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Once In A Generation

Four steps to success for Michigan’s Smart Growth council

March 24, 2003 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Brian Confer

The Michigan Land Use Leadership Council represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make Michigan a more economically competitive state, and a better place for our children.

Is traffic congestion driving you batty? Are you tired of polluted beaches? Do you want more affordable housing options? Do you want fewer unsightly strip malls and more architecturally distinguished downtowns?

If you’re like me the answers to these questions are self-evident. And now, more than at any time in the state’s history, there is an opportunity to change how Michigan develops.

Today the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council meets for the first time. The council’s mission, as defined by Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, is to inspire Michigan to curb sprawling patterns of development and craft a new economic future based on thriving downtowns, a prosperous farm sector, strong neighborhoods, transportation choices, clean lakes, green places, and opportunity for people from all walks of life. 

I was fortunate enough to be appointed to this diverse 26-member panel, which represents business, urban, rural, agricultural, government, and environmental interests. And I view the panel’s charge as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make Michigan a more economically competitive state, and a better place for generations.

Given my own eight-year immersion in the hard work of slowing sprawl and building a Smart Growth future in Michigan, it’s my goal to urge the council not to get bogged down in details. Rather, I will do what I can to encourage the council to keep its vision high and work toward achieving a new framework for Smart Growth that establishes four significant improvements to help all of us decide how land is used in Michigan:
1. Enact Formal State Land Use Goals
Just as a community planning process starts with a vision for the future, Michigan needs land use goals to formally establish a vision for the state. Developed with robust citizen input, the state goals would be enacted into law by the legislature and serve as the framework for Michigan’s Smart Growth program by guiding state policy making, state agency decisions, and public investment.

2. Eliminate State Subsidies That Encourage Sprawl
Every state program is affected by Michigan’s projected $1.8 billion budget deficit. The council should make recommendations to eliminate wasteful, sprawl-inducing programs and instead direct public investment to improve infrastructure in city and town centers. The state needs to embrace a “Fix It First” approach to funding roads, sewer and water systems, schools, and other public facilities. The premise is simple: Expand public infrastructure only when clearly necessary, support infill development, and make sure adequate funds are available to maintain new construction over its useful life.

3. Promote Regional Coordination and Cooperation
Michigan’s fragmented land use authority – the result of rivalries among governments, and between government and business -- has produced one of the country’s fastest rates of farmland loss despite the state having one of the slowest rates of population growth. In essence the state isn’t really growing. It’s spreading out. The lack of coordination in Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek has been a factor in turning Michigan’s metropolitan regions into the most racially segregated in the nation, and among the most economically stressed. The council should recommend the passage of coordinated planning legislation that improves regional communication, links capital expenditures to growth management plans, encourages partnerships between government and business, and enables regional sales taxes, regional revenue sharing, and other regional taxing mechanisms.

4. Ensure Implementation of Michigan’s Smart Growth Program
Once a Michigan Smart Growth program is established, it needs to be an ongoing part of private business activity working in partnership with local governments and the state, and it must be embedded in how government operates at every level. The council should recommend the creation of a new state Office of Smart Growth to serve as the focal point of statewide land use efforts, to secure state and federal funding, and to invest in effective growth management programs. The office would ensure that state agency actions follow state land use goals and monitor the effectiveness of the state’s Smart Growth program. The office would also be a focal point for the state’s work to encourage partnerships between business and government.

Our research and experience at the Michigan Land Use Institute indicates clearly that Smart Growth only happens when the state government takes the lead, and that Smart Growth principles make a big difference in the quality of life.

Success in Maryland and Other States
In 1997, for example, Maryland stopped subsidizing sprawl by redirecting the billions spent every year by the state on roads, infrastructure, schools, and jobs to town centers and areas specifically designated for new economic development. Maryland’s Smart Growth program has paid off handsomely as the state, the ninth smallest in terms of land area, nevertheless now boasts one of the highest rates of job growth and the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, according to the U.S Department of Commerce.

Other states, mindful of Maryland’s record, are taking up similar Smart Growth steps, including Florida, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Massachusetts. Now it’s Michigan’s turn. The Michigan Land Use Leadership Council has the opportunity to combine the best elements of the other states’ programs and make Michigan’s Smart Growth program a new national model.

Citizen Support is Essential
I have spent the better part of a decade working closely with citizens from across the state who want to improve their communities. That experience taught me that the people of Michigan believe in the principles of Smart Growth. Michiganders want thriving cities. They want strong neighborhoods. And they want natural areas to enjoy.

But no matter how hard they work, citizens and communities can’t do it alone. Too often they lack the planning resources they need, or worse, find themselves battling against state government. The Michigan Land Use Leadership Council can change this. It can, for the first time in Michigan’s history, establish a blueprint that guides state government in helping communities achieve their local goals.

I’ve learned that, time and again, it is state decisions that fuel sprawl. State taxpayer dollars and economic development funds stimulate growth simply by extending roads, water and sewer services, and other infrastructure into outlying areas. In Petoskey, for instance, citizens spent 15 years battling to halt a 10-mile, $90 million highway bypass, funded by the state, that would not have solved congestion but would have opened a beautiful farm area outside the city to wasteful development. Last year citizens finally prevailed and the state Department of Transportation decided not to build the bypass.

In Petoskey and in countless other Michigan communities, citizens want to make better choices about how their regions develop. Should taxpayers spend $1.3 billion to widen a seven-mile stretch of Interstate 94 in Detroit (a current state Department of Transportation proposal) while for $130 million (one tenth of the amount) we could build three commuter rail lines from Detroit to Mt. Clemens, Pontiac, and Ann Arbor and take cars off the road? Considering that business leaders support public transit as vital to Detroit’s economic competitiveness and 40 percent of Detroiters don’t even own a car, the answer is clear.

Reaching Deep Into The Michigan Spirit
The Michigan Land Use Leadership Council will grapple with an array of pressing issues like  these. Land use policy reaches into every corner of our society. It drives our economy, defines our landscape, and shapes our lives. To succeed the council must establish a bold, new vision for Michigan. It must build a sturdy framework for a new state Smart Growth program. And while there is a clear need to identify immediate policy priorities, the overriding priority for the Council must be to look well beyond the next legislative session, bring state decisions in line with local concerns and business enterprise, eliminate sprawl subsidies, and develop plans for 50 years into the future and beyond.

Good ideas are essential to enact an effective Smart Growth program in Michigan. So is active citizen support. Public hearings have been set for April 21 (Gaylord, Marquette, and Pontiac) and April 28 (Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids) and a special Web site has been established to receive public comment. It’s imperative that everybody who believes that Michigan can achieve a Smart Growth future show up to tell that to the council.

No matter who you are or where you are from, you have a personal stake in the outcome. Speak out for Smart Growth. Attend the council meetings. Testify at the public hearings next month. Let’s end sprawl and keep Michigan a great play to live, work, and play.

Hans Voss, whose articles on land use policy have been published in The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Traverse City Record-Eagle, and the Institute’s Great Lakes Bulletin, is the executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at hans@mlui.org.

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