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Granholm: “Leave Labels and Borders” At The Door

Optimism, wariness mark first Smart Growth council meeting

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

MLUI/Keith Schneider
  Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm commended Rob Collier of the Council of Michigan Foundations for his work to help identify sprawl as an urgent issue and to support the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council.

Click here to read Gov. Jennifer Granholm's comments

LANSING, MI -- In remarks plainly intended to convince public policy leaders to break free of the rampant cynicism and partisanship that grip Lansing, Governor Jennifer Granholm on Monday opened the first meeting of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. She urged its 26 members to think big and make far-reaching recommendations that end suburban sprawl and rebuild the state’s cities.

“Leave the labels and borders of your day jobs at the door for this work,” she said. “Be willing to step back a bit.”

“We don’t want a state adorned in strip malls and gray pavement,” added Ms. Granholm, a Democrat who campaigned and won office last year in part because of her promise to achieve Smart Growth in Michigan.  “This isn’t about ‘isms’ – conservationism, liberalism, Republicanism. We are gobbling up land at a rate that our people won’t support and our land can’t maintain. We are not anti-growth. We are pro-land, pro-community, pro-Michigan.”

Describing the Problem
The council convened before a large audience in a grand Senate hearing room and also listened to a sobering presentation of development trends that described a state deeply stressed by decades of what Ms. Granholm called land “consumption without thought.” According to the data presented, Michigan is facing long-term economic decline unless development heads inwards, towards cities, instead of outwards, towards farmland and forests. 

The state’s hollowed-out big cities, for instance, are not only the most segregated in the nation, they also are the principal reason that Michigan ranks 47th of 50 states in its ability to retain 25 to 34-year-old residents, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. These so-called “knowledge workers” are essential to the state’s economic competitiveness. But Michigan residents are spending a bundle to educate and train such talented young people, only to see them leave to build the new economies of America’s vibrant cities -- Seattle, Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, and Portland.

State Senator Ken Sikkema, the Republican majority leader, took up that theme in his opening remarks. “We need to focus not just on development and the use of green space,” said Mr. Sikkema. “We have to also address why it is that people leave the core urban areas in Michigan. It is the other side of the coin.”

Search for Consensus
Gov. Granholm established the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council in February to, in the words of her executive order creating it,  “provide recommendations to the governor and the Legislature designed to minimize the negative economic, environmental, and social impacts of current land use trends.”

Chaired by former Republican Governor William G. Milliken and former Democratic Attorney General Frank J. Kelley, the panel’s 26 members were jointly appointed by the governor and Republican legislative leaders. Ms. Granholm set an August 15 deadline for the council to complete its work. Mindful that August is just five months away, the opening meeting was distinguished by allegiance to the agenda schedule, brevity in discussion among council members, and concise presentations by outside experts.

The majority of the panel’s members embraced Gov. Granholm’s appeal to find common ground. They expressed enthusiasm for the council’s mission, and readily displayed a willingness to be frank and forthright in overcoming their differences.

“Our objective is to have lively discussion and debate and to reach consensus as we go along,” said Mr. Milliken, who tried, and failed, to enact a statewide land use policy during his administration in the 1970s. “Between now and August we have a great deal to do, but I am very optimistic.”

But Lansing’s culture of diminished expectations — which prompts leaders to look to the end of the process to determine what they can ‘get’ from public policy debate, rather than what they can ‘do’ to solve a problem — seeped into the discussion from a surprising source. Lana Pollack, the president of the Michigan Environmental Council, which represents more than 60 local and state environmental organizations and spent years helping to elevate sprawl as a top public policy issue in Michigan, startled the room with one of the day’s most memorable comments. “I give this council about a 50/50 chance of success,” Ms. Pollack said.

Urgency is an Ally
Other members noted that good public policy most often comes when a problem achieves great urgency. And sprawling patterns of development are now viewed as an urgent issue by most of the diverse interests – farmers, urban residents, local government officials, businesses, whites and African Americans, rural and suburban residents, and others — represented on the council.

A series of succinct, fact-based presentations to the council was clearly intended to cement that view. Among those facts:

  • Michigan is decentralizing from its urban core cities faster than almost any state in the nation. From 1960 to 1990, Michigan’s metropolitan areas spread out at a rate at least twice as fast as their rate of population growth, and in Muskegon, Jackson, Saginaw, Detroit, and Bay City at a rate more than ten times as fast.
  • If current development trends continue, the amount of land converted from farm, forest, and wetland for development by 2040 will reach 6.4 million acres, nearly triple the amount of urbanized land in 1980.
  • The effect of such rapid urbanization will seriously diminish the productivity and profitability of Michigan’s agriculture, forest, mining, and tourism industries, which are among the state’s largest.
  • Sprawl and urban decentralization are dramatically raising municipal costs and family expenses as public facilities — roads, sewers, schools, buildings — empty in the city and are replaced and maintained at much higher cost at the urban fringe.
  • An important factor that is contributing to Michigan’s rapid sprawl and urban decentralization is the sheer number of elected governing councils at the local level that have authority to oversee the uses of land.

High Hopes Instead of Hyper-competition
Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, presented a study that said metropolitan regions with the highest rates of sprawling development also have the largest number of local governments competing for new residents, new development, and new tax revenues. The Pittsburgh region, for instance, is sprawling at a rate even faster than Detroit and has 418 local governments, 83 more than the Detroit metropolitan region. “The more local governments you have, the more sprawl you have,” he said. “There's a hyper-competition for development."

Mr. Katz also called the rising costs for public infrastructure and the need for families to maintain fleets of expensive vehicles to function in an American suburb the “sticker shock to sprawl." 

The council’s inaugural meeting concluded with an hour of public comment. Among those making comments on Monday were David Bulkowski and Barb Stoops from Disability Advocates of Kent County, a transit advocacy organization in Grand Rapids. Ms. Stoops, speaking from a wheelchair, drove home the point that "land use involves transit," and urged the council to recommend measures to increase funding for buses, trains, and other public transit programs. Mr. Bulkowski, a prominent social advocate in Grand Rapids said, "We make buildings accessible but not communities."

The next of the council’s monthly meeting in Lansing is on April 14. Council members will also host six public hearings around the state on April 21 and April 28.

“Bringing together all of these diverse interests has the possibility of resulting in something or nothing,” said Ms. Granholm in her remarks, summing up the day’s events and anticipating the intense discussion that is sure to come. “Hopefully it is the former.”

Keith Schneider, a journalist and columnist, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Read his reporting and commentary on Governor Jennifer Granholm’s Smart Growth council in The Turning Point special report section of the Institute’s Web site.

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