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State Fuels Growth Pressures

August 1, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

It’s difficult for individual villages and townships to solve all their water quality challenges alone. They need neighboring officials, as well as state leaders and agencies, to think ahead about how their decisions can promote the kind of growth that outstrips local government’s ability to manage it.

Take the South Beltline highway, for instance. The $420 million state project, scheduled for completion in 2005, will afford convenient access to relatively rural Caledonia Township, south of Grand Rapids. Investors already are putting millions of dollars into the first outposts of a new growth territory: Subdivisions, fast food stands, and gas stations.

Patricia Pennell, a local resident for more than 20 years, explains: “Caledonia … errr … I should say Sprawl-edonia sits beneath a tidal wave of development, and we have no local ordinances in place to protect our water.”

Unaccounted costs
Of particular concern is Emmons Creek, a narrow coldwater stream that meanders through Caledonia Township’s newly urbanizing areas before it joins the Thornapple River. Lately Ms. Pennell watches Emmons Creek cough more and more sediment into the Thornapple after winding around half-finished restaurants and clearcut properties.

“Sure doesn’t look good,” says Vernon Ritenburgh, who has watched Emmons Creek flow peacefully for 33 years through a pond on his property. A housing subdivision about half a mile upstream, however, has altered what he considers natural. Today, after an average rain, Emmons Creek can rip through Ritenburgh’s land with enough force to tangle a deer in his railroad tie bridge. “That was a mess,” he says. Mr. Ritenburgh’s pond, once 10 feet deep, has filled with so much sand that he now figures it’s no deeper than three. “Sure isn’t doing my property value any good,” he sighs, jumping over a crevasse opened by the shifting soils. “And it doesn’t cost anyone but me.”

Caledonia Township officials say they want to protect the water. Population is booming, however, and building permits, requests to rezone land, and the daily details of running a township inundate staff and strain already limited budgets.

The township has adopted a new master plan that designates nearly half of all local land as “rural preservation.” But the state’s road building project spurs growth faster than the township can adopt local zoning ordinances to enforce its master plan. Development proposals already are, not surprisingly, lined up along still wild stretches of the Thornapple River on “rural preservation” land.

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