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Surprise! In Michigan, A Land Planning Idea Fit for the 21st Century

Legislative leaders begin to respond to public concern

February 8, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

One powerful idea behind the new economy is integration. Integration respects the fact that everything is just one part of a larger whole and that any action in one realm will eventually affect processes in another. Economic integration in Europe is a prime example. Countries cannot join the European Union until they have inflation and national debts under control; economic disorder in one member country can destabilize the entire union.

Now let's apply integration to how we in Michigan use our land and design our communities. One of the first questions we have to ask is how we can avoid the spillover costs of increased taxes, traffic, land prices, and small business failures in many townships when one neighboring township opens its doors to a new 200-acre mall. Thinking and planning ahead. That's integration.

Local planners and leaders in Michigan rarely consider the relationships between their land, water, and business climates, however, because state planning laws that date to the early 20th century encourage communities to act as though they existed alone. That's the opposite of integration.

But an opportunity now exists for Michigan to take a critical first step toward innovative community design. In the next couple of weeks lawmakers in Lansing will introduce a promising land use concept that will begin to modernize how townships and counties think about development and land use planning for the 21st century. The proposal, the Coordinated Planning Act, would give local officials, citizens, and state leaders clear and consistent planning goals that both guide individual communities and encourage regional cooperation. The proposal represents an attempt by lawmakers to protect local control but also bring integration to planning. It could be the most important change in more than three decades to how Michigan communities plan their futures.

The current lack of integration in land use policy is particularly troublesome for natural resource conservation. Janice Tompkins, an environmental quality analyst with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Surface Water Division, says the best way to protect water resources is for communities to make decisions in cooperation with neighboring communities. It does one city's water protection efforts no good if an upstream neighbor fails to invest in sewer improvements and selfishly turns a shared river into a channel for raw sewage disposal.

"Consistency is a challenge," Tompkins said of the disjointed planning across Michigan's regional landscape. "Efforts to protect and improve our water resource would be less complicated if ordinances and zoning rules from place to place complemented one another, but at times they are diametrically opposed."

The common sense of integration already is catching on in many parts of the state. The Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Initiative, located in Traverse City, reaches across a five-county area and incorporates dozens of agencies, organizations, and businesses in its mission to protect and enhance the quality of life in northern Michigan.

In west Michigan, the Strategic Alliance, a consortium of public, private, and nonprofit leaders from the Grand Rapids-Holland-Muskegon triad, will invest $1.3 million over the next two years to understand regional relationships and come to consensus about how to guide future growth.

The Coordinated Planning Act builds on these efforts. On its simplest level, the proposal is designed to combine and modernize four different state planning acts that currently regulate land use in Michigan. In addition three essential reforms give the proposal the sort of 21st century integration that should give it enduring value.

First, the law would require the state to maintain a comprehensive land and water database to help planners evaluate trends in local land use. Gathering good data often is a costly endeavor for local communities, and a state database will help local officials and planners communicate by giving them a consistent format to follow.

The new proposal also encourages state agencies like the Department of Transportation to work more closely with local communities. This provision could help prevent construction of freeways such as the $700 million Holland-Grand Haven Bypass through farmland that local governments want to protect.

The proposal also provides $15 million each year for communities to tell the state and developers want they want. The money will support local efforts to design better local and regional master plans.

The Coordinated Planning Act, if passed, could open the door to integrated planning in Michigan by shining some light through the walls that currently keep local governments in isolation. For that reason, the proposal is attracting broad support. However, it's not the final word on planning in Michigan. Land use legislation also needs to articulate a vision for the future by answering questions such as: How much open space should we preserve? How much should we develop? And where?

Additional legislation also is required to provide local governments with innovative tools to preserve farmland and the ability to establish growth boundaries around metropolitan areas. Such strategies have proven successful in other states; among them Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, and Florida.

The Coordinated Planning Act could set the stage for innovative policy making that improves communities, protects the environment, and advances the economy in Michigan. Most importantly, it will force people to think differently about development, their communities, and the land. That is a plus for the state's economic competitiveness and quality of life in the 21st century.

In the new economy, it's not "what" you think but rather "how" you think that determines success. Those who seek constant improvement by sharing knowledge and integrating their actions with their neighbors will lead the way. The world is becoming an interwoven place, defined by interrelated, collaborative networks that depend on supportive relationships. The Coordinated Planning Act would encourages these skills in Michigan's communities and could establish a robust new foundation for conserving land, air, and water quality.

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