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Michigan New Leader in U.S. Movement to Tame Sprawl

Granholm, GOP take steps to cure “plague upon the land”

February 9, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Shrewsbury
  Gov. Jennifer Granholm and legislative leaders are off to a quick and promising start to solve sprawl in Michigan. With her are Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema (left) and Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Cherry.
When you think of Republicans and Democrats in Lansing, cooperation is probably not the first thought that leaps to mind. But ever since Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm’s inaugural on January 1, cooperation has been the watchword in the capital. The result is that Gov. Granholm is off to such a quick and promising start to solve sprawl that Michigan is now recognized as a new leader in the national Smart Growth movement.

The reason is twofold. First, Michigan is sprawling faster than almost any other state even though its population growth is among the slowest. Second, Michigan faces a nearly $2 billion budget deficit and both Republican leaders and the governor are starting to see Smart Growth ideas playing a role in reducing government expenses. 

Last week, as the urgency of both issues mounted, Gov. Granholm and Republican legislative leaders named the 26 members of the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. They charged the panel with “studying and identifying trends, causes, and consequences of urban sprawl,” and making policy recommendations that “minimize the impact of current land use trends on Michigan’s environment and economy.”

Great Places
Later the same day in the State of the State address Ms. Granholm expanded her views and called on the Legislature and local elected leaders to help her “create cool cities, hip places to live and work,” and to think hard about embracing new approaches to making decisions.

“We must think regionally about managing our watersheds, about our public transportation systems, about sharing common assets and services among units of government,” she said, adding, “We must develop a cooperative, common sense approach to how we use our land so we can protect our forests and farms, prevent the sprawl that chokes our suburban communities and threatens our water quality, and bring new life to our cities and older suburbs.”

The magnitude of these events can not be underestimated. Having convinced Republicans and Democrats that their interests coincide Granholm gained her first significant policy achievement: A new civic consensus that sprawl is indeed a serious problem in Michigan and merits immediate state action.

Until the last few weeks, despite mounting evidence of the consequences of sprawl, such thoughts were still considered impertinent in Lansing. The formal position of Michigan’s previous elected leadership was that sprawl, if it was a problem at all, was no more than a local malady, not connected to economic competitiveness or rising government expenses, and that state government had no proper role in providing assistance. 

Ms. Granholm’s election changed all that. Her inaugural address included a ringing call to “protect our clean water and the unspoiled open spaces of these spectacular peninsulas.” Eight days after being sworn in she named two respected statesmen -- former Republican Governor William G. Milliken and former Democratic Attorney General Frank J. Kelley -- to head the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council.

Republicans Lead
In addition, state Representative Rick Johnson, a growth management advocate, retained his seat as House speaker. And state Senator Ken Sikkema, an environmentalist and Republican moderate, was elected Senate majority leader.

“Improving Michigan's land use practices and preserving farmland and open spaces have been goals of mine for years, both as a farmer and legislator,” said Rep. Johnson. “I look forward to working with the governor and this task force to build on that success.”

 “My agenda is to do good public policy for the people of Michigan,” said Sen. Sikkema in an interview. “That means a Democratic governor and Republican leaders in the House and the Senate are going to have to agree and get stuff done. Four years from now I don’t want to have to go back to voters and say thanks for giving me a majority in the Senate. We didn’t do anything with it.”

Never have Democrats and Republicans reached a consensus about taming sprawl in Michigan. And never before, not even during the Milliken administration from 1969 to 1982,  has a Michigan leader proposed such a penetrating agenda for improving the design of Michigan’s communities and strengthening the state’s economic competitiveness.

Granholm’s Action Agenda
As a candidate last year Ms. Granholm set out the steps she wanted to take to deal with sprawl. They were:

  • Establishing new policy to encourage much greater cooperation between local governments in land use planning, zoning, and transportation investments.
  • Providing local governments with new legal tools and more state investment in conserving farmland and open space so residents “can control the growth of their community to preserve the quality of life and the environment.”
  • Financing “the first complete state land use inventory in over 20 years.”
  • Encouraging new investments, and the redevelopment of Michigan’s cities.
  • Conducting an investigation on state spending on infrastructure, business development, and other government programs that “subsidize sprawl,” and directing public investments to downtowns and existing communities.

Mr. Kelley and Mr. Milliken -- who once declared sprawl a “plague upon the land” -- have until August 15 to address Ms. Granholm’s action list, complete their work on the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, and make recommendations to the governor and the Legislature.
Difficult Work and Real Potential
Everybody involved acknowledges the painstaking task that lies ahead. Representatives of influential organizations that have historically resisted efforts to manage growth -- the Michigan Association of Home Builders and the Michigan Association of Realtors, among others -- were appointed to the panel.

But there are good reasons for advocates of land use policy reform to be optimistic.

Some of the state’s most influential public interest leaders also are on the council, among them Hans Voss, the executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, Lana Pollack, the president of the Michigan Environmental Council, Heaster Wheeler, the executive director of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, and Helen Taylor, the director of the Michigan Nature Conservancy.

In addition, the land use policy debate in Michigan is transcending political affiliations, organizational attitudes, and traditional alliances. That’s because tackling sprawl is about protecting the environment and conserving farmland. It's also about urban investment, community enhancement, quality of life, and especially about improving Michigan's economic competitiveness through more efficient and effective use of public investments.

The state Chamber of Commerce, for instance, recognizes that sprawl is a threat to its members because of the rising cost and inefficiency in how government delivers services, and that sprawl weakens the state’s economic competitiveness. Jim Barrett, the president of the state Chamber, is a member of the Land Use Leadership Council.

The Michigan Townships Association, which steadfastly resists any effort to weaken the authority of local government, is nevertheless under deluge from many of its fast-growing members because of the absence of state guidance or investment to help local officials reduce costs and plan more effectively for growth. Larry Merrill, the executive director of the Michigan Townships Association, is a member of the Land Use Leadership Council.

The Michigan Farm Bureau, a staunch defender of private property rights, is being asked by many of its members to help find more ways to conserve farmland and improve the profitability of family farmers. 

Indeed, when it comes to overcoming sprawl old reputations, like gift wrap, hide new attitudes about state government’s role in managing growth. The Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, a product of hopeful cooperation between the governor and the Republican leadership, has at last begun the truly important task: Developing real solutions.

Keith Schneider, an environmental journalist and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Detroit Free Press, and Gristmagazine.com, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press on February 3, 2003.

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