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Up North, Rising Costs Threaten ‘The Good Life’

This fall, citizens can design a money-saving plan

August 31, 2007 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Jason Tucker/MLUI
  Bonnie Szydlowski says that she and her husband spend about $320 a month on gas to commute to their jobs.

KINGSLEY—With a two-story home, two healthy children, an inviting small town to call home, and jobs as a legal assistant and auto parts manufacturer, Bonnie and Jim Szydlowski have settled into the family-centered life of promise and permanence that has long attracted people to northwest Lower Michigan.

But like their neighbors in this town of 1,500, and people in dozens of other communities in the five counties around Grand Traverse Bay, the Szydlowskis also are contending with a new set of growth-related economic trends that are making life more difficult: Transportation costs are soaring, and sprawling development patterns could soon begin to push up property taxes.

The trend is now interfering with the familiar temptations of life in the country—reasonable land costs, ample space, and scenic beauty—that between 1990 and 2006 helped boost the five-county population by about one-third, to 166,509 people. With gasoline prices in the region now higher than in almost any other place in the nation, the Szydlowskis spend about $320 a month driving to their jobs in Traverse City and Cadillac.

"It seems that every time they raise the price of gas it goes up a quarter," said Mrs. Szydlowski. "Pretty soon we’re a dollar above where we were. And then they start to drop it down, but it never goes back down to what it was. How stupid do they think the American consumer is? We’re spending about a tenth of our take-home pay just on gas to get to work."

Help could be on the way for the Szydlowkis and other northern Michigan residents, however. This fall, Grand Vision, the long-anticipated regional land use and transportation study, will invite residents in the five counties surrounding Grand Traverse Bay to collaborate with nationally renowned community design experts on a new vision for that area’s future, and then make sure local governments act on it. Leading the project is Fregonese Associates, a firm admired by many professional planners and by citizens in regions where the company has already worked its computer graphics-powered, consensus-building magic.

The unusually broad group of Traverse-area government, business, and community leaders who pushed for Grand Visions for two years say that the residents that get involved could produce recommendations that simultaneously boost the region’s year-round economy; lower family transportation, housing, and tax costs; and protect the area’s natural beauty, air, and water quality.

For example, according to many people who observed Fregonese working in other parts of the country, study participants might push for new ways to design rural growth that would make public transit more efficient and effective—reducing traffic congestion and the harm it does to the air, personal time, and gas budget.

Participants could also help the growing number of people who want to live closer to their jobs but who can’t afford the region’s high in-town housing prices—which have largely held steady even as rural home and land prices have fallen sharply in the face of the state’s continuing economic slide—by pushing new zoning and other policies that encourage affordable homes closer to schools, jobs, shopping, and recreation.

The upcoming public visioning sessions, which stem from the decision three years ago to kill a proposed $55 million highway and bridge through the Boardman River valley and look for better ways to handle soaring traffic congestion, could also save taxpayer dollars by stepping up downtown development and slowing down suburban sprawl: The more spread out a community, the more it costs for police protection, garbage collection, road construction and repair, emergency services, and public school transportation.

Big Jump in Costs
The Szydlowskis are hardly alone in their concern over gas prices. Given the long distances so many northern Michigan workers must drive to reach their jobs, each jump in gas prices strongly affects lots of people. Alison Morley, for example, manages Talbot’s clothing store in downtown Traverse City; even though she commutes 25 miles to work from Northport in her fairly efficient Toyota RAV 4, it costs her $200 a month in gasoline.

Ms. Morley said the distance was largely decided for her by the region’s economy, which is so heavily influenced by Traverse City. "It’s harder to find a nice paying job in Northport," she said. "There’s much more opportunity in Traverse City to make a nice living."

Not long ago, such long commutes mostly cost personal time. Low gasoline prices and the lower prices on rural homes convinced workers to trade that time for smaller mortgages. During recent months, though, that tradeoff has become something of a bad deal.

Gas prices in northwest Lower Michigan climbed from $2.33 a gallon in January to as high as $3.65 a gallon in early June—a 60 percent increase in six months. Today, many northwest Michigan families’ top expense is transportation, and the old "drive until you qualify" strategy for finding an affordable home out in the countryside no longer works.

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, similar trends have affected housing costs, too. According to Census estimate, between 1990 and 2005—before Michigan’s recession became truly severe—the median price of a home in Grand Traverse County jumped from $66,700 to $177,800—a 167 percent increase. But, in roughly the same time period—from 1989 to 2004—the median household income there rose just 57 percent, from $29,034 to $45,542 annually.

The figures for Leelanau County are just as daunting. From1990 to 2005, the Census estimated, the median house value more than tripled—from $73,100 to $223,882. Yet, again in the roughly similar period—1989 to 2004—the median household income in Leelanau County increased from $28,589 to $52,141, or 82 percent.

Land prices are rising, too—making it necessary to drive even further to qualify. Between 1998 and 2006 the average cost per acre of land for development purposes more than tripled, from $1,168 to $3,590, according to a Michigan State University study.

And, as more development comes to the region’s rural areas, it pushes up property tax rates as well, for the simple reason that it costs municipalities more to maintain all sorts of services—from roads to water to schools—over such spread-out distances. For example, residents of sprawling Garfield Township, which surrounds Traverse City on three sides, has seen its property tax rate rise 2.7 times more quickly than Traverse City’s between 1980 and 2006. Traverse City’s property tax rate is still higher, but some tax experts say that the difference between the two are bound to continue to shrink.

Low Income Workers Hit Hardest
The cost squeeze is especially intense for low-income workers. Cecil McNally, the executive director of Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan, sees first-hand how the problem affects his non-profit organization’s employees. And he has statistics to back up his personal observations.

"Our average wage is about 20 percent lower than the state’s," said Mr. McNally, who also serves on the Traverse City Planning Commission. "But our average rents are about 26 percent higher than what the state’s is."

That mismatch is worsening, he said. For the entire five-county region, which includes Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Antrim, and Kalkaska Counties, the median housing value climbed 182 percent between 1990 and 2005. But median household incomes during the same period increased just 75 percent.

"People tend to drive until they can either afford to rent or afford to buy," said Mr. McNally. "So you get people in or near poverty living further and further out from where services are and from where buses are. Then, when you have issues like gas prices spiking, it’s a real crisis."

The solution is often easier to prescribe than to actually execute. Lisa Parks, a certified credit counselor with GreenPath, Inc. in Traverse City, said she often advises her clients to "move closer to work and eliminate that commute."

But, given the high home prices typical of the places where the good jobs are, many people will remain unable to follow such advice—until, Grand Vision’s advocates say, the region finds a new way to design its communities.

Leah Burcat, a student at Haverford College, reported and wrote for the Michigan Land Use Institute’s news desk this summer. Reach her at leah@mlui.org.

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