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Grand Vision: Grow Towns, not Subdivisions

Draft reflects wide preference for walkable towns, nearby work, open spaces

February 19, 2009 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The Grand Vision
  The Grand Vision team released its first draft of a 50-year plan that’s based on the comments of thousands of northwest Michigan residents.
TRAVERSE CITY—The team leading this region’s unprecedented, citizen-based Grand Vision land use and transportation study has unveiled its first draft of a six-county, 50-year growth plan for the area.

The so-called Draft Final Vision, which is based on the preferences and comments of nearly 15,000 area residents, embodies a new approach to development in the region that channels most new growth toward already built-up areas.

A Grand Vision consultant unveiled six counties’ worth of findings, charts, maps, illustrations, and question-and-answer sessions at a well-attended, four-hour open house at the Hagerty Center last week. The draft is also posted on the project’s Web site, http://www.thegrandvision.org/.

According to the consultant, Glen Bolen of Fregonese & Associates, the draft vision reflects resounding support for preserving large swaths of the scenic countryside in this part of northwestern Lower Michigan by shifting most new commercial and residential development toward existing villages, towns, and cities.

He said the study also found that residents want more “walkable” places that were easier to navigate via bike paths and sidewalks.

“People want to live closer to where they work,” said Mr. Bolen, whose Seattle-based firm specializes in community planning, is part of the team managing the project, and provides crucial software for it.

“They want more options than just taking a long car trip to work, whether that is biking or walking,” Mr. Bolen continued. “Preserving farms, forestry, open spaces, is very important. More than three quarters of the people surveyed felt this way—and that growth should be, for the most part, focused on existing areas.”

At the open house, Mr. Bolen displayed the maps and graphs to a steady stream of people—close to 400, according to officials—and urged them to make written comments about the plan either there or online. Mr. Bolen’s team will use those comments, along with those gathered during recent presentations to planning commissions in Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford Counties, to further tweak the Draft Grand Vision.

Mr. Bolen added that the project commissioned an independent, scientific survey that will measure the Draft Final Vision’s acceptance among the general public. That survey will follow up a “values survey” conducted by the Lou Harris Group about a year ago that indicated an unusually strong local preference for protecting the environment.

A Landmark Project
Officials supporting The Grand Vision project point out that it is the first of its kind in Michigan: it is largely citizen-based and has involved thousands of people in an innovative, computer-based method of gathering, analyzing, and displaying their thoughts about future growth.

They add that the resulting Draft Grand Vision is something of a landmark—likely the state’s first-ever multi-county regional growth plan designed largely by local residents. But they are also quick to say that persuading cities, towns, and townships across the region to adapt it will be the true test of the project.

Bob Otwell, chairman of TC-TALUS, a local intergovernmental agency that coordinates transportation planning and spending around Traverse City, said he hopes that the Grand Vision leads to putting new master plans and ordinances on the books of jurisdictions across the region—not only to make Traverse a model for the rest of the state, but also because it would bring crucial funds to the region.

"We have been told repeatedly that building consensus around one clear vision will increase our ability to secure state and federal funding for future transportation projects," said Mr. Otwell, who also directs the region’s TART bike and pedestrian trail system and a former board member of the Michigan Land Use Institute. He added: "Our goal is not just to create a vision, but to begin acting on it."

Marsha Smith, executive director of Rotary Charities, said the Grand Vision’s workshops and surveys make next steps that local citizens expect next from their local governments’ very clear.

“What we’ve heard and seen is what people told us that they want: walkability,” said Ms. Smith, who chairs the Grand Vision’s Public Involvement Committee’s weekly open meeting at the Traverse City Government Center, where project supporters work on community outreach plans.

She ticked off what citizens specifically asked for: “Bike routes. Condensed housing in urban areas. Building in our cities. It’s what the folks have told us.”

Ms. Smith said she thought the public involvement process is working well.

"The amazing community effort that went into getting the broadest possible public participation was unprecedented, even for this highly engaged region. It confirms that this is truly a citizen-led vision for the future.”

After 18 Months, a Tentative Vision
That participation started in October 2007 with the first of 11 hands-on, county-by-county public mapping workshops that attracted close to 3,500 participants. Those marked-up maps were merged and analyzed by computer and then formed into four different future growth options or “scenarios.” Close to 12,000 people then evaluated them by answering a set of “preference scale” questions.

Two scenarios that would either continue or continue and cluster current out-county subdivision development, accompanied by continued road development, received little support.

According to Mr. Bolan’s maps, a substantial majority of participants preferred the other two options, which direct growth to cities, towns, and villages in different proportions, preserve large amounts of open space, and invest in regional bus service, sidewalks and bike trails, and some road-widening.

Matt Skeels, executive director of TC-TALUS, said that the “phenomenal” public participation in the workshops and surveys make him confident that the draft results reflects what most people in the region really want.

“The results have been cross-referenced and sliced and diced in a number of ways, and the data has been pretty consistent among different counties and different age groups,” Mr. Skeels said.

Like Mr. Otwell, Mr. Skeels said that using the Grand Vision to define and document the future vision shared by most people in the region is extremely important for gaining federal and state funding for transportation projects.

Mr. Otwell pointed out that many biking and pedestrian projects that Grand Vision participants said they want will not require huge sums of money. They will, however, require what he calls “changing the culture, from everyone moving about in cars, to equalizing some of the different modes of transportation.”

But, he and other “community stakeholders” in the Grand Vision point out, the key to success now lays in maintaining the massive public support the project has seen so far. The national consultants working on the project note that the participation level they see in the region far exceeds what they have witnessed with similar projects elsewhere.

“The energy that has been gathered over the last year—we need to keep it,” Mr. Otwell said. “Some successes on both the land use and transportation side would be really helpful. That buzz, that energy—we need to keep it going.”

Hans Voss, executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a non-profit that helped convince area leaders that a regional approach to land and transportation planning was a key to future prosperity, said that the public’s input should prompt local officials to take action.

“The findings from the Grand Vision affirm that people in this area really value preserving the character of the region and maintaining quality communities,” Mr. Voss said. “We look forward to working with citizens and other stakeholders to make sure this vision becomes a reality.”

Glenn Puit is a county policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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