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Michigan’s Smart Growth Governor and Her Unlikely Allies

Granholm and Republican leaders share similar values on sprawl

November 22, 2002 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Michigan Governor-elect Jennifer Granholm’s strong showing in west Michigan and the rural north is due in some measure to her campaign promise to strike hard at sprawling development.

One reason that Jennifer Granholm was elected governor earlier this month is that she held her own in the rapidly developing rural districts of western and northern Michigan. Among the issues that accounted for her strong showing in what is generally Republican territory is that Ms. Granholm campaigned on a promise to strike hard at the sprawling development that clogs highways, empties cities, devours farm and forest land, and diminishes the quality of life.

Anybody who heard the governor-elected in person, or romped through her Web site, www.granholmforgov.com, came away convinced that she was sincere. One of the downsides of Ms. Granholm’s winning the governor’s office, of course, is actually having to deliver on a portion of the specific assurances she made as a candidate.

There may be no tougher assignment than changing how Michigan communities develop. Ms. Granholm, though, may find allies in the unlikeliest place: the opposition party.

Both the Republican House Speaker, Rick Johnson, and the incoming Senate Majority Leader, Ken Sikkema, have voiced strong support for new government activism to curb sprawl and its harmful consequences. There are other Republican leaders, notably Senator-elect Patricia Birkholz of Saugatuck, who have also been trying for years to pass substantive improvements in land use laws.

With Ms. Granholm as the governor-elect, the potential for substantive government action on sprawl is now possible. During the campaign, Ms. Granholm made specific and far-reaching recommendations for encouraging new patterns of growth that included:

  • Establishing a bipartisan commission to recommend a long-term land use strategy for Michigan.
  • Evaluating state spending programs that encourage sprawl and “terminate those that cause irreparable harm to our land resources.”
  • Investing more state dollars in cities and older suburbs for public transit, affordable housing, infrastructure, and urban redevelopment.
  • Fixing existing roads, sewers, and other infrastructure first before building new facilities that accelerate sprawl.
  • Requiring the state Department of Transportation to change its attitude and “work with communities” to solve transportation problems instead of pursuing a one size fits all policy of new highway construction that dismantles neighborhoods, ruins open space, and increases congestion.
  • Expanding the state bottle bill to finance a state farmland preservation program.
  • Assisting communities in “assessing the long-term costs of low density development” and providing technical and financial support to reduce them.

These and other steps – such as amending tax policy to keep farmers on their land, and preserving absorbent open spaces to soak up storm water and eliminate sewage overflows – form the most thoughtful and penetrating program of land use policy reform ever proposed in Michigan. If Ms. Granholm succeeds, the state will be well on its way to achieving more durable prosperity because Michigan will be a much better place to live and work. 

There is no end to the hurdles she faces. The state’s $1 billion to $1.5 billion budget deficit will limit Ms. Granholm’s ability to make public investments in housing, planning, and other programs, though her plan to eliminate state spending that encourages sprawl may identify tens of millions of public dollars that could be invested in new ways.

Then there are the industrial organizations -- the road builders, home builders, and energy interests -- who are adept at playing the inside political game to perpetuate all that congested mess that they believe is the source of their prosperity.

But a third anticipated impediment -- the opposition party, which controls both houses of the legislature – may surprise everyone by rising to the occasion and helping her. House Speaker Johnson, who hails from Wexford County, which experienced a 16 percent population increase in the 1990s, personally introduced a comprehensive package of bills in April 2001 to manage growth, rebuild cities, assure clean water, and conserve farmland. Governor John Engler did not support the package and the legislature ended up approving only modest modifications. Now the House Speaker has an advocate in Ms. Granholm to help move his reforms.

In the Senate, Ms. Granholm may have an even more influential ally in Sen. Sikkema, who comes from the Grand Rapids area, where battling sprawl is regional priority.

Mr. Sikkema began his political career far enough to the right to sponsor the state “takings” law in the early 1990s to limit government’s authority to manage natural resources. He’s tracked back to the moderate middle in recent years by writing and passing amendments to strengthen the state soil erosion control law, and by chairing a bipartisan Senate task force in 2001 that recommended a new era of legislation and government activism to protect the Great Lakes from pollution and water diversions.

Last year Mr. Sikkema introduced several measures prompted by the task force that included a proposal to spur  local governments to assess how much water was available for families and businesses before they issued new permits for additional home and business construction. The intent of the proposal, which will be introduced again early next year, is to avoid the water shortages that communities near Saginaw, Grand Rapids, and in Oakland County have already experienced because of runaway development.

Mr. Sikkema and Mr. Johnson are pragmatists, just like the governor-elect. They and Ms. Granholm could form the unexpected political alliance that finally starts Michigan down the path to smarter growth.

Keith Schneider, a nationally prominent environmental journalist and commentator, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press on November 18, 2002For more of the Michigan Land Use Institute’s journalism and commentary on Smart Growth see the group’s Web site at www.mlui.org.

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