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Trouble at Timber Shores

A Leelanau County land dispute

December 1, 1995 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Prompted by a proposal to turn a 380-acre campground at the top of the Leelanau Peninsula into a $100 million resort, the talk of Northport for months has been land use. Dozens of residents have suddenly become authorities on minimum lot sizes, curb cuts, and other minutiae of Leelanau Township’s zoning ordinance, one of the most modern in Northwest Michigan. The holes they found in the rules and the lessons they have drawn trying to work with a big developer have ramifications for rural communities up and down the Lake Michigan coast.

Northport’s interest in planning began two years ago when Dan Ketelaar, an Ann Arbor-based developer, formally proposed transforming the wooded Timber Shores campground into a marina-condominum-hotel complex. Calling the project a model of sensible land use practices, Mr. Ketelaar promoted the new Timber Shores as a model of the "new urbanism" trend in community planning.

He said the design plan would mimic the layout of traditional Midwestern towns. Shopping, services, the family boat, even the first tee all will be within walking distance of the development’s 350 homes and 100-room inn. Roughly half the property will be preserved in open space.

"What we’re doing is trying to establish a sense of place," said Mr. Ketelaar in an interview. "We want to truly create an intimate community."

In nearby Northport, which is living in fear that its tranquil way of life will be plundered, Mr. Ketelaar’s proposal was viewed almost as a declaration of war — as a community-wrecking symbol of unbridled growth.

Looking dispassionately at this struggle, it is not hard to see merit in the arguments of both camps. Had Mr. Ketelaar proposed Timber Shores in sprawl-choked Fulton County, outside Atlanta, he would be hailed as a hero of common sense community design. But it took thinly populated Northport a century to grow to 430 homes and 613 year-round residents. If the current plan for Timber Shores becomes reality, Northport’s population will more than double in less than ten years. The project’s opponents see Timber Shores as a beast out of place, and have called for its size to be cut by at least half.

"Nobody is saying don’t build it," said Andy Betts, a fitness trainer who moved from Grand Rapids to Northport in 1990. "We’re saying it’s too big."

Both sides have turned to Leelanau Township’s zoning ordinance to support their positions. Originally approved in 1976, and updated periodically ever since, the Township’s land use plan is as comprehensive as any in the region. It is designed to provide for orderly development while attempting to safeguard the woods, fields, and orchards so essential to the region’s rural character.

Leelanau Township designed its plan to anticipate $100 million developments, but when an actual project came forward, the zoning plan turned out to be inadequate in key areas. By far the most important flaw is that there are no provisions to require or encourage developers to reduce the size of their projects. So even though some Township leaders are sympathetic with the idea that Timber Shores is too large, there is almost nothing they can legally do to direct that it be smaller.

"When the opposition comes to us and says ‘you have to downsize Timber Shores,’ we have to turn around and say ‘look this is what our language allows him to do by right.’" said Jennifer Schemke-Irvine, the Leelanau Township Zoning Administrator. "According to our plan, he has the right to do what he’s doing."

No single facet of the Timber Shores project has attracted more attention than the 12.2-acre marina Mr. Ketelaar has proposed, and which is not covered by the Township’s zoning plan. Instead, Mr. Ketelaar has asked the new state Department of Environmental Quality for permission to cut a huge gap in the Grand Traverse Bay shoreline, and to dump thousands of yards of dredge spoils on some of the Bay’s most productive whitefish spawning grounds.

Such a worrisome use of public resources for private gain prompted 180 people to turn out at a public hearing in the Northport school gym in mid-October to urge the DEQ to ban the marina. Twenty people testified, calling the marina an environmental insult and a violation of laws designed to protect Michigan’s coast line. Not one resident spoke in favor of the project.

Whether or not Timber Shores is ultimately built near Northport, and the victor is far from being decided, the real problem is plainly apparent. This cozy, prosperous community full of quaint shops and embraced by lovely scenes of blue water and green trees has been discovered. Developers aren’t coming forward with little housing projects sensitively fitted into the landscape. They are proposing mega-projects that by their very size seem to engulf communities. Zoning is the most important tool enabling a community to intelligently respond to such projects. The lesson from the battle over Timber Shores is that even the best land use plan wasn’t good enough.

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