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Bridge Shutdown Prompts Groundbreaking Growth Study

Former opponents unite to find best solutions to sprawl

September 21, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen

Michigan’s Grand Traverse region is among the Midwest's most rapidly growing areas, adding approximately 500 new residents a month. Development is now spreading from Traverse City and nearby villages into the surrounding countryside.

TRAVERSE CITY — Little more than a month after authorities indefinitely suspended a long and hotly disputed proposal to build a new Boardman River valley crossing south of here, the project’s leading supporters and opponents have laid down their differences to work together on a comprehensive land use and transportation study to better respond to this region’s accelerating growth.

A meeting last week at the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce convened members of the business community, local government, and environmental organizations who have been at odds since 1987 over a plan by the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to build a new bridge and highway across one of the wildest and most scenic metropolitan river valleys in the United States.

The participants are forming a novel alliance to look beyond the highway and bridge dispute and develop what could be an unconventional solution to traffic congestion in this region, the fastest growing in the Midwest. The process, which reflects a new level of official diligence to limit the consequences of sprawl here, will start with a regional land use and transportation study. The participants believe such a study will more clearly define demographic, economic, and environmental trends. It also will provide clearer guidance for how best to conserve natural resources and small town culture while also embracing the nearly 500 new residents who arrive in the five-county region every month.

Sage Eastman, the spokesman for Republican Congressman Dave Camp, who represents Traverse City, said his office is actively seeking $3.3 million in federal funds to pay for conducting the Grand Traverse regional study. The money was originally appropriated for an earlier, now discarded plan for a highway bypass around the city. Some local groups also are asking Representative Camp to redirect an additional $3 million he secured for the bridge project toward the study and eventual implementation of its recommendations.

Open Minds, They Say
“I’m going into this with no preconceived idea of what the land use and transportation study is going to come up with,” said Jay Hooper, chairman of the Grand Traverse County Road Commission, which proposed the $55 million highway and bridge across the Boardman River valley. “Frankly, most of the groups, especially the environmental groups, were insistent on this process, and I agree with them. I think we need to do a better job of getting the citizen input so that we can come up with a plan that’s more readily accepted by the entire community.”

Ken Smith, a leader of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, a prominent citizens groups that strongly opposed the bridge, concurred. In an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service Mr. Smith said: “Many people have learned some important lessons about citizen participation along the way. Those who thought they could get by with just going through the motions now see they can't. Those who thought the Hartman-Hammond bridge was a done deal have seen the power of sustained citizen involvement. I think we are seeing an appreciation of citizen power among the more thoughtful leaders in our region.”

The new alliance and the proposed study have the potential to be capstone events in this region’s ever more urgent search to reduce the costs of sprawl and runaway growth. As its name implies, the Grand Traverse region of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is a wondrous but increasingly well-traveled part of the state. Residents and public officials have sparred for a generation over how best to protect its bounty of gorgeous vistas and clean, clear lakes while facilitating the modern mobility people depend on.

The struggle, just as it’s been in other beautiful rural regions of the nation, has been intense. Citizen movements not only stopped progress on the Boardman River bridge, they also halted an earlier bypass proposal in order to protect the region’s wild places, even as the number of people in the five-county region more than doubled over the past 34 years to 165,000. In that same period, the number of registered vehicles tripled, to nearly 153,000.

As Doug Luciani, president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, put it: “The chamber's goal for the study is two-fold.  First, that a vision for the region be identified in terms of growth and development, incorporating the previous and existing efforts of other organizations. And, equally important, that a definitive land use and transportation plan be developed for Grand Traverse County that addresses the area's transportation needs, has unprecedented public input, and that stems from a collaborative process.”

Great Expectations
In interviews, members of the emerging regional alliance said they are approaching their work with a common set of core values and principles:

  • The desire to engage the broad public early, deeply, and continuously as the only true means of ending historic impasses on development and stewardship issues.
  • The hope that effective and popular transportation solutions can emerge after a comprehensive vision is established for where and how the region should grow and where rural character and environmental features should be preserved forever.
  • The conclusion, in a home-rule state, that managing growth and natural resources, strengthening economic competitiveness, and enhancing social equity will likely require regional, intergovernmental cooperation and new public-private partnerships.

Ironically, the alliance’s inaugural gathering last week was private so that participants could broach their doubts and establish the roots of genuine trust.

The process, said participants, will be as inclusive as possible. That may require spurring public involvement in multiple, even nontraditional ways, certainly including night meetings but also perhaps involving workshops in schools, sessions at senior centers, and maybe even a cookout for the community at large. And leaders must reach out and listen to people who can easily get overlooked or left out — including the area’s on-the-run parents and workers, seniors, young people, people with disabilities, and low-income residents.

“When I called for the formation of the transportation study committee, it was very important to me to make sure that as many interested parties as possible were represented,” said Pete Strom, chairman of the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners. “This will allow for a broad-based vision of transportation goals and how to implement them.”

Surprising U-Turn
Board Chairman Strom plays a central role in the new planning drama that is unfolding here. Last summer the Grand Traverse County Board and, in turn, its appointed road commission surprised the public when they decided on August 4 to suspend the proposed Hartman-Hammond road and bridge project through the Boardman River Valley. The pitched battle over the bridge began in 1987 when voters overwhelmingly rejected county plans to buy land for the river crossing as part of a broader road expansion proposal. In 2001, in the face of fierce public opposition, the state canceled most of the bypass.

Environmental groups, including the Michigan Land Use Institute, sued in 2002 to stop the Boardman River bridge, contending it would make congestion worse and ruin a magnificent nature reserve at the center of the Traverse City metropolitan region. Former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken, a member of the Institute’s board of directors, served as the campaign’s lead spokesperson.

In 2003, state and federal environmental agencies sided with the citizen critique, objecting to the highway and bridge because of the damage it would cause to habitat and wildlife. Earlier this year the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality formally rebuked the road commission’s method for predicting environmental harm and considering alternatives.

Independence and Cooperation
While the exact geography of the regional transportation and land use study — in other words, what precisely “regional” means — has yet to be worked out, some participants have begun wondering how the results of the study might be implemented across multiple cities, villages, townships, and counties.

“We must look out 50 years and define what we want to be,” said Lee Grant, chairman of the Traverse City Area Transportation and Land Use Study, a government-sponsored agency that coordinates some planning in the metropolitan area. “Well over 50 years ago our ancestors decided to remove the industrial area from the bay. They set a direction of environmental stewardship while providing good employment opportunities in a safe, clean environment. That was a good goal then, and seems like a good goal now.”

“In addition a goal is to have the area planning as one unit not individual units,” Mr. Grant continued. “If we do not make this effort, the controversy and expense of wasted resources will continue. Wasted resourses include everything from manpower, tax dollars, and land, to ecological and cultural impacts.” 

“I just want to keep emphasizing at every meeting the need for a focus on land use, land use, land use,” said John Nelson, a local planning commissioner and long-time bridge opponent who is challenging Mr. Strom for his seat on the county board. “To me, the initial step is identifying and inventorying all those places in the region where we’re not going to encroach with development or roads and plan for that. Then next is laying out in a grand scheme — with input from the townships — where the development is going to be and what type of development. Then the third step for me is to lay out the transportation system.”

Kelly Thayer, a journalist and transportation analyst, led the Michigan Land Use Institute’s eight-year campaign to halt the Hartman-Hammond road and bridge across the Boardman River and develop a more reasoned alternative to solve congestion in the Grand Traverse region. He is actively participating in the regional study. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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