from building a very large shopping center on a site that the township designated several years ago as the place for a new town center.

So, it is time to ask: Why are these residents both voting and litigating in ways that defy their political stereotype?

The answer is simple, really. They are trying to sustain a key local industry, protect scenic views, maintain wildlife habitat, enhance their quality of life, and preserve their community’s character and property values. The property tax increase, for example, passed by a solid margin, 56 - 44 percent, because old timers and newcomers alike believe it is in their long term social and financial interest to make a public commitment to protecting Acme’s farmland and countryside.

Beyond Partisanship
This was no fluke. In communities across Michigan and America last fall, voters transcended political labels and, often by landslide margins, passed new taxes to fund land protection, bus and train systems, and other programs that manage growth and enhance economic competitiveness. It’s a broad movement to ease traffic congestion, revitalize cities and towns, protect forests and farms, and generally keep a lid on sprawl and the taxes it gobbles up. Smart Growth, as it’s known, is gaining ground across Michigan and throughout the nation.

Small town Acme is one place leading the way. Besides approving the new property tax, voters last fall also elected an entirely new township board, a move widely viewed as a de facto referendum on a controversial shopping center the old board had approved in the face of stiff public opposition. Residents in the late 1990s helped the township plan for an entirely new downtown with shops, neighborhoods, parks, and public buildings. But then developers proposed a “lifestyle” shopping mall and a 200,000-square foot Meijer Supercenter for the site.

A Battle on Many Fronts
That’s why the Concerned Citizens of Acme Township last October filed a lawsuit against Acme to stop that development, dubbed the Village at Grand Traverse; a Grand Traverse County Circuit Court judge is expected to rule Monday on whether CCAT has legal standing to sue. Meanwhile, the new board and area residents are busy implementing the farm protection program, which will raise $255,000 in its first year, and planning to put tight limits on future big-box developments and the costly traffic mess they can bring.

The proposed “Village,” for instance, would double today’s already heavy traffic along M-72, the main connector between I-75 and Grand Traverse Bay, where Acme is located. The development would draw 34,000 visitors a day to a community of only 4,300 people. And, astoundingly, it would meet the projected demand for commercial growth in all of Grand Traverse County for the next 20 years, according to the developers’ market study, even though two-thirds of area residents live on the other side of the county.

Most people here reject the prospect of subsidizing the 2.4-million-square foot shopping center by paying taxes to widen local roads and state highways. They think there’s a better way to grow. And they point to several, bustling small downtowns in northwest Michigan as a model for their aspirations.

Tough Work for a Proud Legacy
Traverse City native and former Michigan Governor William G. Milliken, a Republican, counts himself among the vocal critics of the proposed mall, and not just because he spent his childhood summers in Acme. He also views Acme from the perspective he gained as co-chair in 2003 of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council.

The bipartisan, state-appointed council, struck by the widespread outcry against poor land use planning it heard at public listening sessions, issued some 150 recommendations for curbing haphazard growth. The public-private council’s clarion call: Strengthen communities at their core, provide an array of housing and transportation choices, and preserve open lands and fresh water.

That’s what Acme Township is trying to do. Gaining residents fast and developing land even faster, Acme — and other places like it — must succeed in their planning and land use goals if Michigan is to find a way out of the high-tax, low-quality sprawl cycle. It will be difficult, but who ever said that leaving a proud legacy would be easy?

Kelly Thayer is a journalist and organizer at the Michigan Land Use Institute working to make Michigan a model of Smart Growth.

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