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Breaking the Sprawl Addiction

A twelve step program

March 1, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

• Taxpayers are rebelling. The shoddiness of the suburban sprawlscape, and the enormous costs of and revulsion at building even more the same old way, are prompting a new regional political discussion aimed at managing growth. Garfield Township, which like other local governments in Michigan has long disdained the influence of outsiders in decisions that affect its future, no longer has a choice. Taxpayers outside its jurisdiction are pressing Garfield and neighboring governments to coordinate their planning in order to protect the environment, build better communities, and save money. Like other investors interested in sound use of their money, taxpayers are demanding and winning more accountability and influence in decisions about future growth.

Facing the Future
Considering the evidence about what promotes and sustains sprawl, it is astounding how much of the nation's discourse about it is predicated on the notion that nothing can be done to stop it. The Institute's findings make it clear that sprawl is neither an accident, nor a product of the free market, but is fundamentally influenced by public policies and public investments. And in a departure from previous eras, when development decisions were made by a handful of men working largely in private, the disputes over what will be built and where are now the most closely followed and visible public debates in local communities throughout the nation.
What sounded good in the late 1940s has turned out to contain a host of unforeseen and debilitating problems. It's time to end the binge, take a clear look at the realities, and break the addiction to business as usual. Here's the Institute's 12-step program:

    1. Develop master plans that specifically call for protecting the environment, preserving farmland and open space, strengthening neighborhoods, and encouraging walking and biking. Establish clear and enforceable zoning ordinances that make these priorities compatible with economic development.

In 1974 Garfield approved a land use plan that stressed economic development above any other social value. The flatlands along the busiest roads in the township's center were divided into districts for industrial parks, commercial and retail businesses, and professional offices. The slopes and summits of the ridges that ringed the flatlands were slated for subdivisions of half-acre and one-acre lots. And while the master plan mentioned protecting the environment and preserving open space, the zoning ordinance allowed for development of more than 95% of the township, including every acre of farmland. The ordinance also mandated that business could not be conducted in a residential area, and vice versa. It required a super abundance of parking, set new businesses at least 40 feet back from roads, and limited most buildings to two stories.
In approving this conventional template for economic growth Garfield joined a host of other rural American communities rushing to suburbanize in the second half of the 20th century. But the question many residents of Garfield and neighboring townships now are asking is, what kind of civic desert did all that growth really produce? Strip malls, subdivisions, big box stores, and immense parking lots marched across more than 2,000 acres, demolishing the equivalent of almost four square miles of wetlands, farms, and forests. Traffic is heavy and growing worse. The quality of the region's streams is diminishing as erosion from construction and runoff from roofs, roads, and parking lots increases, despite a model stormwater ordinance Grand Traverse County enacted in 1992 (see related story, Working Together Makes Sense). Municipal expenses are rising along with crime rates. The newest jobs tend to be in the low-paying service industry, increasingly dominated by national chains that funnel profits out of the area. Housing costs are rising, and working people find it increasingly hard to live close to their jobs.

    2. Direct public investments for roads, sewers, schools, water lines, and economic growth into already developed areas, instead of farther out in the countryside.

Though the cacophony of sound and motion appear random and unsettling, the steady march of capital, emigration, and construction that produced the frenetic landscape that is now Garfield Township was quite deliberate. It began in the mid-1960s with the decision by Traverse City leaders to move manufacturing plants off West Grand Traverse Bay in order to clean up the waterfront for recreation and tourism. They then formed two organizations -- an economic development corporation and an industrial fund -- to make loans, grants, and bond funds available for roads, sewers, electrical infrastructure and other services to attract new businesses.
Garfield turned out to be the primary beneficiary.The leaders of the economic development corporation looked for large blocks of open land close to the main north-south highway (US31/M37) as prime sites for industrial parks. The idea was that building a larger manufacturing base would enhance the entire regional economy, including Traverse City's.
In 1967 Airport Industrial Park along Garfield's main east-west route, South Airport Road, opened for 10 tenants. During the next 23 years seven other industrial parks opened in the township, with the newest and largest constructed in cornfields and forests near the corner of Garfield (another main north-south) and Hammond (east-west) roads.
Charles Blankenship, president of the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation, champions this approach. From 1988 to 1998, he said, the corporation obtained $2.4 million in local, state and federal grants to improve infrastructure in the industrial parks, several of which are privately owned; arranged $35.4 million in private and public financing that assisted 52 companies to build or expand their plants; and produced 2,340 jobs, most all of them in Garfield Township. "This is an example of how good planning and smart investments by this community had a pronounced effect on the region," Mr. Blankenship said.
But almost no consideration then was given to how the new industrial parks would affect commuting patterns, roads, and schools inside and beyond the township. By locating the industrial parks miles from the city center the Economic Development Corporation ensured that cars and trucks would be the only way to reach them. Moreover, few of them have affordable housing close by, requiring workers to commute many miles between their homes and jobs. One result was that traffic congestion began to increase, and northwest Michigan entered an era of having to deal with worsening traffic congestion.

    3. Invest in alternatives to roads and highways, such as public transit and more walkable patterns of development, giving people more choices for travel besides their cars.

One of the unexpected trends associated with sprawling development is that the number of vehicles grows much faster than the number of people. From 1984 to 1998 Grand Traverse County's population increased by 15%, or 10,000 people, to a total of 74,000 residents. During the same period, according to figures from the Secretary of State, the number of registered vehicles in the county grew by 55%, or 28,000 cars and trucks, to a total of 80,000.
The trend is firmly tied to how communities grow. Garfield's master plan and ordinance, for example, ensure ample entrances and exits onto major highways, and so much distance between residential, commercial, and industrial districts that driving is the only safe way to get around. Walking is such an afterthought in Garfield that today there are just fragments of sidewalks totaling less than one mile in the entire township.
Garfield's landscape simply would not exist as it does today without the more than $14 million that taxpayers spent to expand several two-lane roads into four and five lanes. Taxpayers also pay for the ongoing expense of maintaining 17 more miles of new local roads built since 1971.
The most important road expansion occurred in 1974 when South Airport, which was to become the region's strip mall "Main Street," was widened from two to four lanes. It immediately attracted heavy traffic and prompted rapid strip development in a 1.5 mile stretch between Garfield and Cass roads. In 1991 South Airport was widened again between Cass and US31/M37, this time to five lanes, to accommodate building the area's first regional mall.
Then in the mid-1990s, the county Road Commission and the township executed the first steps in a controversial plan to build a bypass south of Traverse City along Hammond Road. In 1994 Garfield Road was widened to four lanes from South Airport to Hammond; in 1995 Hammond was widened to four lanes for a 2.5 mile stretch from LaFranier to Three Mile Road; and in 1998 state highway M31/M37 was widened to four lanes from South Airport six miles to Chum's Corner.
The expansions, intended to relieve traffic congestion, have only invited more, causing an inundation of the township's roads and making traffic the top public concern in northwest Michigan. Garfield Township leaders have joined the Grand Traverse County Road Commission in pursuing a conventional fix -- spending more than $22.5 million in the next few years to build a bridge over a wild stretch of the Boardman River, and turn Hammond and Hartman roads into a bypass.

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