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Republican Leaders “Totally Committed” to Smart Growth Commission

Sikkema calls panel a “collective” venture with governor

January 27, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Keith Schneider/MLUI
  Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema said that Republican lawmakers were prepared to embrace reasoned recommendations from a new state Smart Growth Commission.

GRAND RAPIDS –  Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm and the Republican leaders of the state House and Senate have agreed to appoint roughly 20 members to a new bipartisan state Smart Growth Commission. Democrats will choose ten members and Republicans will choose the other ten, according to State Senator Ken Sikkema, the Republican majority leader.

In an interview this weekend with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Mr. Sikkema said that he and Representative Rick Johnson, the Republican House Speaker, are as “totally committed” to the commission as Ms. Granholm, and that their staffs have been working for days to make “quality appointments” to the panel.

Mr. Sikkema’s comments about the commission, the most extensive by any of Michigan’s senior political leaders, included his view that the panel's voting members and their mission will be made public before Ms. Granholm’s State of the State speech on February 5, and perhaps as early as this week. The heads of state agencies and a select group of legislators will serve on the commission as non-voting, ex-officio members, Sen. Sikkema said. The commission is expected to meet frequently, hold numerous public hearings around the state, and bring its work to a close in September with a report that outlines formal policy recommendations.

“The governor, the speaker, and I collectively are saying land use is a priority,” said Mr. Sikkema, who represents the Grand Rapids region and was elected Senate majority leader earlier this year after a 16-year career in the state House and Senate. “We’re doing it collectively. If the governor was doing it on her own, she could appoint a commission to report to her and put recommendations in the State of the State. But if it’s a governor-speaker-majority leader commission I think it adds more oomph and credibility from both sides.

“Lookit,” Mr. Sikkema added, “I’m going into this with my eyes wide open. I’ve been around long enough to know it’s not an easy issue. But it’s important enough to the future of Michigan that we address it substantively.”

Granholm Acts on Land Use Promise
During her successful 2002 election campaign, Ms. Granholm repeatedly promised to establish a bipartisan commission to study the consequences of Michigan’s sprawling patterns of development and recommend solutions. She specifically said she wanted to evaluate state spending programs that encourage sprawl and “terminate those that cause irreparable harm to our land resources.” Ms. Granholm said she wanted to invest more state dollars in cities and older suburbs for public transit, affordable housing, infrastructure, and urban redevelopment. And she wanted to assist communities in “assessing the long-term costs of low density development,” and provide technical and financial support to reduce them.

As governor, Ms. Granholm has clearly indicated that she views taming sprawl as a high priority in her administration. Her inaugural address on January 1 included a ringing call to “protect our clean water and the unspoiled open spaces of these spectacular peninsulas.” She announced that establishing a regional transit authority to improve public transportation in metropolitan Detroit region was her top legislative priority. And on January 9 her staff confirmed that former Republican Governor William G. Milliken and former Democratic Attorney General Frank J. Kelley agreed to serve as chairmen of the state Smart Growth Commission.

Republicans Step Up to Curb Sprawl
Sen. Sikkema, who early in his career was the executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and is generally regarded as the most knowledgeable environmental specialist in the Legislature, emphasized that Republican leaders are as prepared to lead on land use policy reform and finding solutions to sprawl as Governor Granholm. He said that he and Speaker Rick Johnson will name 10 “quality appointments” to the commission, including representatives from local government, the planning community, business, and even an “environmental activist.” 

“I don’t shy away from having a total open discussion about this. I fear nothing here,” he said. “Rick and I are totally committed to this. Our insistence with the governor is look, if you really want a substantive commission that has credibility with the Legislature and you want recommendations to the Legislature then you have to have an equal number of appointments. A Republican Legislature will not look favorably on a commission that has 17 Democratic appointments and 3 Republicans. It’s dead on arrival. You tell us governor, are you sincere about it or not? And she was. Okay. Let’s do the equal number and let’s go full steam ahead.”

Efforts over the weekend to reach Ms. Granholm or a member of her staff to confirm the agreement were unsuccessful.

First Real Attempt Since 1970s
Not since former Governor Milliken tried and failed to pass a land use statute in the 1970s have senior Republican leaders so emphatically embraced the need to strengthen state laws to guide development in Michigan. In 1992, a task force appointed by former Republican Governor John Engler unexpectedly launched the land use debate statewide when it identified sprawl and the “absence of sound land use planning” as one of the most important threats to the environment and the well-being of Michigan’s urban and rural landscapes.

During the decade that followed Michigan produced a wealth of research, including a multi-volume Michigan Trend Future report and a separate study by Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants, that concluded that although Michigan was among the slowest growing states in population it was losing farmland, forest, and open space to development at a faster rate than almost any other state. The research confirmed that sprawling patterns of development emptied cities, produced serious water pollution, wasted taxpayer dollars in excessive infrastructure spending, increased family expenses, generated numbing traffic congestion, and diminished the state’s economic competitiveness and quality of life.

The myriad consequences of sprawl, and the Engler administration’s decision not to address it in a meaningful way, energized a grassroots Smart Growth movement in Michigan that became one of the most active and influential in the nation. Ms. Granholm recognized the electoral strength of the issue and her support for land use policy reforms and Smart Growth helped propel her to the governor’s office. Election returns showed that Ms. Granholm did surprisingly well in the fast growing, primarily Republican northern and west Michigan counties along Lake Michigan where tackling the consequences of runaway development has been a top political issue since the mid-1990s.

Republicans Also See Risk
Sen. Sikkema said he and other Republican leaders view the Smart Growth Commission as an opportunity to begin seriously addressing land use problems that he called “huge.”

“My view of the land use issue is that it is a water quality issue. It’s also a taxpayer issue because urban sprawl means that you have to spend more money on roads, and schools, and water," he said.

“It resonates better with the public if you talk about that rather than land use. Land use is kind of punching a pillow. You go downstairs in the bar tonight and talk to somebody about land use, people will roll their eyes. But if you say, ‘Look we need to protect the Great Lakes, we need to protect Michigan’s lakes, river, and streams.’ Now that resonates with people.

“What you have to do is make the connection that the sprawl that occurs now compromises water quality. It does. I live a mile and a half from the new mall in Grandville. It used to be a farmer’s field three years ago. Now with all the runoff, water quality in that area -- I’m just telling you -- is compromised. You can engineer the heck out of it, but you are never going to duplicate with all that fancy and expensive engineering what wetlands and fields do to protect water quality.

Sikkema Promises to Defend Commission's Work
"How big an issue is it? It’s huge." said Sen. Sikkema. "It’s a water quality issue. It’s a taxpayer issue. It’s protecting in the case of agriculture one of the largest industries in the state. That’s why it’s an important issue.”

He said, moreover, that Republican leaders will do everything necessary to ensure that the commission is successful and that critics of Smart Growth, many of them staunch G.O.P supporters and campaign donors, would not obstruct the commission’s work.

“Nobody is going to blow it up before it gets going,” said. Sen. Sikkema. “I already made my commitment to it. The speaker has made his commitment to it. The governor has made her commitment to it. I think I can speak for the speaker. We have no interest in appointing people to the commission who would surreptitiously blow it up. We’re going to appoint quality people who can contribute, who are open minded, and who have some knowledge of the issues.”

Mr. Sikkema urged the commission to begin its work with a careful review of all the research conducted during the past decade about the causes and consequences of sprawl in Michigan, but not to conduct new studies.

“My view is the first order of business of the commission is to take all that work that’s been done and present it to the commission and the citizens of Michigan,” he said. “That’s where you start. All of that work documents land use patterns in this state and what the implications are. Get that on the table.

"You don’t have to redo any of it. The next question is what do you do. It’s not going to be healthy if we assume we know what the problem is and go right into solutions.”

Senator Sikkema said that while some Republican lawmakers were uncomfortable, they also were prepared to embrace reasoned recommendations from the commission. “We’ll have a challenge,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to find many people in my caucus who say there isn’t a problem. The facts are right there. The solutions are going to be challenging for our caucus because we believe in private property rights. Our caucus believes that government regulations ought to be specifically targeted to a problem that can only be fixed by government regulation and not by the private sector.

"We don’t embrace government regulation readily. We believe there is a private property rights issue that’s going to have to get confronted. We have a huge budget problem that all of us have to deal with. Republicans are not quick to embrace new government programs. So those are some of the philosophical challenges that will be there for us and for some Democrats. I don’t think Republicans have a monopoly on issues of private property rights, less than effective government regulation, and less government spending.”

“But our caucus has deep roots in the farming and agriculture community. Our people know that farmland is disappearing. Our caucus has deep roots in the value of open space in Michigan. Our caucus has deep roots in the need to protect water.

"I’m just assuming that if these recommendations are effective they are not going to be without controversy," Sen. Sikkema concluded. "We’re willing to deal with it. We’re willing to address it.”

Keith Schneider, a nationally prominent environmental journalist and columnist, is program director at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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