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County Planning Needs All of Us

July 1, 2009 | By Shauna Fite
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Shauna Fite, who lives in Frankfort, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s outreach coordinator.
Something important and hopeful just occurred on the Benzie County Planning Commission: It adopted a new ordinance that could help heal some of the splits that have made guiding growth in the county such an elusive goal.

The new Benzie County Planning Commission Ordinance adds two new seats to the body, and commissioners want to include people from under-represented parts of the county. That, they hope, could start to rebuild the broken trust that unbalanced representation on the commission has long fostered.

So the planning commission is seeking, at the very least, four new members: two to fill currently vacant seats and two to fill the additional new seats.

County planning commissions that administer zoning are rare in Michigan; in most places, townships make all zoning decisions. Benzie administers zoning in seven townships. That should be a good thing: It can save precious tax dollars by eliminating duplicated services; it can provide a wide-angle view of how a more regional area should develop; it can give officials more choices on where to allow industrial development, what land to preserve, and how to deploy public transit more efficiently and effectively.

But Benzie County’s experience highlights the challenges of maintaining a good relationship between county and townships: Currently, five townships handle zoning themselves, and their officials say they do so because they felt seriously underrepresented, if not flat-out ignored, by the county. And it’s possible that more townships could take zoning authority back.

Now, with its newly adopted ordinance, Benzie officials say they are trying to do better.

With the ordinance completed, the planning commission sent notices to all local units of government. The letters asked for recommendations for new commissioner members, and said the county was looking for members that, “to the extent possible, (are) representative of the entire geography of the county and all of the townships, cities, and villages in the County‚Ķ”

The ordinance also recommends that two of the eleven seats go to representatives from the county’s east and west sides.

Essentially, the county has sent an invitation to all governments in Benzie, especially townships under county zoning who feel under-represented, to support their interests by choosing a representative for the expanded commission.

The new ordinance does allow the Benzie County Board of Commissioners to give special preference to townships participating in county zoning because the body’s work most directly affects residents in those townships.

“Preference will also be given to candidates receiving the endorsement of their township, village, or city versus individuals applying on their own,” County Chairman Don Tanner explained.

But Chairman Tanner wants to leave the door open for townships that have left county planning and zoning to be part of the expanded commission: “If townships handling their own zoning see the county performing well, they may be inclined to return to county zoning.” That could begin bridging the longstanding communication and collaboration gap between disgruntled townships and Benzie.

Roger Hubbell, Chair of the Homestead/Inland Joint Planning Commission would like to see even more requirements for geographic representation on the Planning Commission than the new ordinance provides. “We took over our own planning and zoning because we did not feel that the County cared about or addressed our issues. We still care about Benzie County and would love to see our townships represented on the County Planning Commission.  

The ordinance will establish a new Benzie County Planning Commission in September. The board of commissioners makes the appointments, and it’s likely that current members who are willing to continue will be reappointed. But at least four new seats will be open for new recruits.

Besides expanding the planning commission and providing for better geographical representation (it is the east side of Benzie that has long felt most excluded), the ordinance also states, “Members shall be representative of important segments of the community.”

That means the commission should have people representing education, agriculture, human services, business, the environment, tourism, and recreational interests.

Benzie County planning and zoning officials have certainly received a fair share of criticism in the past. And certainly the mistakes and mishaps always get more attention than accomplishments and successes. Controversial personnel issues have taken their toll; and many deadlines for critical updates to the Benzie County Master Plan and Zoning Ordinance have come and gone.

There are definitely some reasons for many of these issues: The Planning and Zoning Department is severely understaffed. Currently, Benzie County Planning Director Dave Neiger is also the Zoning Administrator, a previously separate and full time position.

And the planning commission is somewhat burned out by past, contentious personnel issues.

The County’s Master Plan was created in 2000 with vast cooperation and input from townships and residents. “Unfortunately, much of the progress made during that process has deteriorated due to breakdowns in communication, explains County Planning Commission Chair, Kathy Ralston. “We need to reestablish that type of cooperation in order to sustain county planning and zoning services.”

This ordinance is an opportunity to create a healthier environment in which to proactively plan for the future. If townships decide to RSVP to the county’s invitation to wider planning and zoning participation, it could be a good sign of progress toward strengthening one of our community’s most crucial services.

Shauna Fite is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Benzie County Program Coordinator. Reach her at shauna@mlui.org.

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