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New Approaches to Shaping Community Futures

Talk delivered to Lapeer County community planners

March 15, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Presentation to the Lapeer County, MI Planning Conference, March 15, 1997

Any of you who’ve traveled through the Traverse City area know of its formidable beauty. The air is clear. The rivers and lakes are clean. There are vast stretches of forest. And in much of the region, the farm community continues to thrive.

And if you’ve been there recently, you might also have noticed that Traverse City is sporting an entirely new economic feel. A new business frontier based on banking, communications, construction, education, energy development, manufacturing, medical care, professional services, recreation, insurance, government, and transportation has developed. It is transforming Traverse City into an influential center of information age industries. The economy is deeper, more diverse, more vibrant than at any time in the city’s long history. Northwest Michigan, in short, has become a land of opportunity.

These two remarkable facets about life in Northwest Michigan — the unsurpassed environmental conditions and the flourishing economy — are producing an almost ironic response. The region’s economy, its natural attractions, its low crime rate, and cultural richness are now magnets for new residents and businesses. They are spurring fast-paced growth. Every county, township, and village within 40 miles of Traverse City is confronting the same urgent issue. What steps must their community take to strengthen the economy while protecting the number one asset that is bringing people to live and work there?

This issue is not one of growth versus no growth. It’s not jobs or the environment. It's not us versus them. Rather, it's a question of how to grow. And answering this question well will determine a region’s prosperity now and in the future.

The same questions are beginning to be asked in many other areas of Michigan and around the nation. They are generally the most vital questions these regions face. Why?

Because the emerging 21st century economy uses information as its essential raw material, and is defined by technology and mobility. Industries and their workers are no longer bolted to a specific place; they can be almost anywhere. As a result, among the critical assets workers and executives increasingly cite in choosing a place to locate are a clean environment, uncongested roads, low personal and municipal costs, and superior quality of life. That is, the place is even more of an essential resource in attracting the businesses of the future than its ever been. Those places that offer business and workers superior living conditions are going to be more competitive.

Yet what is an obviously challenging and exciting time for business is also turning into something of a nightmare for government, especially at the local level. As more and more responsibility is heaped on county government, city hall, and township boards, local political leaders are less and less capable of capitalizing on the opportunities. Simply put, the will of local government to establish the public institutions, adopt the policies, and make the investments to appropriately respond to growth is being sapped by rising costs and declining resources.

In too many cases, as a result, communities fail to react to growth and end up overseeing decline.

Fortunately, in some regions, local governments are tackling this immense problem well. Several factors are common to their success. They all involved intensive programs of public education. They were established with the help of broad-based coalitions representing the entire community. And somewhere in the heap was a leader with a clear vision and the hide of a rhinoceros. Because adopting a new approach to land management means change. And not everybody is going to agree.

I’m here today to talk primarily about two exciting projects that are occurring in Northwest Michigan. New Designs for Growth, based in Traverse City, is sponsored by the Traverse City Area of Commerce and is intended to preserve small towns and prevent sprawl in 5 rural Northwest Michigan counties. The other is the work in Peninsula Township to preserve farmland and to establish a new village center based on historic planning and architectural principals.

But I also wanted to briefly describe some of the other promising land management programs we’ve studied at the Michigan Land Use Institute which merit attention.

One is the land use plan in place in Fauquier County, Virginia about 50 miles outside of Washington, D.C. Despite being so close to the capital, the county is still 90 percent rural and has been kept that way by very tight zoning restrictions that are enforced.

The most important provision of the plan: a requirement that developers leave untouched 85 percent of any rural parcel they choose to build on. The second most important provision: a 1967 county zoning rule to restrict development to nine towns and villages that make up 5 percent of the county land. In effect, Fauquier established nine urban growth boundaries. Inside the boundaries, development occurs. Outside remains rural. The result is that Fauquier is one immensely beautiful landscape of horse farms, and hunt clubs and rolling Virginia countryside.

Fauquier’s secret, of course, is that a dozen of the state’s wealthiest people live there. And those wealthy families have dug deep into their pockets to defend the restrictive land use plan. But the lesson also is that a land management plan, tightly enforced, can effectively guide growth while preserving a rural atmosphere.

A second example is Portland, Oregon. In the early 1970s, Oregon established a statewide land use planning program that set uniform goals and required local governments to prepare land use programs. Central to the programs was installing urban growth boundaries, like the one used in Fauquier County. Cities and villages actually drew a line around themselves which determined where development would occur and where it couldn’t. The intent was to preseve farmland in the Williamette Valley, and ensure the future of the state’s forest industries.

The Oregon plan is a miracle of public policy. Three times its been challenged in statewide referendums, and each time voters approved its existence by successively larger majorities. The reason is that it works. The Portland Metropolitan region, which includes parts of three counties and 24 cities has gained 50 percent in population since 1975, when the urban growth boundary was established. But the city’s land area has expanded by less than 2 percent.

That is precisely the opposite from almost every other metropolitan region. Most major cities have doubled their land area while barely growing in population. Here in Michigan, population is expected to grow 11 percent over the next 25 years. But the amount of land expected to be transformed from farm and field to suburbs is expected to grow by as much as 87 percent. That is, if current trends continue, nearly as much land will be suburbanized to accomodate the next 1.1 million people as took to accomodate the existing 9.3 million people. No other state is sprawling as fast.

Oregon, in contrast, is expected to grow 50 percent over the next 25 years. But cities and villages are talking about expanding their urban growth boundaries by 1 to 2 percent.

Perhaps because it is spreading out at a rate that alarms some people, Michigan has established several promising growth management projects at the local level, both of which are being led by business interests.

One is the farmland preservation project on Old Mission Peninsula, north of Traverse City, which is led by the agricultural community.

In 1988, as Traverse City’s population was expanding, Peninsula Township took the first important step to address the sprawl problem. It elected Rob Manigold, a cherry farmer, as supervisor. Mr. Manigold then hired Gordon Hayward, a former dairy farmer, as planning director. With the help of dozens of residents, the two set to work on a program to manage growth and preserve the farm economy by protecting 9,700 acres of prime farmland.

The foundation of the plan was to provide growers with an economic incentive to continue farming by buying the development rights to their land. The "purchase of development rights" or PDR program would pay farmers the difference between the value of their land for agriculture and the value for housing developments. In 1994, the township sponsored a remarkably effective public education campaign, complete with posters and brochures. It helped to convince Old Mission residents to approve a property tax increase to raise an estimated $7 million for development right purchases over the 15-year life of the program. That is enough to safeguard some 2,500 acres of farmland, 1,700 of which are already protected or under negotiation.

Another 2,000 acres have been protected with funds provided by state and Federal grants, and through private programs undertaken by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and the American Farmland Trust. In all, 4,500 acres are on the way to being protected.

Having protected more than a third of Old Mission Peninsula’s 9,700 acres of prime farm land, leaders of Peninsula Township now are taking the next step to safeguard their agricultural economy and rural way of life. They have designed Mapleton Village, a pedestrian-oriented traditional town complete with a central green, narrow winding roads, alleys, and apartments above stores. The idea is to attract more people to live closer together on less land.

Mapleton Village borrows from the planning traditions of Northwest Michigan’s small villages and livable neighborhoods.The master plan also calls for architectural design standards that include pitched roofs, two-story store fronts that come up to the sidewalk, and separate garages with granny flats. The beauty of the Mapleton plan is that no destination in the village is more than 1/4 mile from the town center. And more than 1,000 people could live and work in an area covering just 165 acres.

The intent of Mapleton Village is to provide an attractive destination other than land gobbling subdivisions and luxurious ridge top homes for the growing number of families who are seeking out Old Mission Peninsula as a place to live. For a decade or so, the peninsula’s number one product has been picture windows.

And by establishing a village center, the township’s leaders say, that should reduce traffic on the peninsula’s main highway to Traverse City, thus limiting the need for expensive road widening.

As the Mapleton Village design has taken shape, it has twice been put before Old Mission residents. Supporters embraced the idea of a traditional town that is designed to be safe from cars, neighborly, and self sufficient.

Critics, however, wondered whether Mapleton Village could ever be built. The small stores challenge the retail marketing trend of ever larger discount centers. The cost of designing and building roads and other infrastructure has been estimated at $7.5 million. Nor is it clear that so many families will trade subdivisions for village life.

Peninsula Township leaders are not daunted. They are planning more public meetings this year to gauge whether there is a public will to build the first traditional village in Northwest Michigan in more than 90 years.

The other planning project that shows great promise in our region is New Designs For Growth. It is designed to do three things.

First, it is meant to focus the region’s attention on development patterns that are now smearing the countryside with unattractive strip malls, subdivisions, new roads, fast food fry pits, lube joints, civic centers, mega malls, and the like.

Second, it is aimed at asking new kinds of questions about where and how to fit the 41 percent increase in growth that is expected in the region in the next 25 years when the 5-county population is anticipated to reach 190,000.

Third, it is asking whether traditional zoning is the only practical response to deciding how to design a livable, vibrant community in rural regions, or whether there are other tools available?

It started in the summer of 1995 when the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce summoned more than 20 organizations, asking them for help in responding to the region’s sprawl. The Michigan Land Use Institute was part of the alliance that met twice monthly for six months to design a growth management program from scratch. We learned there was a need for some basics.

  1. We needed to amass a more extensive database on economic policy and land use management. What was working across America and how could it be adopted for use in Michigan and in Traverse City.
  2. We needed an inclusive public education program to bring in residents, business leaders, and public officials. Everybody must be involved. Generally, northern Michigan has been a region where unlimited property rights have existed. It was going to take some intelligent, reasoned advocacy to convince people that growth management tools were needed to keep taxes in check, to build the economy, and to protect private property investments.
  3. Communities needed to gain access to teams of technically-qualified professionals to help them understand the distinctive growth challenges they face and come up with sensible regulatory responses that work.
  4. And we needed money. Coaxing rural townships into considering new approaches to land management could only be done if somebody was going to help pay for the professional assistance.

Thus New Designs became a project to provide public education and land use planning services to more than 60 townships and local governments in five counties along the coast of Lake Michigan. The Traverse Area Chamber of Commerce is earnest about this effort. It has pledged $65,000 a year to finance it in 1996 and 1997 and is seeking other sources of funding, including the local Rotary Charities, which put up $30,000 earlier this year. Recently, the Americana Foundation agreed to spend $16,000 for the community workshops in 1996 and 1997. The Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau and its members have also has committed $30,000 over the next three years.

The principal services offered by New Designs For Growth are:

  1. Organizing workshops to inform township leaders and residents about modern conservation land planning principles. The curriculum of the workshops which have occurred in all five counties, includes an extensive analysis of modern regulatory tools that safeguard natural resources and encourage orderly development.

    I have become particularly enamored with the work of Joel Russell, a planner in Northamptom, Mass. who relies on what he calls performance-based zoning. In essence, Russell helps communities convert the goals of a land use plan — that wish list of measures to preserve environmental protection, open space, community character — into law. New projects must comply with the criteria the local government set out. If they don’t protect the environment. If they don’t preserve some percentage of open space. If they are too big, or too ugly, or otherwise an insult to community character, they can’t be built. There are no zones. And there is great flexibility. Exisitng homes and small businesses — so called least intrusive uses — are exempted. Almost everything else must come before the town planning commission for review. And developers are encouraged to amend their plans to comply with the performance based standards. In Reading, a town in upstate New York that never had any land use plan, Russell developed a 15-page land use law that truly meets the region's needs and is supported by a broad majority of residents.

  2. One of the interesting exercises that the New Designs workshops uses is to give residents and township leaders the opportunity to participate in a hands on exercise to design their own town. Paper is spread across the floor. People are handed models of homes, office buildings, churches, schools. And then they are asked to lay out a model community. Invariably, what appears looks like a traditional compact town, with a central green, narrow winding roads, clustered homes, walkable streets, stores, schools, and businesses all within a stone’s throw of one another.

    Yet not a single zoning ordinance now in effect in Northwest Michigan would allow such a town to be built today. What residents have designed on the floor is impossible in real life. The minimum lot sizes, and minimal parking requirements, and separation of uses, and minimum road widths, and all the other inflexible details of current land use plans make it impossible to design a town that people can care about. And when this is pointed out, it really opens people’s eyes.

  3. New Designs also sends teams of technical experts to assess a township’s land use plan and then provide professional advice, at a shared cost, about how it could be strengthened.

    And we are working on providing technical assistance to community leaders for constructing new tax, zoning, and permitting provisions. The rules will be designed to save money and provide economic incentives for protecting small towns and natural resources. For instance, New Designs has begun to work with banks to support lower interest loans to support farmland preservation, and small lot developments in town centers.

The intent is to create new policy initiatives so that Northwest Michigan’s built environment of the 21st century does not undermine the region’s principal attributes: new economic opportunities and a healthy natural environment.

New Designs for Growth, which began on March 12, 1996, is still very young. But it is achieving some marked successes already.

It takes its public education mission seriously. A parade of nationally prominent speakers have appeared in the region to work with developers, townships, the environmental community, and local businesses. In the last year Randall Arendt, author of Rural By Design has come to town. Henry Richmond, founder of 1,000 Friends of Oregon who helped to install that state’s model land use program has come. So has Peter Katz, author of The New Urbanism and executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Recent speakers have included James Kunstler, author of Home From Nowhere, and coming up next month is Thomas Hylton, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials on land use in the Pottstown, Pa. Mercury.

New Designs also secured a $270,000 grant from the Department of Transportation to beautify the gateway entrance to Traverse City. Curb cuts along the US 31 corridor will be reduced in number. Trees and shrubs will be added. Hillsides and the roadway will be contoured in an effort to brighten strip mall development that arose in the last 15 years outside the city.

New Designs gained a $20,000 grant from the state Coastal Zone Management Program to ensure water quality, protect forests and fields, and enhance recreation in two watersheds in fast-growing Garfield Township, just south of Traverse City. The project involves conducting a formal inventory of wetlands, steep slopes, wildlife habitat and other critical environmental features along two tributaries of the Boardman River. Those tributaries, Miller Creek and Jack’s Creek, drain an area of open fields, forest, and some residential development near Traverse City’s newest shopping malls. The aim of the project is to provide developers a guide so that construction in the area occurs with an eye toward safeguarding the streams and the natural landscape. The voluntary watershed management plan, one of the first of its kind in the region, also will map out a hiking and biking trail system that will connect to a county network that is under development. Developers and local landowners have made verbal commitments to abiding by the voluntary plan. Why? Because New Designs also has conducted the economic research to make the case that doing so will increase land and housing values.

New Designs has tackled the road sign visual clutter that cropped up over the last two decades. It proposed a new sign ordinance in Traverse City to reduce the size of signs, and set standards for where they could be placed. We all know this is very tough stuff politically. Tools are available. There is no end to the tools and techniques. But solving the political problem invariably holds the key to solving the land use problem. In the case of the signs, the business community itself is not sure it wants a new sign ordinance. That debate is continuing. But what the proposal indicated is that the Area Chamber of Commerce is not afraid of asking the question and providing the answer.

Most importantly, New Designs has changed the tone of the land use discussion in our region. Having the business community leading the charge has given growth management a visibility and respectability that it could not have achieved any other way. It has opened the eyes and the minds of skeptical township leaders who might otherwise reject any discussion of improving land use as talk promoted by outsiders or people who want to stop growth.

The groups involved in New Designs For Growth believe there is a deep political resolve in Northwest Michigan to blaze a new path to improve the region’s economy, preserve its small towns, and sustain its clean environment. Putting ideas into effect to realize this goal means years of persistent, thoughtful work. The result, though, is likely to be a prize cherished by generations that follow — a matchless natural landscape of green hills and blue water and a handsome, prosperous community like none other. Thank you.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
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