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Benzie Pushing to Halt Its Crisis

But dispute over who runs planning and zoning continues

December 12, 2007 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Many Benzie County residents worry that, until planning and zoning there improve, its tourism—including snowmobiling and skiing—is vulnerable to unwise development.

BEULAH—Six months after a report warned that Benzie County was losing the confidence of local residents and township governments because of its dysfunctional planning and zoning departments, county officials say they are making significant progress in responding to the report’s most urgent recommendations.

But a lengthy dispute over who should supervise those two crucial departments is slowing reformers’ efforts to meet the report’s final recommendation—that the county strongly consider consolidating its planning and zoning services.

The report, Halting the Crisis in Confidence, listed 10 immediate steps Benzie officials should take to improve cooperation and communication with local governments, builders, developers and citizens. Since the report’s release, county officials have scrambled to respond, launching one committee to expedite the report's recommendations, and another to finalize ordinances that would enforce the county's long-dormant master plan—a step that the report said is crucial to protecting Benzie from poorly planned growth.

So far, Benzie officials’ biggest public success in responding to the report has been the County Intergovernmental Summit, which they hosted last month. It attracted an impressive crowd of local officials, including several from a township that abandoned county-managed planning and zoning last year and struck out on their own.

But decisions about how to manage the two departments that determine how the county grows—the planning and the zoning departments—remain stalled. The problem has county officials squaring off over two competing department heads: a trained planner with years of experience but a shaky track record that includes a reputation for a loose management style, or a new zoning administrator with little experience who, observers say, is demonstrating strong organization and management skills and is gaining solid support from some key officials.

That issue comes up again tomorrow, when the county planning commission begins considering a proposal to place Craig Seger, Benzie County’s recently hired zoning administrator, in charge of both departments and of David Neiger, the county’s longtime planner.

Given the rapid growth the county faces, some observers say, solving the Benzie Planning and Zoning departments’ problems is urgent. The rural county, which intertwines extensive agricultural and state land with small communities and magnificent lakes and rivers, is Michigan’s smallest and one of its fastest-growing counties: Benzie’s population grew by 31 percent between 1990 and 2000 and that pace is projected to continue.

Great Plan, Big Letdown
Citizen concern about Benzie’s zoning and planning operations began soon after the county adopted a new master plan in 2000. At the time it was considered a model document—remarkable for its vision of protecting the land, its encouragement of vigorous growth, and its level of citizen involvement.

"We formed a 100-person citizen advisory committee, it gelled, and we put up a plan together," Mr. Neiger told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. "Eight or nine reports and a comprehensive plan, that took a span of time—1998, 1999, and 2000—then a comprehensive plan done in 2000, and then it passed."

Despite the strong citizen momentum behind the new master plan, however, what happened next deeply disappointed many people: Benzie County officials essentially let the plan die by failing to write required new zoning ordinances. Eight years later, Benzie’s ordinances still do not match its master plan—a basic cause of the rising discontent that led to the Crisis study.

"For some reason, that languished," said Mr. Seger, who the county hired earlier this year in part to finally complete the long-delayed zoning update.

Mr. Neiger claims the failure to write new ordinances is not his fault. He blamed poor administrative management, which he said left his office woefully understaffed.

"Basically, it has been real easy to blame me because I’m the department head," Mr. Neiger told the news service. "It takes the blame away from themselves."

But Mr. Seger disagreed; he told the news service that the problems with planning and zoning in Benzie were largely due to "management inadequacies."

"The staffing was not adequate," Mr. Seger agreed. But he added that "in most communities, when your staffing is not adequate, you make adjustments."

Mr. Neiger offers other reasons for how badly the master plan has languished.

"There were people in the community that were not happy with how the plan was being implemented," he said. "There are other people who just aren’t happy with anything. There were budgetary problems. There were people on the county board with agendas, and the administrator had his own agenda. All of these things started gelling together."

But Crisis notes repeatedly that support for the master plan remains amazingly strong in the county, and its authors, Mark Wyckoff and Kurt Schindler of the Planning & Zoning Center at Michigan State University, suggest that reviving the master plan remains essential to Benzie avoiding sprawling development and retaining its rural character.

Still Under Fire
Mr. Neiger has drawn fire for more recent actions, too. The two townships leaving county planning and zoning say that repeated delays and poor decisions regarding zoning and permitting requests, along with overall county neglect of the townships, prompted their decision to leave. The zoning department also made some controversial decisions, including allowing a dog-grooming business in a residential area and approving a four-way land division on Crystal Lake.

A now-deceased assistant made those calls, but as his supervisor, Mr. Neiger faced intense criticism, too.

In the aftermath of those dustups, the county hired Mr. Seger to take over zoning and supervise Mr. Neiger. He responded by filing a formal complaint, while a citizen forced the county to reveal several letters between Benzie County Administrator Chuck Clarke and Mr. Seger that indicated the men were in regular contact before the hiring decision was made.

So the county backtracked, made Mr. Seger and Mr. Neiger dual department heads, directed Mr. Seger to only supervise county zoning, and left Mr. Neiger in charge of planning. Since that decision, the relationship between the two has been difficult. At a recent committee meeting, for example, Mr. Seger said that the communication between he and Mr. Neiger "is essentially zero."

"You’re exaggerating—like you always do!" Mr. Neiger responded.

County Administrator Chuck Clarke said that he, for one, has had enough.

"It’s not clear who’s doing what," he said at the meeting. "I think there should be one department head to keep track of what’s going on. It should be Craig. We need to get off the dime on this."

It’s unclear how much political support there is for putting Mr. Seger in charge of both departments. He is trained as a civil engineer and has little background in planning or zoning administration. The Crisis report suggests that it is highly unusual for a zoning official to be in charge of a planner, but Mr. Seger has won high marks for his management abilities—and the report says the county needs much better management.

But County Commissioner Ann Damm, for one, opposes putting Mr. Seger in charge of both departments. She claims to be encouraged by what she said is progress in both departments.

"I’ve seen a lot of improvement lately," Commissioner Damm said. "We’ve gone through a rough spot."

Making Amends
Meanwhile, the county seems to be making significant progress on most of the Crisis recommendations.

Besides the roaring success of the first county summit, the county is now making progress on writing the ordinances for its languishing master plan, a task that Mr. Seger is leading. The process may be moving slowly, he acknowledged, but the deliberations must be thorough.

"When you have a small speedboat and you want to change course, you do it quickly," he said. "But when you have a ship it takes a mile to turn 90 degrees. There are no erratic turns with this."

The Crisis report also recommended that the county commit to having the best planning and zoning departments possible; in response, the county extension office is now working with Benzie’s planning, zoning, and building department staff to develop a mission statement about that goal.

As recommended, the county sent copies of Halting the Crisis in Confidence to Benzie’s township governments. Also, as recommended, county officials met with many miffed township officials to hear their complaints about county government in person, attended a joint meeting with the county chapter of the Michigan Township Association, and have begun looking into training opportunities for many county personnel, including Mr. Seger, who has no formal training in planning or zoning.

Several other recommendations directly related to planning and zoning remain undone, however. The county, at last report, still has not formally asked Homestead and Inland Townships officials to reconsider leaving county planning and zoning. The report also urges the county planning commission to somehow change or expand its membership to better represents the east side of the county; one official confirmed that a commissioner with a poor attendance record has been asked to resign as part of a reshuffle.

And although, as recommended, the county has somewhat improved its Web site, it has yet to post Halting the Crisis of Confidence there.

Glenn Puit, a veteran investigative reporter, is the Institute’s policy specialist for Emmet County. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. You can read Halting the Crisis of Confidence here.

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