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Smart Talk

Like Rolling Stones

July 7, 2004 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Brian Confer

 Hans Voss, executive director, Michigan Land Use Institute

It was a warm, blue-sky day and we’d just reached the top of a high dune along Lake Michigan when my six-year-old daughter, Aiden, tossed a stone down the steep slope. We watched it bump other stones, which knocked loose still more. Quickly, dozens of stones rolled to the sparkling lake far below.

Gaining momentum in the public policy arena is a lot like that. One citizen breakthrough stimulates another, which prompt three more, which generate still more successes until they become a genuine movement. This spring, citizens made unmistakable advances in their work to assure that northwest Michigan remains one of the nation’s most beautiful and inviting places to live and work. Smart Growth is now a mainstream influence here.

Some recent examples:

In Charlevoix, Wal-Mart, notorious for diminishing downtown diversity, abandoned plans to build a supercenter in the face of a feisty citizens campaign.

In Manistee, citizens convinced the city planning commission that a proposed $700 million coal-fired power plant would harm the economy and environment. Now community leaders are developing a long-term regional renewable energy plan.

In Traverse City, my hometown, leaders took a big step toward a first-rate public transit system by approving a downtown bus station over the objection of some business owners who wrongfully asserted it would reduce property values.

And in Lansing, the Legislature is debating a bill designed to rein in the school-induced sprawl we identified in our February special report, Hard Lessons.

The Institute did not throw the first stone. But we were among the first to get bumped by other stones from other places back in 1995. Ever since, we have made the case for Smart Growth while assisting grassroots activists, testifying at public hearings, and working in Lansing. We were either behind the scenes (Charlevoix, Manistee) or the primary public advocate (Traverse City, Lansing) for these recent achievements.

Even as we celebrate, the Institute’s board and staff are acutely aware that there is much more ground to cover. Michigan’s sprawl spreads at a breakneck pace and our economic competitiveness remains in question. Yet the Legislature resists supporting badly needed affordable housing, public transportation, environmental protection, and regional planning initiatives. But in northwest Michigan, like stones striking each other, citizen victories are rolling toward a Smart Growth avalanche.

Hans Voss is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s executive director. Reach him at hans@mlui.org.

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