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Just in Time

Granholm's Smart Growth council can save us from sprawl

April 7, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen
  Emmet County, Michigan

From his second floor office in downtown Petoskey, a picturesque city of 6,000 along the northeastern coast of Lake Michigan, John Rohe surveys a rural landscape of promise and peril. A quarter-century ago, the 52-year-old lawyer left the Detroit area and arrived in Emmet County with his wife, Debbie, to start a family and a legal practice. The county had so many untouched forests and lakeshores that they felt like it was all theirs.

The illusion didn’t last long. Emmet County’s population leaped 50 percent in a generation and now numbers more than 31,000. Every new resident, home, and job produced more vehicles, crowded classrooms, pollution problems, and commotion. Now Emmet’s increasingly cluttered countryside is generating growing civic strife as developers and citizens like Mr. Rohe clash over exactly where building new homes, businesses, and roads is appropriate.

But after years of struggle over growth in Emmet and most of Michigan’s other 82 counties, solutions now appear to be in sight. Last November, after a campaign that stressed taming sprawl and achieving more environmentally sensitive and economically sensible patterns of development, Democrat Jennifer Granholm won Michigan’s governorship.

MLUI/Pat Owen
Smart Growth in Petoskey

A Sprawlbuster’s Advice
From the moment she took office on January 1, the new governor has taken purposeful steps to meet her promise. She called for new vigor in how the state protects the environment, proposed more regional cooperation among local governments, and supported legislation to improve public transit. In February, Ms. Granholm appointed the 26-member Michigan Land Use Leadership Council led by two of Michigan’s great statesmen — former Republican Governor William G. Milliken and former Democratic Attorney General Frank J. Kelley.

The panel held its first meeting in March and appeared to reach consensus that rebuilding the state's cities and conserving farmland are the two top priorities. The next meeting is on April 14 in Lansing. With strong bipartisan support, particularly from former environmental activist and current Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, the governor gave the council until August 15 to make policy recommendations that help state and local governments guide growth inward toward town centers, rather than outward beyond the urban fringe.

The council, which includes Michigan Land Use Institute Executive Director Hans Voss, would do well to learn from Mr. Rohe. Since the mid-1990’s he’s led some of northern Michigan’s most influential citizen campaigns to stop big box stores and a highway bypass near Petoskey.

“Things are happening fast,” said Mr. Rohe of the state’s shift toward Smart Growth. “What the commission needs to know is that a responsible land use plan would seem logically to follow how we live our lives now, and what’s best for the landscape. Where in a region is the best place for homes, the best place for roads, the best place for the landfill?”

These direct questions, Mr. Rohe and others have found, always have quite complicated, indirect answers. Most steps towards taming sprawl in Emmet County have triggered disheartening steps back. He said much of the slippage stems from decisions made elsewhere more than 200 years ago.

“Until now,” he said of the zoning struggles he’s so engaged with, “these decisions have been made from the perspective of the township, which is an idea that literally comes from 1787 when the Northwest Territories Act was passed by Congress. The new land use council provides the opportunity to start to look at development not from the township perspective but from a regional perspective, which is how we really live in the 21st century. This commission should help establish reason in the process of deciding how our communities develop.”

A Big Change, but Debate Continues
Influential critics of Smart Growth, including executives of the homebuilding, realty, road construction, and some farm groups, express grave concerns about any state role that minimizes townships’ role in land use planning. However, Gov. Granholm’s focused attention to the issue underlines a new, surprisingly deep statewide consensus: Sprawl is a serious problem in Michigan and merits immediate state action.

The magnitude of this should not be underestimated. Until her inauguration, the formal position of Michigan’s elected leadership was that sprawl, if it was a problem at all, was merely a local malady that the state government had no proper role in curing. Now Gov. Granholm and Republican legislative leaders, critics and supporters agree, have launched a once-in-a-generation search for answers.

MLUI/Pat Owen
Farmland in Emmet County

It comes in the nick of time in Emmet County, which lies along Lake Michigan 60 miles north of Traverse City. As the county’s population and congestion soared, vigorous disputes over development occurred almost parcel by parcel, without much thought given to how construction in one township — a new road, box store, or subdivision — would affect neighboring townships. The state’s involvement was generally to promote new development with money for highways, sewer systems, and businesses while limiting the ability of citizens and local governments to protect wetlands and natural resources.

“It’s piecemeal planning,” said Charles Glass, a lawyer who’s active in land use issues around Harbor Springs, a small coastal town near Petoskey where he lives and practices. “Our problem up here is we’re putting out little brush fires as they pop up and there is no general consensus about how you go about really thinking about how to protect your area from all sorts of intrusions.

“It’s one person or group trying to deal with a hot spot,” he added. “The absence of a state focus on these issues has left everybody adrift, looking for colleagues and allies in their communities, [with] no general overall direction. Any statewide direction that helps people locally to create a plan or direction for their area will be helpful.”

Lessons from Local Sprawl Wars
Arguably, no private citizen has been more deeply involved in galvanizing citizen support for smarter growth in Emmet County than Mr. Rohe. In the 1990’s he led and lost a campaign to bar Wal-Mart from building a big box store outside of Petoskey. He and many other local citizens worried that the store would be an eyesore (it is), aggravate traffic congestion (it did), and weaken downtown businesses (it hasn’t, at least not yet).

MLUI/Pat Owen
Sprawl spreading in metro Detroit

During the same period he led and won a battle that blocked a proposed, $90 million state highway bypass, arguing that it would ruin the county’s agricultural economy without relieving traffic congestion. In 2002, Mr. Rohe also led and won a voter referendum in Bear Creek Township, where he lives, that blocked a developer from building a box store on land zoned for home and farm uses. Now he’s watching a dispute in Harbor Springs over proposed regulations designed to protect sand bluffs along Lake Michigan from unwise construction practices.

But it’s difficult to find a battle Mr. Rohe and his Emmet County allies have won that is a clear victory. In Bear Creek, a resident who wanted that new box store filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to nullify the referendum vote blocking its construction. Other residents gathered enough signatures to hold a second referendum aimed at eliminating the township’s zoning ordinance.

Meanwhile, bypass proponents and opponents joust over solving traffic problems without the new highway. And the zoning regulations proposed to protect the Lake Michigan bluffs have garnered fresh opposition by some of the same shoreline homeowners who originally encouraged new rulemaking; they now say the proposed rules go too far.

Mr. Rohe, whose tireless campaigning earns him respect from his opponents, says the state’s new willingness to get involved is timely. He hopes the council will help spare citizens from the environmental and civic messes that too much new development causes.

“Changes to our landscape are incremental and often imperceptible from one day to the next,” Mr. Rohe said. “To the great credit of this region there are a number of folks willing to fearlessly consider the legacy by which we will someday be remembered.”

Keith Schneider, an environmental journalist and a regular contributor to The New York Times, The Detroit Free Press, and Gristmagazine.com, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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