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When It Comes to Sprawl, Voters Get It

December 11, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Milan Township in Monroe County is known for broad expanses of farm fields and, until recently, not much else. But over the last year citizens in this rural community southwest of Detroit put themselves on Michigan's political map with a series of stirring grassroots victories to stem sprawl and conserve farmland from runaway industrial development. In November, their work reached a satisfying conclusion. Voters elected four new members of Milan's five-member Township Board who promised in their campaigns to defend the community's rural quality of life and encourage economic development that is much more sensitive to the environment.

Ever since 1992, when a task force appointed by Gov. John Engler identified sprawl as one of Michigan's most pressing social problems, the conservative leadership in Lansing has largely dismissed the cry from the grassroots for help on improving how communities develop. In 1999, for example, a cogent proposal by Kent and Ottawa County lawmakers to establish a Smart Growth Commission and develop statewide planning goals was snuffed out by the governor and outgoing Republican House Speaker Chuck Perricone. How? Perricone simply named a legislative land use study group that did nothing. 

Milan Township residents are pictured here after effectively blocking GM and Ann Arbor Railroad's attempt to industrialize precious farmland.

But the November election results in Milan and other fast-growing communities provide striking evidence that the moment for serious legislative reckoning with sprawl has arrived. Across Michigan, in nearly a dozen townships and counties, candidates who stressed reining in sprawl, reducing traffic, and protecting the environment won big at the local level. In Milan, and at least two other townships, voters threw out their entire "growth at any cost" boards and elected new Smart Growth slates. In Macomb County alone, voters in four townships ousted pro-developer incumbents and elected new supervisors who called for strengthened master plans and zoning ordinances in order to develop more compact and walkable communities.

The election results mean there is no longer any dispute that a powerful arc of civic concern about how we misuse land exists at the grassroots in Michigan. Candidates who offered solutions were victorious, many by large margins.

Meridian Township in Ingham County tossed out its pro-developer township board and elected five new members, including Anne Woiwode, one of Michigan's most influential environmental leaders and the program director of the 17,000-member Lansing-based Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club. "Out of control growth and development was definitely the key issue here," she said. "We want to reassert what the community has made clear that it wants. Smarter growth, and more participation by residents in all aspects of making decisions that affect this community."

In Oakland County, voters in West Bloomfield Township elected Democrat David Flaisher as supervisor, tossing out two-term Republican incumbent Jeddie Hood, who was seen as not doing enough to discourage runaway development. Mr. Flaisher's message: It was time to rein in haphazard development.

The same cry is heard in Allegan County in West Michigan where Tom Jessup, a Republican, was elected Casco Township Supervisor, replacing Don Maxwell, a 19-year incumbent. Mr. Jessup, who campaigned to block a huge sand mine proposed in the region and to protect farmland, won by a margin of three to one.

In some parts of rural northern Michigan, the cry for restraining development is just as strong. Arcadia Township, which hugs Lake Michigan in Manistee County, replaced its entire township board with new leaders who said they were intent on growing in ways that protect the coastline and preserve the region's remarkable natural resources and small town culture. Filer Township, also in Manistee County, elected Dana Schindler as the new Township Supervisor. Ms. Schindler is well known as one of the county's most effective grassroots environmental activists. She beat the incumbent by a margin of two to one.

In Benzie County, Don Howard was elected to his first term as county commissioner by calling for new patterns of development to safeguard Benzie's forests, lakes, and rivers. He beat a well-known, pro-development candidate, Jean Bowers, who served for two decades as the county clerk.

Since the mid-1990s, leaders of the anti-sprawl crusade in Michigan have predicted that candidates who offered reasoned solutions would discover a deep reservoir of electoral energy. The November results confirm that point.

While it's satisfying to be on the mark, pointing this out to citizens and Lansing's lawmakers is more than an exercise in self-congratulation. No longer are citizens letting local governments abandon sound master plans and zoning ordinances to grant variance after variance to anybody waving promises, often empty, of new jobs and tax revenues. While Michigan's economy certainly soared during the past decade, the consequences of promoting development over any other social and cultural value also became readily apparent to more people stuck in traffic, swimming in dirty water, and paying higher property taxes.

Voters responded. They elected new leaders at the grass roots who believe that a growing economy, clean environment, and community stability are equal priorities. The message for Lansing is unmistakable. Take sprawl seriously. Approve new solutions. Or face defeat.

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