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Report from the Capital

New House lawmakers bring fresh energy to land use reform

May 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

LANSING — Is this the year that Michigan's Legislature acts to slow wasteful sprawl and the decline of cities?

If it were up to just the House of Representatives, the answer would be yes. Late last year Republican members in the G.O.P.-controlled House determined that conserving farmland, rebuilding cities, and curbing sprawl were at the top of their list of concerns. Several of the 41 newly elected Republican representatives based their campaigns on sprawl-busting platforms. The interest is so keen that Rep. Charles Perricone (R- Kalamazoo), the Speaker of the House, in late March told a breakfast gathering of Holland business leaders that after taxes and education, strengthening land use policy is his primary concern.

What about the Senate and the Democrats?
Two big questions are whether there will be support from the Democrats, and from the more-conservative Republican-controlled Senate and Gov. John Engler, who have largely avoided taking strong steps to curb sprawl.

Democratic leaders say they are interested in growth management, although no clear strategy has emerged. And Gov. Engler mentioned the need to address sprawl for the first time in last January's State of the State address, but has been silent on the issue ever since.

The House leadership is convinced they can build bipartisan support throughout the capital for their initiatives. One of the most dynamic land use advocates is Rep. Paul DeWeese, a physician from Ingham County who won handily last November on a platform that stressed the need to halt sprawl and rebuild a sense of civic spirit. Now the Majority Whip, Rep. DeWeese says support for providing local governments with new growth management tools may be keen enough among his fellow freshmen from rural and urban communities to convince the Governor to support their efforts.

"I've talked to many of my colleagues," said Rep. DeWeese. "There is a lot of interest, and frankly, passion, in some quarters for addressing natural resource protection and how to use our land better.There is an increasing understanding that the amount of land is fixed, and that the sprawl that has occurred in Michigan is producing some significant negative consequences for human communities."

Rep. DeWeese has teamed with two senior Republican lawmakers from the Grand Rapids region, Rep. Bill Byl and Rep. Jon Jellema, to lay the foundation for an anti-sprawl initiative in Michigan. The group is pursuing legislation that would accomplish two objectives:

• Provide financial incentives for local governments to collaborate in planning.

• Establish statewide land use goals and planning principles, form a commission, and through a series of public hearings determine how to achieve them. Such goals have been the basis for legislative action in other states, including Oregon, Maryland, and Vermont, that established effective sprawl-fighting policies.

Advocates Sense Opportunity
Bill Rustem, vice president of Public Sector Consultants and one of the most respected land use authorities in Lansing, noted that considerably more attention is being paid to sprawl in the media and the Legislature than in 1996, when the issue first emerged as a major public concern. That year more than 50 bills related to land use were proposed, but only a handful were approved.

One provided new authority to local governments to preserve farmland and open space by paying landowners for their development rights. Another, however, did just the opposite by adding new provisions to the state Subdivision Control Act that accelerated the process of cutting large parcels of land into smaller pieces for development.

Julie Stoneman of the Michigan Environmental Council said she senses a breakthrough coming in 1999. "The lawmakers I'm talking to, especially in the House, have a broader knowledge about the issue, a deeper sensitivity to all the problems that sprawl causes, and fresh enthusiasm for getting something done," she said.

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