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As Sprawl Looms, Wary Townships Try Joint Planning

Some fear losing local control, others say it’s their best defense

September 24, 2007 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Stephanie Rudolph/MLUI
  Local businesses make Manchester’s downtown tick, and officials hope they can use joint planning to defend them against the wave of chain stores and other sprawl headed their way.

MANCHESTER—There are no Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts in this small village in southwestern Washtenaw County. Instead, caffeine and pastry-craving residents look to The Coffee Mill and The Manchester Bakery for their morning fixes. The two-block strip also includes a local pharmacy, barbershop, bars and restaurants, and antique shops.

The surrounding townships are a page out of history, too, full of natural beauty, open fields, historic barns, operating farms, and remnants of factories first established here, about 60 miles west of Detroit, by Henry Ford in the 1930s.

So it is hard to tell that, less than 20 miles back east, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti’s sprawling suburbs may be headed this way, complete with multilane thoroughfares and big-box stores. The population here has grown 68 percent since 1960; by 2030, it will likely grow by another 70 percent.

Local officials see the wave approaching, however, and they are not sitting back to let it gobble up their way of life. Instead, they are among the first in Michigan to take advantage of new state legislation that allows them to collaborate on a regional master plan. They hope it will provide their communities with stronger legal and financial resources to help them control and direct growth.

The innovative law, the 2003 Joint Municipal Planning Act (JMPA), reflects the recommendations of Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, the bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel that she appointed in 2003 to find ways the state could slow sprawl and increase prosperity. JMPA won legislative and gubernatorial support despite the fact that anything smacking of reducing local control among the more than 2,000 units of local government, which breaks government in Michigan down to unusually small parts, invites stiff resistance.

That is because JMPA allows, rather than forces, local governments to collaborate. That same tension—between forcing and allowing increased collaboration—has stalled many other MLULC recommendations in the state Legislature since their release, four years ago. And it also holds back at least one Manchester-area township, whose officials remain wary of claims that surrendering some of their local authority would gain them more legal clout and horsepower.

Fences and Neighbors
Although the Village of Manchester and neighboring Manchester, Bridgewater, Sharon, and Freedom Townships originally intended to form the Manchester Area Joint Planning Commission, Sharon Township bowed out. According to Gary Blades, that township’s supervisor, his board of trustees never even voted on the measure.

"The direction [the vote] would have gone is very obvious," Mr. Blades said. "Rather than have them vote ‘no,’ I chose not to take a vote."

Mr. Blades said that Sharon officials are wary of relinquishing control and see little benefit to joint planning: "I have no desire to plan the Village of Manchester or the other townships—none at all. [But] I know there are some people there who have the desire to plan our township."

Mr. Blade’s comments reflect just part of the concern that some townships officials express about changes that affects their local power.They argue that they have their finger on the pulse of their citizens and can address their needs far more effectively than, say, a county-level official. Ron Mann, Manchester Township’s supervisor, for example, lists his home phone number on his township’s Web site and said he responds to residents’ calls at all hours.

But, while Mr. Mann sees his close link to residents as crucial, he also sees room for township collaboration. And, although the new collaborative effort was not financially motivated, officials in the four local governments that support the joint commission said they’re willing to sacrifice some authority, hoping that collaboration will free up more badly needed resources

"I think there can be some cost savings or a big increase in services provided for the same cost," Mr. Mann said. "Yes, good fences make good neighbors, but sometimes we have to take down some of those fences so we can do the things that are best for all of us."

Big Steps, Big Fears
Even though a number of Manchester-area townships already share fire protection, recycling, and other services in different ways with each other,joint planning was a big step to the municipalities that took it. The long negotiations often centered on how much control the townships were willing to give up. Freedom Township, the last to join, wavered for several months. In the end, the village and townships agreed to plan together but retain their own zoning power, even though, explained Mark Roby, principal planner for Washtenaw County, "a zoning board or planning commission which had zoning power would really be the teeth, frankly."

But that did not sway the townships, which, according to their current agreement, will retain significant power because they can still decide whether or not to enact the zoning ordinances their master plan will call for.

Robert Little, Supervisor of Freedom Township, likes joint planning but is wary of joint zoning.

"Let’s get the master plan first and take it a step at time," he said, adding that he likes the fact that, after the master plan is created, he can take the decisions back to his zoning board for a final determination. He said that Freedom may "possibly conform to the new master plan. But not totally."

Mr. Little also claimed that his township has done a wonderful job of thwarting growth on its own and does not want a regional decision to interfere: "I don’t want to push for something that could be detrimental to my township down the line."

Meanwhile Mr. Roby, the county planner, estimated that it will be another year before the village and three townships formally vote on what many of them, at least so far, say they oppose—establishing a common zoning ordinance and administration.But he is optimistic that a successful joint planning commission will ultimately lead to a common zoning board.

"It was too scary to do the whole thing right now," Mr. Roby said.

He also noted that, even though the governments say they will not adopt a common zoning ordinance, they will still need to communicate extensively about establishing common legal language as each develops its own zoning system based on a shared master plan.

Strength in Unity
Meanwhile, some zoning experts say that joint commissions have some clear advantages over the "every township for itself" approach that typifies local government in Michigan.

One big advantage, they say, is that communities can thwart lawsuits charging them with "exclusionary zoning"—zoning that does not allow what a developer claims is "needed development" in an area. By planning and zoning for a much larger region, joint commissions give local governments more running room. In other words, it allows them to point a certain land use—usually some disruptive development targeted for a plainly inappropriate area—to the area in the entire multiple jurisdiction where it is most appropriate.

But there are other reasons why many officials here support a joint commission, including their belief that working together could make it easier for them to steer developers in the direction that the community wants.

"Developers have much better bank roll than local townships," said Manchester Township’s Mr. Mann, who also serves as Vice-Chair of Southwest Washtenaw Council of Governments (SWWCOG), a public agency that supplies a number of services to local governments and played a key role in persuading the local townships to consider joint planning. "But there is strength in numbers. If they can do their developing some place where it’s easy for them, I think they will go there rather than take us on."

For example, the Village of Manchester is in the center of the region and has residential, commercial, and industrial districts, while Freedom Township is zoned 99 percent "residential agricultural." Both jurisdictions would like to keep it that way, and a joint master plan will help them do that.

"Any industry or big housing, we want to see it in towards Manchester, where they have the infrastructure to handle it," said Mr. Little, Freedom’s supervisor.

Proponents of joint planning and zoning also argue that it’s the natural thing to do. Because wildlife, vegetation, and open space transcend township borders, they said, a regional plan allows communities to define "natural corridors," link those corridors together, and plan and more easily connect trails, bike lanes, and other scenic routes.

Mr. Roby said joint planning offers other, intangible benefits. For example, collaboration would allow local governments to access a larger pool of intellectual resources when making planning decisions that require a great deal of specialized knowledge.

"I think collaboration between the planning consultants, the county planning department, and the local leadership will provide some very robust intellectual resources," he said.

Ahead of the Curve
Meanwhile, as state lawmakers consider other legislation to encourage or require local governments to share resources, Sharon, Bridgewater, Freedom, and Manchester Townships, the Village of Manchester, and the Manchester Area School District are ahead of them: The six jurisdictions began coordinating in 1993 as members of SWWCOG.

SWWCOG even created a joint master plan in 2003 but, lacking legal standing, it fell by the wayside. So, with the assistance of a "Partnership for Change" grant from the Land Information Access Association (LIAA), a non-profit based in Traverse City that supports community collaborations, SWWCOG worked to form the Manchester-area joint planning commission.

Instance of such collaboration are few and far between in Michigan, but the Manchester area is not the only community to form a joint planning commission under JMPA. LIAA has provided similar "Partnership for Change" grants to the Bear Lake, Eaton Rapids, and Mayville communities for joint planning. In Benzie County, near Traverse City, Inland and Homestead Townships recently broke away from the county’s planning and zoning services and are now drafting a joint master plan.

Other models of collaboration are also developing, ranging from extensive sharing of fire services to projects that preserve open space and create connected trail systems.

Stephanie Rudolph worked as a Michigan Land Use Institute fellow this summer, and reported on steps Michigan governments are and are not taking to confront the state’s severe economic and fiscal crisis. Her series continues next week; reach her at stephanie@mlui.org

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