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‘Picture This,’ Petoskey Planners Suggest

Worried about sprawl, town considers new "form-based" development rules

April 22, 2006 | By Rob Wooley
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

City of Petoskey

Development pressures have Petoskey’s planners considering a new "form-based" zoning code that would encourage ‘walkable’ designs rather than more sprawl.

PETOSKEY—Just outside Petoskey's city hall is the Bear River, an annual destination for spawning steelhead trout. On this crisp April morning a sole angler is playing a steelhead, using his rod to carefully steer the fish out toward mid-river and away from submerged branches. In just a few minutes, he whips it up into his net.

“This part of the river is a great place for steelhead,” said a smiling Mark Greene, holding up his still-feisty catch.

Mr. Greene, who lives here, is one of many anglers who make an annual spring pilgrimage to this spot, well known for spawning steelhead, salmon, and rainbow trout. And with spring arriving, downtown’s sidewalks and parks are coming alive with a mix of residents and tourists — a clear sign that the vibrant, thriving town is still a good place to live, work, and play.

But while anglers and shoppers enjoy the town’s unique outdoor-yet-urban experiences, planners inside city hall are struggling to find ways to preserve the rustic, village-like character that is now facing off with modern growth pressures. The planners say that the current, antiquated zoning laws guiding Petoskey’s growth make their task more difficult: Like most zoning in the United States, this city’s guidelines, adopted in 1974, bow to automobiles, not pedestrians.

Thirty-two years ago that was not a problem: This port town on upper Lake Michigan was not growing very quickly. But now Petoskey is seeing its share of strip malls and other auto-dependent developments — thanks to rules that not only encourage such projects, but also make downtown development very difficult.

Petoskey officials hope to change that. Starting in June, they will use public meetings to show residents "form-based coding,"  a different way to regulate land use. The master plan review process, as it is called, could yield new zoning ordinances that focus far more on how buildings look and fit into their surroundings, and far less on what goes on inside of them.

While the approach has some critics, it is nevertheless spreading rapidly around the country. All sorts of towns, from left leaning Petaluma, Calif., to conservative Grand Rapids, Mich., are embracing the regulatory approach that Smart Growth experts assert is the best way to accommodate growth. Used correctly, they say, form-based coding delivers what many local residents say they want—development that looks nice, feels comfortable, fits into the community, and preserves Petoskey’s friendliness to pedestrians.

The Right Answer?
When Amy Tweeten arrived here last year to take a new job in the city’s planning department, the dust was just beginning to settle from a contentious, communitywide battle over a proposed $50 million development. The big project would overlook Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay and combine retail, residential, hotel, conference, and parking facilities. Now known as Petoskey Pointe, it is the sort of “mixed use” development that Smart Growth and New Urbanist advocates say can protect the town from sprawl.

But residents who opposed the project forced the city to hold a referendum on it. Voters backed the new project by 1,144 to 934, but the long, contentious process took its toll. Only now, more than three years after Petoskey Pointe was first proposed, are crews finally getting ready to clear the city block where it will stand.

Ms. Tweeten sees a lesson in the long struggle.

“For the city to prosper it’s got to grow, and if we don’t want to grow outward, we’ve got to redevelop, and sometimes that means going up,” she said, referring to the five-story height of the new project, which drew lots of fire from opponents. “But we’ve got to make it so that redevelopment can happen. There’s nothing worse for a developer that has to spend three years going through the process. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Although some form-based coding opponents claim that the method is too intrusive and violates property rights, proponents of the coding, also known as Smart Codes, argue that the rules provide more flexibility and are, therefore, less intrusive. The codes mostly regulate what a building looks like, how large it is, and how it fits into its surroundings. Landowner can build single-family homes, apartments, offices, or retail space based on market demand, rather than on zoning that separates those different kinds of building uses into disparate areas, forcing people to always use their cars.

Emily Meyerson, Petoskey’s planning commissioner, hopes her town gives the new approach a try.

“I believe it could be a good fit for the city,” Ms. Meyerson said. “In Petoskey, be it a new home, an industrial site, or a new commercial building, the form, the size, bulk, and look of a structure  and how it fits into the neighborhood appears to be what concerns people.  If that is the case, form-based codes might be the right answer.”

Less Hassle Means High Popularity
One of the country’s most respected and well known residential and commercial planning and design firms, Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company, invented form-based codes. They are gaining national reputation for helping to slow sprawl by nurturing diverse, compact, and walkable community centers. The fact that so many different kinds of communities are adopting them underscores their broad, apolitical appeal.

“I can’t tell if a form-based code is a radical, green, left-wing document or a developer-friendly, market based, right-wing one,” a Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reporter wrote in April 2003.

Formed-based codes look more like coloring books and less like statutes. They consolidate information, avoid jargon and legalistic language, and instead use pictures to describe how a downtown or neighborhood should look — a much more accessible format. Advocates say that the codes can dramatically speed project approvals: Instead of inspiring jam-packed, contentious town hall hearings, the process becomes largely administrative.

“This reduces time, expense and uncertainty for the developer,” said form-based code expert Paul Crawford at a recent Smart Growth conference in Denver. “But it also reduces processing and hearing costs for the city involved, which can free up staff time for more proactive planning.”

Given how the codes can make life easier for developers, they enjoy strong support from groups like the National Association of Realtors and the American Planning Association. But others, outside of professional planning circles, are also noticing. Last fall, for example, Washington Post columnist Neal Peirce challenged communities everywhere to consider the new technique.

“Form-based codes suggest a promising new approach — upfront citizen consultation, less regulation, quicker approvals, flexible building forms, and a way to revive old roadways and develop the new worker housing that's desperately needed in many communities,” wrote Mr. Peirce. “We've long needed a better formula. Maybe this is it.”

Time to Learn
Essential to making that formula stick, proponents say, is doing a good job on the first step, public involvement.

“In order to develop a feasible plan,” Mr. Crawford explained, “input from the community should be gathered early in the process through a public visioning and charrette process.”

Those buzz words are familiar to some area residents. Since 2000, dozens of visioning sessions have taken place here, involving tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of citizen volunteers. From the Petoskey Area Open Space Task Force  to Emmet 20/20, residents have repeatedly voiced their rising concern about growth, development, and sprawl. But so far, many observers say, nothing has really changed.

“A lot of money and time was spent on the Emmet 20/20 process,” said Carlin Smith, executive director of the Petoskey Area Chamber of Commerce. “And the process was good. It involved countless focus groups, plus a large-scale strategic planning session, with an expert facilitator. I know the Emmet 20/20 effort spanned beyond land use issues, but land use was a big part of what they did. Their work should not be ignored.”

The revised master plan, BluePrint Petoskey: Building a Community Plan, will include ideas from past efforts. But this time, participants also will be thinking about what kinds of designs they want to see.

“It’s getting people to think visually about the community,” said Ms. Tweeten. “Do you like the look and architecture of our historic neighborhoods? If so, understand that our current zoning ordinance doesn’t allow us to do that anymore. So, what do we have to do to allow that again?”

With the planning process set to begin in less than two months, Ms. Tweeten and her city hall colleagues say that they still need to learn all they can before making any final decisions.  

“Form based codes are new and everyone — commissioners, council, staff, and the public — need to learn more about them to see if they will work for Petoskey,” said Meyerson.

Early indications are that form-based coding could find a home in Petoskey, if for no other reason than many officials, developers, and citizens are tired of having to battle over each zoning variance request that comes to the city council.

“We need a code that’s prescriptive instead of ‘you can’t do this, or you can’t do that’,” said Ms. Tweeten, who is planning to attend a training seminar on the codes. “At some point you don’t want to micromanage it too much, but you do want to set the parameters. I think developers want to know exactly what they can do.”

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

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