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Green Zones

Whitewater Township sets the pace

December 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

No one doubts that the foundation of a classic film is the script, or that a comfortable home originates with its design. Yet as Northwest Michigan focuses on how to safeguard a matchless natural and agricultural landscape, the conversation too often shifts away from the source of the problem: outdated township zoning ordinances.

"Practically every planning document and zoning ordinance in America since World War II is a blueprint for suburban sprawl," says Joe Anderson, chairman of the Whitewater Township Planning Commission in Grand Traverse County.

A lifelong resident of the region, Anderson earns his keep selling insurance. But his avocation is planning. He’s attended land use design courses at Harvard University, read voraciously in the planning literature, and met or spoken with most of the nation’s noted planning authorities.

Last summer, when he was named chairman of the planning commission, Anderson had the opportunity to put his contacts to work. The township hired Joel Russell, a land use attorney and planner from Northampton, Mass., who specializes in writing zoning ordinances to protect rural areas."The development pressure is so great here that we need to rely on the pros," Anderson says.

Modernizing the township’s ordinance couldn’t come at a more opportune moment. Whitewater, which lies between fast-growing Traverse City and Kalkaska, is in danger of losing its rural character. One example: the new Turtle Creek Casino. Some 9,000 acres, nearly a third of the township, are still used for growing apples, cherries, and other crops. Much of that farmland, though, drapes across view properties that attract developers. "Next to my family, protecting this land is the number one priority," says Anderson.

New York City invented zoning at the turn of the century to protect public health. Zoning separated places where people lived from factory pollution. After World War II, suburbs embraced the idea. Zones were established for homes, small businesses, industry, schools, and other activities to make life more orderly.

That’s not the way it turned out. Zoning ushered in development that in many places paving over land at a rate five times greater than the growth in population. Also, it takes a car to travel from one zone to another on increasingly congested roads. In effect, zoning has distanced people from many aspects of their lives and from one another.

Northwest Michigan was not immune to the zoning plague. In the 1970s, when the region experienced its first population surge, dozens of townships responded by writing ordinances that resulted in large-lot suburban growth. Whitewater’s existing ordinance, for instance, requires lots in Williamsburg to be a minimum of 20,000 square feet, or half an acre. If such an ordinance had been in effect at the turn of the century, neither Willliamsburg nor any of the other beautiful small towns in northern Michigan could have been built. Most have lots that are 7,500 square feet. As new urbanists like to say, the small towns we love most would be illegal by today’s zoning.

By the 1990s, those 20-year-old zoning ordinances were producing a storm of suburban construction. Anderson says that reversing the trend will require zoning that:

  • Simplifies rules and dramatically reduces the number of defined zones.
  • Directs that businesses, offices, schools, recreation centers, homes, and churches be built in much closer proximity.
  • Encourages more flexibility so that landowners can earn just as much by developing a small portion of their property for new houses while preserving the majority in forests and fields.
  • Encourages homes to be built on smaller lots, especially in towns like Williamsburg.

Even before Anderson became chairman of the planning commission, such concepts were gaining prominence in Northwest Michigan. Last spring, Kasson Township, in Leelanau County, became the first to enact a zoning ordinance based on rural design principles. Written by Don Hamilton, a regional planner, the ordinance is aimed at protecting the township’s forests. Elmwood Township and Acme Township also are working on similar land use measures.

A draft of the new Whitewater ordinance is due before the end of the year. Anderson anticipates that it will not only lead to a natural landscape that his great grandchildren will still enjoy, it could also considerably strengthen the land ethic in other rural townships. "What we need are ordinances that reduce how much land we use and how many miles we drive," Anderson said. "If we do that, we’ll save the very things we all are so afraid of losing."

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