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Do We Really Want A Conventional Sprawlscape?

Weldon Township zoning board says no

July 5, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In case you missed it, Benzie County this year is the focus of a $100 million, 610-unit mega development proposed for 522 acres of farm and forest land northwest of Thompsonville. The so-called Stone Ridge Farm is the largest new development of its kind ever proposed in Benzie County. If approved as planned, the development would set a terrible precedent for Weldon Township and Benzie County by encouraging runaway and damaging sprawl.

This is precisely what Benzie County citizens, business leaders, and local government officials have said they do not want for our beautiful county. Just last April, after five long years of work, citizens and local government officials completed a proposed new master land use plan for Benzie County. Its top priorities for making land use decisions are to protect the area’s stunning scenic beauty, ample natural resources, and clean environment.

The proposed Stone Ridge Farm development in Weldon Township violates those planning principles. Cheval Knudsen Properties, the Traverse City-based developer, wants to bulldoze fields and then strip trees from one of the county’s most stunning forested ridges. In their place would be 240 homes, 60 condominiums, 180 apartments, a 60-room assisted care facility, a 70-room hotel, a golf course, equestrian area, and a village center. If such a plan becomes the standard for developing large parcels, Benzie County’s magnificent landscape and high quality of life will surely perish, just as it has in so many other beautiful regions of the country that allowed their landscape to be buried in a blizzard of sprawl.

Fortunately, the Weldon Township Zoning Board took the first step late last month to stand up for the land and the integrity of small towns. On June 27, the board turned down the application and invited the developers to submit a new plan that more closely fits the essential character of their community and our county. The Zoning Board’s decision, which came after months of review, is a courageous action by a committed group of citizens to sustain the economy and the environment of this beautiful and unspoiled county.

The application is now in the hands of the Weldon Township Board. It meets on Tuesday evening, July 11, in Thompsonville. Under the clearly defined procedures of the township’s ordinance, the board has no alternative but to accept the Zoning Board’s decision and notify the developer. However, there is talk among the Weldon Township board members to ignore the ordinance and the Zoning Board’s decision and approve the project anyway. That would be a needlessly disruptive action aimed not only at upending the law but also sanctioning unsightly sprawl in Benzie County.

The issues here are crucial for the county’s future. Benzie County is unique. Our landscape, our lakes and streams, our enduring Great Lakes dunes; all are world class. County residents support new development that fits the character, custom, and culture of this wondrous region. Anything less is a real threat to a place and a way of life that is increasingly rare in America.

Cheval Knudsen misjudged the resolve in Weldon Township and Benzie County to do things right. With only a smattering of supporting evidence, it asserted that the Stone Ridge Farm, for instance, will provide a windfall in new tax revenues. In fact American Farmland Trust, a respected research organization, has published numerous economic studies that find residential development costs much more in services than it pays in new taxes. For every dollar paid in taxes by homeowners, local governments spend $1.17 for services, including police, roads, utilities, and emergency services. On the other hand, farmland pays more in taxes than it costs in municipal services. For every dollar raised in taxes from farmland, local governments spend only 34 cents in services.

Cheval Knudsen insists, again with the stingiest evidence, that Stone Ridge Farm will enhance the "essential character" of the area and is an "improvement." In fact: Stone Ridge Farm as proposed is a nice development -- for Phoenix. It does not come close to what Benzie County should seek or approve. It is too big, too dense, wastes too much land, and seeks to clear a beautiful forested ridge and paper it with highly visible homes. The unmistakable conclusion is that, as proposed, Stone Ridge Farm is neither compact nor environmentally sensitive. It represents conventional sprawling development of the type that we all are familiar with and which is readily available now in many ordinary big city suburbs.

The Michigan Land Use Institute and its more than 240-member families, businesses, and local governments in Benzie County urge the Weldon Township Board to follow its own ordinance, obey the law, and accept the Zoning Board’s decision. We also urge the Township Board to ask the developers to submit a new plan for a smaller, less dense, and much less intense development that enhances rather than diminishes Benzie County’s economy, landscape, and small town quality of life. Doing so ensures that the rights and privileges of the landowner, the developer, and the community are served. It also ensures that the Benzie County we know and love today will be here 100 years from now. That, of course, is the essence of sound planning and the foundation of Benzie County’s vibrant economy in the 21st century.

(A version of this article was reprinted in the Benzie County Record patriot on July 5, 2000.)

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