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Emmet Begins Close Look at Future Plans

Officials dismiss controversy over first appointments

April 5, 2006 | By Rob Wooley
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


A new subcommittee appointed by Emmet County officials will consider ways to preserve the region’s many beautiful locales, including Crooked Lake.

PETOSKEY—The appointment by Emmet County officials of the first of six panels that will help review and update the county’s land use plans is raising eyebrows at the very beginning of the citizen-based process.

The announcement of the members of the Agriculture, Natural and Cultural Resources Plan Element Subcommittee, made by Emmet’s Comprehensive Planning Action Committee (CPAC), caught some of those attending the county’s first public meeting on the subject by surprise. They criticized the size of the subcommittee, which holds its first public meeting on April 25. They also wondered why the county would appoint someone to it who, they say, opposes some of the land preservation programs the subcommittee will consider.

According to county staff, Emmet’s CPAC, which is leading the review process, received an overwhelming response to its call for citizen volunteers to serve on the agriculture and resources subcommittee, a key group, given the county’s extensive rural areas. However, in a decision that county officials readily defend, CPAC picked just three citizens for that subcommittee at its March 15 meeting at the Emmet County Building: Becky Goodman, downtown director for the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce; Dr. Grenetta Thomassey, a policy specialist with the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council; and John Thorp, a local real estate agent.

The appointment of Mr. Thorp, who some claim has an extreme property rights agenda, puzzled many audience members. The realtor has criticized programs that are most commonly used to curb sprawl and help farmers stay on their land. So his presence on the subcommittee drew a strong reaction from members of the Citizens for Open Space, a group that wants the county to protect Emmet's farmland and undeveloped rural land.

“To have a committee of three, with one person who has an interest in seeing farmland and open space be developed and disappear, raises the potential need for broader representation on these subcommittees,” said Harry Colestock, who recently moved to the county from the Detroit area with his wife, Marilyn. Both are active with Citizens for Open Space.

“This is scary,” added Alyce Conrad, a longtime resident who is also a COS member. “It makes me very uncomfortable to think that three people will be making major decisions about our county’s comprehensive plan. It needs to be a broader group.”

County Stands by Appointments
County officials, however, insist that fears about both Mr. Thorp and the size of the subcommittee — and the five other panels that CPAC will soon appoint — are unfounded. County Planner Brentt Michalek said that Mr. Thorp wants to learn more about how farmers might benefit from land conservation techniques, particularly purchase of development rights and transfer of development rights programs, two approaches that the Citizens for Open Space strongly endorse.

Mr. Michalek confirmed that all six so-called “plan element” subcommittees — the other five will consider land use and housing, utilities and community facilities, intergovernmental cooperation, transportation, and economic development — would each contain just three members, largely due to county budget constraints. He assured those at the meeting that a system of checks and balances will prevent the process from getting out of hand.

“The public will be invited to attend each of these plan element subcommittee meetings,” Mr. Michalek said. “Groups will have an opportunity to participate, and their voices will be heard.”

The county planning commissioner on CPAC, Kelly Alexander, said that the subcommittees’ three-person makeup will be fair because the review is designed to prevent any one person from bogging it down. 

“People need to realize that these subcommittee meetings will be open to the public, and county planning staff will also be there to help direct and guide input,” said Commissioner Alexander. “All of that input will then filter down to us and we’ll in return pass it along to the planning commissioners, and then ultimately the county board of commissioners.”

Andrea Brown, executive director of theMichigan Association of Planning, told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that there is nothing in state law that dictates how a local government must organize its public input process. MAP strongly encourages local governments to provide ample opportunities for public comment, which members of the Emmet County Planning Department said is exactly what CPAC is doing.

According to Mr. Michalek, the county is going above and beyond what is already required by law.

“We could have just asked the planning commission to work on and complete the plan, doing little more than the minimum requirement of the law,” he said.  “But instead, the county felt it was important to incorporate a series of committees into the process and allow for community involvement groups as a way to increase public input.”

A Recipe for Citizen Action
Just as in every other county along Lake Michigan's northern coast, Emmet's swift population growth and single family home construction has stirred a bee hive of citizen activism around the uses of land. The county now counts more than 33,000 residents, over 8,000 more than in 1990. From 2000 to 2004, Emmet added 1,840 people, a 5.85 percent increase, and 1,582 homes, a 8.3 percent jump, according to the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. The rate of loss of farmland and open space, according to the most recent Agriculture Department Census, is among the highest of any county in northern Michigan.

Citizens have been invited by county officials to be intimately involved in updating Emmet's program for overseeing development. Residents will review policy documents, particularly the zoning ordinances and master plans that guide where homes and offices and stores will be built in Emmet and where they will not. Emmet County administers most of the zoning within its borders, unlike the state’s more urbanized counties. County staff expects the process to take about a year.

In the end, county commissioners will approve a comprehensive plan that should be based largely on the findings of the six three-member subcommittees. But before the commissioners see the findings, the subcommittees will first pass them along to CPAC. CPAC will consolidate the six reports into a document that it will present to the entire county planning commission. The planners will use the consolidated reports to author a new comprehensive plan, which they will then pass along for final approval, modification, or rejection by the Emmet County Board of Commissioners.

The county is urging citizens who do not get picked for a CPAC subcommittee to get involved with Community Involvement Groups —self-selected groups of citizens interested in sharing their opinions and ideas during the process.

According to the county Web site, such groups can be made up of two or more citizens from the townships, cities, and villages within the county. They can also be members of an already created group or organization. These informal groups can discuss the issues, concerns, goals, and objectives of the master plan at the local level. Recommendations and issues from these groups will be sent to the plan element subcommittees through the county planning staff for further review.

Citizens for Open Space is among the first such groups to step forward, and it made its presence known at the meeting. COS said it will push for farmland preservation via conservation tools such as Purchase of Development Rights programs and better zoning.

Strong Opinions about a ‘Precious Place’
Mr. Thorp, who will bring the views of a real estate agent to the table and plans to stand up for large land owners who want to develop their property, may find this point of view challenged by his fellow subcommittee members. One, Dr. Thomassey, works with an influential northern Michigan environmental group that is chiefly concerned with protecting the county’s streams, wetlands, and other open water — often among sprawl’s first victims.

The other subcommittee member, Ms. Goodman, has already publicly said she wants to see the county’s sprawling development patterns brought to a screeching halt.

“I always saw the preciousness of this place and how important it is to the entire state of Michigan,” said Ms. Goodman in an interview. “Being from downstate, I have seen way too much of what can happen when development is not planned and when it is allowed to sprawl unchecked.”

Ms. Goodman added that her interest and background in downtowns demonstrate her belief that the best economic development tools are preservation and developing a sense of place.

The Colestocks told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that their experience in suburban Detroit convinced them to get involved in the CPAC process.

“The main reason we moved up here was because we didn’t like the traffic jams down state,” Mr. Colestock said. “But if the only option for farmers is to develop their property into sprawl malls and subdivisions, it won’t be long until we become another Traverse City. We’re already seeing it on US 131.”

The next CPAC meeting, which takes place at the Emmet County Building, is scheduled for April 20 at 3:00pm. The first Agriculture, Natural and Cultural Resources Plan Element Subcommittee meeting will also take place there, on April 25, at 5:00pm. Both meetings are open to the public.

Mr. Michalek told Harbor Lights, Harbor Springs’ newspaper, that he hopes many people will participate as the planning process continues.

“Now is the time for community involvement groups and individuals who have specific interests in this topic to come forward,” he told the paper. “Those who know of specific areas they want protected, or who have ideas on how to protect such areas, we need that information at this point.”

Rob Wooley is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Emmet County policy specialist. Reach him at rob@mlui.org.

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