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Acres of Common Ground

Diverse Smart Growth council members have much to share

March 20, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI Staff
  Sprawl's inherent unsightliness is one reason the members of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, an extremely diverse group of citizens, have already found they have a lot in common.

Wayne Wood and Heaster Wheeler are about as different in temperament, geography, and political identity as two prominent leaders can be in Michigan. Mr. Wood is a farmer and president of the Michigan Farm Bureau, one of the Republican Party’s important constituencies. Mr. Wheeler is a civil rights activist and executive director of the Detroit NAACP, a core group for Michigan’s Democratic Party.

Both, though, are among the 26 men and women of distinction and diversity that Governor Jennifer Granholm and Republican legislative leaders appointed last month to the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. On Monday in Lansing, the council meets for the first time to pursue its mission to “minimize the negative economic, environmental, and social impacts” of Michigan’s runaway sprawl. Gov. Granholm, who has embraced solving sprawl as a central theme of her administration, will personally open the meeting and deliver the panel’s charge.

The council represents the most prominent, state-sanctioned effort in three decades to confront the consequences of Michigan’s ever-spreading patterns of development. The previous attempt in the 1970s was crushed by protests from business and suburban interests. But this effort has far greater likelihood of working because Gov. Granholm and senior Republican legislators say that a new design for growth is urgent, and panel members like Mr. Wood and Mr. Wheeler recognize that they need each other to get anything useful accomplished. 

“If we work on farmland preservation and the urban folks work on urban renewal, we can work together and support each other in our efforts,” said Mr. Wood in an interview. He observed that conserving the state’s rapidly vanishing cropland and strengthening its urban centers is essentially the same issue.

“Just like the guy on 26 Mile or 28 Mile who wants things to remain the same, I want the vitality in the urban centers that I remember in my youth,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Diverse, Not Divisive
Council members represent a remarkably diverse group of interests – urban and rural, white and black, wealthy and working class, north and south, business, government, civic, environmental, transportation, forestry, tourism, and farming. But interviews with more than half of the council’s members revealed that panelists see the hard work of slowing sprawl, rebuilding Michigan’s deteriorated cities, and improving government operations as sharing acres of common ground.

“The easy part is identifying our differences,” said Gilbert M. White, a council member and president-elect of the Michigan Association of Realtors. “The hard part is finding common ground. In a home rule state one person’s home rule is another person’s sprawl. Somehow we’ve identified and gotten to the point where we’re not happy with the way things are going. How do we change that? A spirit of cooperation is essential.”

"Government needs an active, cooperative partnering with the private sector to accomplish change," Mr. White added. "There is no magic wand of government that, on its own, can solve these land use issues."

“For the first time we can see graphically that things done in the past are having unintended consequences,” said Jim Brooks, a Council member, businessman, and chairman of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, which is studying the consequences of development patterns in the Holland-Muskegon-Grand Rapids region.  “Fragmentation of government is having hundreds of people making thousands of decisions that is producing a future no one wants.”

Some Early Agreement
Panelists also revealed that they have already reached an early consensus about land use priorities and are prepared to produce far-reaching recommendations. Along with the loss of open space and farmland, and Michigan’s neglected cities, the panelists identified five other important issues: the true costs of highway and infrastructure investments, the need for partnerships between different levels of government, the condition of the state’s waters, the state’s role in managing growth, and the need for more public education on the issue.

All of the panel members interviewed for this article said they were approaching the council with open minds and were eager to consider new incentives, planning tools, and legislation to encourage more sensible, less costly, less damaging development patterns.

“We should be investing funds to redevelop rather than build new,” said Dan Gilmartin, a council member and deputy executive director of the Michigan Municipal League. “Sometimes state funds exacerbate sprawl and growth patterns.”

“Everybody has to approach this with some flexibility,” said Larry Merrill, a panel member and executive director of the Michigan Townships Association. “One of our priorities is to have more legal tools available to local governments to manage growth.”

“Ultimately there has to be legislation enacted in order to accomplish the mission,” said Keith Charters, chairman of the Natural Resources Council and coordinator for New Designs For Growth, a project sponsored by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Charters and other council members noted that there are great alternatives to sprawl. They said that Michigan can accommodate population growth in ways that strengthens cities, suburbs and the state’s natural character. New development should be directed inward, toward existing urban areas, and follow traditional patterns of neighborhood development — houses, shops, offices, civic buildings, and schools mixed into communities in ways that reduce automobile use, land consumption, public costs, and pollution.

A Sudden Detour
Such ideas have been percolating toward the top of Michigan’s policy agenda since July 1992, when a task force appointed by former Republican Governor John Engler identified sprawl and deteriorating cities as the state’s most important environmental problems. The task force recommended developing state planning that "optimizes wood production, resource extraction, biological diversity, clean water, cultural cohesion, human health, housing, and other societal goals which should be a high priority for the state."

It also observed that "Michigan has the unique opportunity to demonstrate that good land-use design and management can be good both ecologically and economically" and said inaction would increase "severe long-term risk to the sustainability of resources, integrity of ecosystems, and human health and existence."

The findings persuaded Mr. Engler to ease rules for redeveloping urban “brown field” sites; the program attracted national attention for effectively encouraging economic development in cities. Mr. Engler, though, ignored most of the other recommendations and signed legislation that accelerated subdividing rural land. Those decisions aggravated sprawl in Michigan, say critics and supporters alike, and contributed to his party’s 2002 loss in the gubernatorial election.

On Sprawl, Granholm Makes A Promising Start
The political stakes are equally high for Gov. Granholm. In a February 2002 speech in Grand Rapids she introduced curbing sprawl as a campaign priority. She proposed establishing a bipartisan commission to make recommendations, encouraging cooperation between townships and counties, establishing tools to conserve open space and farmland, investing in cities, ending state subsidies of sprawl, and involving the public more in decision-making.

As governor, Ms. Granholm continues her high profile campaign against sprawl as she works to close a nearly $2 billion state budget deficit. She noted in her inaugural address on January 1 the need to “protect our clean water and the unspoiled open spaces of these spectacular peninsulas.”

In her State of the State address on February 5, the governor said sprawl is a threat to Michigan’s quality of life, economic competitiveness, and natural resources. She said she wanted to help “create cool cities, hip places to live and work.”

“As citizens we are not confined to the county, city or township lines drawn on a map,” she  added. “Our thinking should not be either. We must think regionally about managing our watersheds, about our public transportation systems, about sharing common assets and services among units of government.”

Then, on February 27, Ms. Granholm issued an executive order creating the council. The order was stunning for its critique of sprawl’s effects, the new role she sees the state playing in managing growth, and for the clarity of its vision in predicting a bright future if development patterns change.

“State-initiated land use coordination efforts will result in cost savings,” the order declared, as well as “better prioritization of limited state resources spent on public infrastructure; better stewardship of Michigan’s agricultural, natural, historic, scenic, and cultural resources; an increased supply of affordable housing; orderly, safe, and well-planned urban and rural communities; preservation of important historic and scenic resources; and an expansion in private economic development activities.”

Welcoming a Second Chance
Perhaps no one was more pleased with those words than former Republican Governor William G. Milliken, who co-chairs the council with former Democratic Attorney General Frank J. Kelley. During Mr. Milliken’s first term in the early 1970s, he warned that sprawl represented a serious threat to Michigan. But his efforts to improve how the state developed failed to sway the legislature.

Mr. Milliken said in an interview that the defeat was one of the great disappointments of his long public service career. He said that he relishes the opportunity to try again.

“All during those years, and in subsequent years,” he said, “I sensed and felt and saw the need to confront this issue head on. We were despoiling this state. We were gobbling up prime agricultural land and forestland and recreational land and there seemed to be no end to it. When Governor Granholm first put the feeler out to see whether I would be interested I accepted it immediately, as did my co-chair Frank Kelley.

“She said she understood how strongly I felt about this whole issue and stated her own strong feelings and convictions in this area. She simply asked me straight out would I accept her appointment. I accepted with alacrity.”

Keith Schneider, an environmental journalist and regular contributor to state and national publications, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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