Michigan Land Use Institute

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January 21, 2004 |

Reflecting a powerful consensus for state action, more than 1,000 citizens in 2003 attended public hearings and in overwhelming numbers urged the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council to improve their own — and future generations' — quality of life and financial security by curbing sprawl. They asked for strong legislative recommendations that would coax local governments to work to-gether, rebuild cities, improve transportation, and increase prosperity for rural communities.

Many council members said they were galvanized by what citizens told them. “Although many of us deal with land use issues every day in our work, there was a freshness from hearing about it from folks who are out there,” said Colin Hubbell, a Detroit developer and council member. “The issue of sprawl, the issue of uncontrolled, uncoordinated land use is on people's minds.”

The comments also revealed how isolated sprawl's proponents have become.

Sprawl Loses by a Landslide
In Marquette, citizens by a 10-to-1 margin called on council members to encourage growth that protects the region's natural resources and small-town quality of life. In Detroit, the testimony was even more lopsided. Citizens supporting new state policies to improve planning outnumbered opponents by at least 15 to one. There were similar high margins of support for fighting sprawl at the other hearings: Gaylord, Grand Rapids, Pontiac, and Lansing.

Fay Hanson Smith of suburban White Lake Township said she supported helping local governments contend with aggressive developers. But a scattering of homebuilders at each public hearing adamantly opposed state action. They worried about property rights and a risk that any state involvement in land use decisions would hinder builders.

Other important development interests, however, showed support for change. “There's public support for action. No question,” said Gilbert M. White, president of the Michigan Association of Realtors and a council member. “I don't think the public favors a heavy-handed, top-down approach.”

One overriding theme was the strong support from local officials for state assistance in grappling with sprawl. Tony Kulick, director of development in Mount Pleasant, said, “Smart Growth requires smart planning. The time is now for Michigan to move from the bottom of the pile.”

Big Problems, Common Ground Solutions
According to dozens of government, university, and think tank studies, Michigan's severe sprawl problem is paving over farmland faster than almost any other state, producing water pollution problems that overwhelm sewage systems, and saddling metropolitan Detroit with some of the country's worst traffic congestion. Rapid disinvestment is hurting most  of Michigan's cities and, increasingly, its older suburbs. Of the 50 states, Michigan is fourth worst in attracting skilled, 25-to-34-year-old workers.

But the desire of most council members to find common ground on property rights, government oversight of land use, local control, environmental protection, and urban investment points toward a hopeful outcome. Citizen testimony encouraged this theme.

“Diverse interests must find common ground,” said Nancy Hawley, a Jackson County farmer.

“Even constituencies you might not expect were saying there was a need for action,” said Helen Taylor, a council member and the director of the Michigan Nature Conservancy.


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