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“Team North” Considers Land Use Reform

Legislators support broad concepts, avoid some local hot topics

April 4, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe
  Northwest Michigan state legislators Jason Allen, Michelle McManus, David Palsrok, and Howard Walker discussed land use reform at a forum organized by Mary Grover (far right) and other members of the League of Women Voters—Grand Traverse Area.

TRAVERSE CITY — In this strikingly beautiful region, many people say they fear that runaway development will soon harm farm- and tourist-based business and overwhelm the natural charm that brought them here. Some experts confirm those fears: One federal study says that this region, the Midwest’s most rapidly growing, will gain 37 percent more households by 2025. So, with land use reform now an important issue in the state capital, the Grand Traverse Area League of Women Voters invited the region’s two state senators and two state representatives to a March 18 forum. The question: How do they propose to engage the reform movement to protect northwestern Michigan from sprawl?

The chairs in a meeting room at Traverse Area District Library filled up fast that evening as people poured in for a rare chance to converse with the four lawmakers—state Senators Michelle McManus and Jason Allen and state Representatives Howard Walker and David Palsrok — about the hot topic. And the standing-room-only forum revealed a remarkably strong consensus among local residents, organized conservation and anti-sprawl groups, the three civic leaders who were also on the panel, and the four Republican lawmakers: Land use reform is deeply needed.

But it also demonstrated how sharply some of these legislators’ own positions on certain local issues differ from recommendations of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, the bipartisan body established by Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm to recommended ways to curb sprawl. And it showed that many who attended the event, “Michigan’s Land, Michigan’s Future: A Forum on the Recommendations of the Report of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council,” expect their lawmakers to promptly fashion practical legislation from the council’s 150-plus recommendations published last August. The message to the lawmakers was plain: “Stop studying and start acting.”

The lawmakers said they that they are already beginning to respond to that message. It had been delivered to them in much stronger form when several noted statewide conservation groups and an editorial in the Traverse City Record-Eagle recently criticized the four — who refer to themselves as “Team North” — for their lack of progress in protecting the region’s natural resources and land-based economy.

Ultimately, the forum was long on lawmakers’ pronouncements but short on true dialogue. Residents submitted questions via index cards, but there was little time for reading them or hearing the healthy skepticism underpinning them. The forum’s format allowed the legislators to avoid questions about some of the region’s hottest land use issues. And when two of the legislators did answer a question about a specific, controversial, sprawl-related local issue — stopping the proposed bridge and highway through the Boardman River valley — one said he strongly supported the project and the other mostly sidestepped the question.

Allen: Commerce Centers
Senator Allen, who lives in Traverse City, had the most to say about land use reform, both in terms of personal experience and legislative activity.

“I have lived a life as a downtown merchant with a father who often walks to work,” the powerful senator, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Commerce and Labor and serves as the Majority Caucus Whip, told the forum. “And I live in a viable neighborhood on Washington Street.”

Mr. Allen said his office is drafting approximately 20 bills that reflect the council report and are designed to spur small town and big city revitalization by strengthening community “commerce centers,” enhancing neighborhoods, and rewarding investors willing to live or locate a business in those places.

After the forum, Brian Crough, executive director of the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority, said he was “very encouraged” by Mr. Allen’s ideas, which reflected some of the DDA’s own priorities and suggestions.

“Little by little, these efforts help contribute to cities and villages maintaining their downtowns and their economic viability,” Mr. Crough said.

McManus: Cities and Wetlands
Senator McManus’ positions on land use reform varied. The senator said she supports state assistance in promoting smarter community development and reducing taxes by relying more on existing roads and sewers. But she also said that she opposes the urban “growth boundaries” that would amplify and accelerate such policies.

The senator has also taken contrasting positions on wetland preservation issues. She attempted to help Bill Clous, a local home developer, when he faced accusations of wholesale wetland destruction by the state Department of Environmental Quality, an agency which Ms. McManus influences through budget oversight. But her sympathy apparently has limits; a few weeks ago she introduced a bill prohibiting developers guilty of wetlands violations from developing the property involved for ten years.

The senator also supported deep cuts in travel allowances for state officials, which, according to James Clift, a policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, interferes with the DEQ’s enforcement abilities. In a follow-up interview, Senator McManus said she expects the Legislature to restore most of the travel allowance cuts soon.

Palsrok: Coal and Energy
Representative Palsrok’s messages on energy were very mixed. Mr. Palsrok’s district includes Manistee, which is considering permitting the construction of a large coal-fired power plant within its city limits. The proposal faces widespread, intense opposition, but Mr. Palsrok has no position on it. When asked at the forum about renewable energy, something many district residents favor over building a coal-fired plant, the representative, who sits on the House Committee on Energy and Technology, instead talked about “clean diesel.” He claimed that “very few people participate” in purchasing electricity from wind turbines, which is currently more expensive than “conventional” electricity.

But, according to Gerard Grabowski, a leader of one of the groups opposing the coal-powered plant, the “green power” program that Mr. Palsrok referred to, which is sponsored by Consumers Energy and draws power from wind turbines, sold out shortly after the company offered it several years ago. The representative did not respond to an interview request for this article.

A Disconnect Between Theory and Practice
During the forum, audience members voted for the top three land-use reforms that the state should pursue. They chose protection of wildlife and natural resources in planning for roads or other infrastructure; promotion of profitable farming to sustain farmers and open lands; and attracting public and private investment to existing urban centers to preserve communities, the countryside, and low tax rates.

But when a question about the first priority — preserving nature when building roads — went to Representative Walker and Senator Allen, neither applied it to the proposed Hartman-Hammond bridge and highway through the Boardman River valley, which is in their districts. Mr. Walker praised the bridge plan, which critics say would harm natural resources, cause sprawl, and violate basic land use council themes. Mr. Allen said that, given the project’s many delays, he worried that the region might lose tens of millions of dollars in state and federal transportation funds if it collapses without contingency plans for the spending the money on other transportation options. Critics of the project, including the Michigan Land Use Institute, say the region could lose $34 million in transportation funding.

Walker, Palsrok Advance Farm Bills
But Representative Walker, who helps set budgets for the Department of Agriculture, and Representative Palsrok said they are advancing the audience’s second priority through jointly authored legislation (H.B. 5030-5032) providing tax relief to farmers.

“I think we should protect farmland, but we also need to protect farmers," said Representative Palsrok.

Scott Everett, a Lansing-based expert on farmland preservation, said that the bills have “the right idea, but based on the current bill language, I don't think there would be tremendous land-owner enrollment."  Mr. Everett, the regional director for American Farmland Trust added that the goal should be incentives for farmland protection that are so good that anyone deeply committed to farming would enroll, as well as penalties for developing farmland that previously received tax benefits.

“If you don't do that,” he said, “not only will farmers get a tax break, but so will every land speculator, and that's called subsidizing urban sprawl."

In an interview after the forum, Representative Walker said that the package, introduced last August, is making progress. He also said that a key sticking point is finding a method to recapture tax breaks granted to farmers who renege on their promise and instead develop their land. And he said he wants to direct the recaptured money to purchasing farmland development rights from willing sellers — a land use council recommendation.

Inspiration and teamwork
Representatives Palsrok and Walker added that the state House was paying close attention to the land use council’s report, which adds inspiration and momentum to deliberations. Mr. Palsrok said that, even though 10 archconservative House Republicans are slowing progress, his district’s declining urban population and soaring rural growth make reform necessary. He said he and his colleagues are taking a regional approach to advancing land use legislation in Lansing.

“Team North: That’s what we call ourselves in Lansing,” Mr. Palsrok said, referring to the united front he said he and his colleagues use to boost the region’s influence. But just how involved team members will become within their own districts about specific, controversial land use issues such as coal-powered electric plants and bridges across lush valleys remains to be seen.

The local League of Women Voters plans to evaluate its recent efforts and the need for more forums.

 “We want to encourage our elected officials to take some personal responsibility on these issues,” said the League’s local president, Mary Grover. “Where we go next depends on what other groups might do and where the gaps are that the League might fill.”

Kelly Thayer, a journalist, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute's Northwest Michigan Land Use and Transportation Project. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org

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