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Growth Boundaries for Petoskey?

Study’s author says more bike paths, buses, and roads only a partial solution

September 10, 2007 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  After his engineering firm studied Petoskey’s traffic problems, Joseph Corradino urged residents and officials there to use growth boundaries to tightly control where new development occurs.

PETOSKEY—If Petoskey really wants to solve its traffic woes, the community needs to use growth boundaries to sharply limit where it allows development, and demonstrate a willingness to say "no" to developers.

At least that is what consultant Joseph Corradino told officials and residents of this attractive, northern Michigan port town, tourist destination, and development hotspot last week, when he unveiled his firm’s recommendations for cutting traffic congestion at three well-attended public meetings held here and in adjacent Bear Creek Township. Members of a special citizen task force will now present the recommendations to their respective local governments, which will meet in November to formally consider them.

The study, which took slightly more than a year and was careful to include traffic-management suggestions from local citizens who attended public forums, was highly anticipated and attracted dozens of people to each meeting. Known as the Petoskey Area-Wide Transportation Study, it is the result of a long fight between local residents and the Michigan Department of Transportation. That fight ended five years ago, when citizen groups and local government officials not only forced the department to cancel plans for an expressway bypass around Petoskey, but also received a promise of state financing that was eventually used to hire The Corradino Group.

Given that so many local residents and officials opposed the bypass because they feared it would facilitate more sprawling development, it is not surprising that the report eschews big, new roads in favor of modest, targeted improvements. The report recommends a number of road widenings, new traffic signals and intersection rotaries, and more controlled access to busy thoroughfares, as well as more sidewalks and bike paths and a modest public transportation system.

But Mr. Corradino, whose traffic and environmental engineering firm has offices in five states, warned that such modest steps to reroute and better control traffic would not solve the real problem Petoskey and adjacent Resort and Bear Creek Townships face. He said that, given the entire region’s galloping development, more-aggressive measures are needed.

"You could experience an explosion of growth," Mr. Corradino warned the leaders and residents who attended the report’s unveiling. "If you don’t put your foot down, it’s going to happen."

That is why Mr. Corradino suggested that the community consider growth limits, more stringent zoning, and fees for developers that cover the cost of the new roads and sewers their projects require. He predicted that developers would initially fight these ideas, pointed out that other communities have successfully implemented them, and insisted that Petoskey could, too, if it didn’t back down in the fight against poorly planned development.

"You control growth, you get a fight," Mr. Corradino acknowledged. "You may have to have, three, four or five fights. But eventually, the word gets out…and it can be done. It has been done in other places."

Contemplating the ‘Impossible’
Some local officials quickly discounted such suggestions as farfetched, but the suggestions seemed to resonate with many Emmet County residents during last week’s town hall presentations. Many at the meetings said that they are tired of the gridlocked traffic that so marks their summer months here, and worry about Emmet County growth projections, which predict that if Petoskey doesn’t address traffic congestion soon, the region’s quality of life will suffer.

Some at the meetings also said they are tired of their area’s constant growth, particularly developments like a recently built Wal-Mart big-box store in Bear Creek Township, just minutes’ away from historic areas such as the Petoskey waterfront and the picturesque Village of Bay View.

Emmet County resident Don Henige, during a public meeting in Bear Creek Township last week, openly challenged the area’s government leaders to send a message to developers that they cannot do business in the region unless it is on Emmet County’s terms.

"Everyone who walks in here with a big name and a big purse gets an okay," Mr. Henige said. "Tell them to get the hell out of here!"

Mr. Henige said he would support local government if legal battles unfold over restricting growth.

"Hell, attorneys have to eat, " he said, adding, "They (developers) say they are going to sue? So what?"

But Emmet County Planning Director Brentt Michalik warned that using growth boundaries to restrict residential development would be "nearly impossible," and that there are other good ways to manage growth and protect the county’s quality of life. Bear Creek Township Supervisor Dennis Keiser agreed, and noted that telling someone they can’t build on their land could trigger a new fight, this time with property rights advocates.

Some planning experts say that, because Emmet County is updating its comprehensive plan, the county could work with townships to implement a "transfer of development rights" (TDR) program. Such programs pay landowners for their development rights but not their property, and then transfer the rights to areas that local governments have targeted for development. TDR, which is only recently legal in Michigan, is gaining popularity because developers, not taxpayers, would have to fund it. But, so far, no local government in Michigan has used the law.

Mr. Corradino also suggested that Petoskey and its surrounding townships "band together" to change Michigan law regarding assessment fees for developers. Currently, state law makes no provisions for charging developers the cost of roads, sewers, and other infrastructure that their projects necessitate—a practice that is common in some other states.

Quick Fixes
In the short term, however, Mr. Corradino suggested a multi-pronged strategy to address traffic congestion, including roadway improvements, more non-motorized pathways, and a public transit system.

The road improvements include adding roundabouts at two busy intersections—Intertown Road at U.S. 131 and Lears Road at U.S. 131—and traffic signal at U.S. 31 and Division Road and, along with wider lands, at Pickerel Lake Road and U.S. 31.

"These need to be near-term improvements, not over the next 20 years," he said. "They have to happen in five to 10 years."

Mr. Corradino also suggested controlling the number of driveways allowed along the community’s main thoroughfares, U.S. 31 and U.S. 131. He said local governments could work with local businesses to obtain easements to limit access points, each of which slows traffic and makes driving more hazardous.

"This type of friction here can be controlled," he said.

The most ambitious recommendation for roadway improvements includes establishing a four-lane connector route that would channel traffic between U.S. 31 and U.S. 131 around Petoskey’s most built-up area. But instead of building an expressway, the connector would expand several existing roads. One route would widen Manvel, Atkins, McDougal and Intertown Roads; another would add lanes to Division Street and Atkins, McDougal, Lears, and Howard Roads.

Mr. Corradino said such a connector road could provide some relief to traffic on U.S. 31 and U.S. 131. But, he cautioned, "It’s not going to solve your problems."

He predicted that the connector would cost $15 to $24 million, depending on the route, and that the figure did not include the cost of purchasing property along the route.

Feet, Bikes, and Buses
The Corradino report also reflected the community’s support for making life easier—and safer—for bicyclists and pedestrians. The report recommends building a path along Cemetery Road, for $780,200; a path through the city, for $804,640; and improvements to the Little Traverse Wheelway, for $1.3 million.Community surveys, which found strong opposition to building more roads, but growing interest in pedestrian and bike paths, also revealed that support for public transit is growing. The study recommends a basic bus system that could carry up to 122,880 passengers annually. Depending on the type of system, Mr. Corradino said, the cost to local municipalities would be about $500,000 annually, with the rest of the funding coming from state and federal grants. Petoskey and other communities that wanted the system would have to approve, by referendum, additional tax dollars for such a project. Petoskey officials have already broached the idea of installing a downtown trolley as part of a plan to reduce downtown congestion.

Mr. Corradino pointed out that one alternative to his recommendations could be to do nothing. And, he warned, even if all of the recommended road improvements occur, they will only reduce, not eliminate, traffic congestion. They are not, he stressed, "a panacea." Stronger measures, including growth boundaries or limits, would have a much greater effect over the long run, he said.

Doug Porter, president of the Growth Management Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., said such growth limits—he prefers the term "growth management"—have worked in several communities in the Western United States.But, Mr. Porter added, adequately managing growth also requires cooperation and leadership among local leaders, as well as detailed consideration of how growth boundaries would affect property values and economic development.

"The whole idea of growth management grows out of the idea of comprehensive planning and reasonable zoning," he said. "If you have a planning process in place and you are taking planning seriously, thinking about what happens in the next 20 years. That is the starting point.

"Then there are a whole bunch of specialized techniques you can use, and this includes impact fees and growth boundaries," Mr. Porter said. "You impose order on the process instead of letting developers make all the choices."

Glenn Puitt is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Emmet County policy specialist. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org

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