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Citizens Guard Your Master Plans

Defense of land use planning

August 1, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Building a fine home, and developing economically healthy, livable communities depends on good design. And as any homeowner knows who’s departed from an excellent plan only to end up with a disappointing house, the same holds true for communities. Yet all over Michigan citizens who spent years enacting sound master plans and zoning ordinances -- the essential blueprints for deciding what gets built and where -- are watching these legally enforceable planning rules violated at every turn. The result is more sprawl, more congestion, less open space, and growing civic disputes in dozens of townships and counties.
Just how common the tendency of elected local leaders to break their own planning laws is suggested by a new study prepared by Joan Guy, the former chairman of the Planning Commission in Meridian Township, east of Lansing. From January 1, 1997 to May 3, 2000, according to the study, the Meridian Township Board rezoned 627 acres of land, much of it from residential to commercial uses. Of the 44 requests for rezoning that came before the board during that period, 37 were approved. And of those 37, fully 27, or 61 percent, violated the township’s master plan, which sets as one its highest planning priorities the preservation of neighborhoods and residential areas.

The pro-development rezoning decisions have become so controversial that growth management advocates are running a slate of candidates, including Anne Woiwode, the program director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, to replace the Meridian Township Board.

Such activism, of course, is precisely what’s needed when township boards and city commissions take the law into their own hands and willfully violate the planning visions decided by residents. This is no trivial matter. Early in the 20th century, Michigan enacted planning and zoning laws to provide citizens and local governments the authority to guide development. Master plans set out the principles for improving the quality of life and ensure orderly development, such as determining where homes will be built and where wetlands should be protected. Zoning ordinances establish regulations that put the master plan into effect. Generally, townships appoint planning commissions to oversee the rules.

In recent years countless Michigan communities, including Meridian Township, rewrote both documents in order to do a better job to end sprawl, protect neighborhoods, reduce congestion, and ensure that there are ample green spaces. Many of the new conservation-based land use plans, though, have come under attack by developers who view any regulations that impede development as a threat to their bottom lines. The development interests, moreover, have found a ready audience in local government officials, many of whom are mindful of the state’s terrible economy in the 1980s and are inclined to approve job and tax revenue boosting development whether or not it adheres to master plans and ordinances.

The developers’ growth-at-any-cost strategy is having the effect of weakening the validity of local land use law because it erodes the concept of consistency. In a 1997 case involving Troy, for example, city officials actually resisted a developer’s proposal to rezone a large parcel for a new mall because it violated the master plan. Oakland County Circuit Judge Denise Langford Morris, though, decided in favor of the developer because the city had previously approved so many similar rezoning requests, even though they also violated the master plan. Judge Morris ruled that selectively singling out and disapproving the new mall was a violation of the developer’s "equal protection" rights.

Mindful of the need to be consistent in making land use decisions, citizens are working in communities all over the state to defend their master plans and ordinances.

In Benzie County, southwest of Traverse City, developers want to build a $100 million, 610-unit, 522-acre residential, golf, assisted care, equestrian, hotel, and village center complex on farmland along M-115. The planned Stone Ridge Farm is the largest new development proposed in northwest Michigan. In June, after months of review, the Weldon Township Planning Commission turned down the application and invited a new one because Stone Ridge Farm violated the zoning ordinance. It was too big, too dense, took up too much land, and the developer did not supply key information about the effects of the development on the environment, the water table, erosion, and the economic impacts. The Weldon Township Board, however, has indicated that it doesn’t much care what the zoning ordinance says and wants to overrule the planning commission and approve the development anyway. A vote could come as early as August 10, when a new public hearing is held.

Citizens in Fennville, near Saugatuck, meanwhile are effectively defending their township’s farmland from an oil company that wants to build a giant gas station, truck stop, and convenience store in a field zoned to stay in agriculture. Initially, several members of the Saugatuck Township Board and planning commission indicated they were sympathetic to the developer’s request to rezone the land, which was a violation of the master plan. But earlier this month, after weeks of research and organizing, the citizens convinced the planning commission to maintain the integrity of the ordinance and deny construction. The township board, in a move that hopefully will become more common, is expected to endorse that decision.

(A version of this article was published in the Detroit Free Press on August 1, 2000.)

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