Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Breaking the Sprawl Addiction

Breaking the Sprawl Addiction

A twelve step program

March 1, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

When the Road Commission officially launched the proposal in 1996 it prompted the formation of a regional citizen advocacy group, the increasingly influential and effective Coalition for Sensible Growth. The group maintains that the bridge will only cause more sprawl and congestion, and has countered with a less expensive and less damaging alternative that includes redesigning existing roads and investing much more in the region's public transit system.

    4. Build real neighborhoods with real downtowns close by, instead of subdivisions and malls and office parks spread far apart.

Even though Garfield's economy has boomed over the past decades, citizens and local officials in neighboring townships don't want to duplicate this idea of "progress." They see Garfield as having squandered irreplaceable civic assets by producing a congested, uninspiring, and environmentally ruinous pattern of development riddled with hidden costs.
Until a quarter century ago, Garfield was the essence of rural northern Michigan. Approaching the township on two-lane state highways was like drawing the curtain up on a theatrical opening. High ridges of glacial sand deposited ages ago surround the township, and the view from the crests was of pastures, orchards, and forests framed by Traverse City and the blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay.As late as 1960, 2,500 residents lived unhurried lives making ends meet in a seasonal farm and recreational economy. Well into the 1970s, traffic was so slight that residents waved as anyone passed by. Looking down from those same ridges today, the scene is utterly different. An unending stream of cars and trucks speed by on five- lane roads. Offices and new subdivisions abound. Two regional malls cover more than 100 acres of former orchards and fields. Immigrants from other parts of the state steadily move into the township, and the value of residential, commercial, and industrial construction in the last two decades totaled more than $300 million. No other township in northern Michigan has experienced such intensive development in such a short period of time.
But for all this growth Garfield barely functions as a community. It has no center, and no readily identifiable civic symbols other than the huge brightly colored signs, one after another, that sprout from every major road. The result is a garish interchangeable gauntlet of burger joints, hotels, strip malls, auto dealers, and convenience stores that make Garfield indistinguishable now from a thousand other American suburbs.

    5. Establish urban growth boundaries. Use taxpayer investments for public infrastructure, especially sewer and water, as a brake on sprawl.

Though Garfield had a clear idea about what kinds of development it wanted and where it should go, it needed significant public subsidies to put the plan into effect. First up was constructing new water and sewer lines to all those businesses, industrial parks, shopping centers, and subdivisions. How important were new water and sewer lines? Large scale developments of the kind envisioned by Garfield would be impossible without them.
In 1970, Garfield joined Traverse City and four neighboring townships to expand the sewage treatment plant in Traverse City and build new lines into all five townships. From 1970 to 1992 the partnership raised $490,000 in federal grants and $21.3 million in state and local bond funds to construct the regional system. Some 31 miles of sewer lines, and even more miles of water lines, now spread across the center of Garfield Township.
In the path of the water and sewage services came a whirlwind of construction. In the 1970s two industrial parks and 42 subdivisions and condominium complexes were built, an unprecedented surge of new building in northwest Michigan. After an economic downturn in the 1980s, the pace accelerated again in the 1990s. Eight office and professional buildings, two malls, two industrial parks, and 23 subdivisions and condos popped up, along with strip malls, big box stores, and fast food franchises.
Acombination of more stringent water quality regulation and increases in the volume of waste has brought the treatment plant in Traverse City near its capacity.Acme Township already has had to stop new hookups to the system, and Garfield is anticipating the same situation in about five years.
According to engineers, expanding the plant could cost $50 million over the next 20 years, which is ten times the cost of the original construction in the early 1970s and an upgrade in the early 1990s. Doing nothing, say Garfield leaders, is not a choice because the township's development would stop.
But continuing to sprawl along new sewer lines looks as though it also will be ruled out as an option. That's because if the cost of expanding the plant to serve sprawl is shared among all users in the township, water and sewer bills could rise $200 to $500 a year per household. If the cost is paid by developers, it could add $5,500 to $10,000 to the price of a new home. The expense would reduce the housing market in the township and put new homes even further out of reach of working people.
The way to save significant sums of money is to extend the life of the existing plant, says Bob Russell, chairman of the County Board of Public Works, which helps decide issues related to the regional sewer and water system. He suggests the following first steps, easily achievable through offering lower rates on water and sewer bills:
* Water conservation, to reduce the overall volume coming through the system.
* Composting of food waste from homes and restaurants to reduce the materials and pollutants entering the system.
Secondly, construct a series of smaller treatment plants and with an attending pipe network within already developed areas. That would reduce expenses and establish new water and sewer construction as a regional growth boundary, encouraging intensive development inside the area defined by the pipes.
If such a plan is adopted, it would change the conventional relationship between local governments and developers and go a long way to solve sprawl. No longer would local governments provide unlimited public services to encourage any sort of development to go anywhere. The availability of water and sewage treatment services in specific places would better define areas of growth, and developers would embrace the idea because the availability of water and sewage treatment is so important to selling new projects.
For example, the Charlevoix-based LaVanway Capital and Trade Corp. is developing Stone Ridge, a 129-acre subdivision along South Airport Road where 155 luxury homes are scheduled on lots costing up to $49,000. Cheryl Hoffman, the company's land manager, said that water and sewer lines close by were a "major, major factor in where we decided to locate. It improves the salability of lots.
"When I'm involved in a development, I try to stand in the shoes of a home buyer," she continued. "You can't pay the kind of money you pay up here and not have municipal sewer and water."

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org