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Feds Fund Grand Traverse “Visioning”

As region confronts sprawl, Western states’ lessons could help

November 26, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Faced with mounting congestion along main arteries like South Airport Road, Grand Traverse County will conduct a community “visioning” process to find the best way to handle the region’s booming traffic and growth.

TRAVERSE CITY — Congress has awarded Grand Traverse County $3.3 million to study how best to manage the region’s swelling transportation and growth problems. The step is prompting local leaders to discuss how to include a citizen-led “visioning process” as a central component of the process.

The federal government's decision came last Saturday when lawmakers approved redirecting funds from a 30-mile state highway bypass of Traverse City, which was scrapped in 2001. U.S. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, one of the federal representatives who helped to reroute the funds, said he was pleased to bring the region some good news about mobility and development issues, which many here see as crucial to the region’s tourist-based economy and quality of life.

“This funding is essential for the Grand Traverse region to address the transportation needs and problems in the community,” Senator Levin said in a written statement. “I also look forward to working with the community as the planning process progresses, and working to implement the recommendations set forth by this study."

The county also is seeking to secure an additional $3 million in federal funds for the study, money that county officials had originally intended go to the Hartman-Hammond road and bridge project. The project would have directed heavy traffic across the Boardman River valley just south of here, but the long-standing proposal was shelved this summer after a decade of citizen opposition, which peaked last spring when state and federal environmental agencies agreed with the project’s opponents that it could harm the valley’s ecology. 

The county’s pursuit of full funding for a single, broadly supported regional study represents a promising breakthrough for officials and citizen groups who have long clashed on where and how to develop the Midwest’s fastest-growing area. The newly funded visioning process brings county and city officials, environmental groups, business leaders, and others together for what all sides promise will be a complete rethinking of how best to install a cleaner, greener economy — one that can sustain growth without smothering the natural assets and rural character that resonate with residents and visitors alike.

Participants say they will assemble a new, countywide transportation plan based on a publicly conducted, professional study of the county’s future land use, road and highway design, and public transit needs. Now leaders are investigating more deeply just what “visioning” is and can do for the region and looking to other communities who have used the process effectively.

Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council Executive Director Ken Smith, who fought the bridge proposal since its inception in 1987, says his group is committed to a citizen-driven visioning process without any preordained results or restrictions. His one demand, he says, is excellence.

“We expect our leaders to treat every decision as an opportunity to model the best ideas, the best thinking, to be found anywhere in the world,” Mr. Smith said. “Whether the issue is pollution of our drinking water by a local industry or destruction of a trout stream to build a new road, our community should resolve it in a way that will show people everywhere you don't have to destroy what makes a place unique in order to have progress.”

Looking West for Wisdom
Mr. Smith’s words would probably sound familiar to many residents of Salt Lake City area, which several years ago began a similar process, for similar reasons. That state’s experience, as well as pioneering efforts in Oregon, could help guide Grand Traverse County as it begins its own vision quest.

In 1996, Utah planners forecast one million more residents would arrive in the 10-county Salt Lake City area by 2020. There was no point in resisting the swarm, they said, because most of the newcomers would be the children and grandchildren of the current 1.6 million residents.

So officials and citizens formed a public-private alliance in early 1997 to imagine the brightest possible vision for accommodating everybody who might move to Utah. Called “Envision Utah,” the alliance dedicated itself to developing a growth strategy to protect the environment and enhance the economy and quality of life along the north and south sides of the scenic Wasatch Mountain Range.

Alliance members quickly built a support network that stretched from the governor’s office to local government to leaders of industry, development, and environmental protection. Over time, they amassed $7 million in federal, state, and private funding, and $2 million more in in-kind support from the Utah planning and budget office.

Envision Utah engaged the public in every way its members could think of: Dozens of town hall meetings and hands-on community-design workshops, mailed surveys, print and broadcast ads, Internet sites, mass media campaigns and tours, and even a public television documentary. Within three years of its launch, Envision Utah reached more than 2,000 people in town meetings, more than 17,000 via surveys, and countless thousands of others through extensive media coverage. A clear civic view emerged: Above all else, people wanted to protect air and water quality, stem the rapid consumption of open space and farmland, and have a variety of transportation choices.

Choosing Scenarios
Guided by Envision Utah, government planners and private consultants from Fregonese Calthorpe Associates in Portland, Ore., used that vivid vision to offer different regional growth scenarios. The choices included the status quo — sprawling development. But they also included three others: Adhering more tightly to existing community master plans without rethinking them; sustaining and spawning new compact and walkable communities with many housing choices while aggressively protecting open lands; and directing half of all new growth to existing urban areas and saving the greatest amount of undeveloped land possible.

The public eventually chose the third scenario, which promised to slow land consumption by two-thirds the forecasted rate. That scenario had the lowest public infrastructure costs, the best air quality, and the second-lowest rate of water consumption — a gleaming future to replace a frightening one. Significantly, it requires overcoming a difficult problem that also challenges land use reform in Michigan: A state constitution that favors very localized “home rule” that renders regional planning mostly a theory.

“In our case, there is no regional government,” said Stephen Holbrook, a former three-term state lawmaker and the executive director since 1990 of the nonprofit Coalition for Utah’s Future, which spawned and staffs Envision Utah. “So, much of this process has been an educational tool to show people that we’re all in this together and that our decisions all impact each other,” 

The Grand Traverse region and metro Salt Lake City share other problems and opportunities. Each faces rapid population growth; each enjoys a unique, widely treasured natural landscape that shapes development patterns.

Another model could be Portland, Ore., where, some experts say, the community visioning process first took root in the late 1970s. That now-revered effort, and another one in the late 1980s promoting alternatives to a proposed highway, revealed the interconnections among land use, transportation, and air quality.

A Running Start
Even before the federal funding arrives, the Grand Traverse region has a running start at designing its “quality growth strategy” — as the Utah folks like to call it — thanks to the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bureau brought famed architect, author, and community planner William McDonough here last May to launch its own visioning effort for the area immediately surrounding Traverse City, where the tourist business is vital to the economy and sprawl is beginning to sap its strength. The bureau has now joined the county’s wider, regional effort and will fold its findings into that broader initiative.

Participants in the regional endeavor ­— which is so new it lacks a name, fixed membership, or detailed budget — say that success requires setting aside long-held private agendas and trusting in a collectively crafted framework. In addition, core questions remain about the geography, stakeholders, and staffing.

“The commitment to this has to be to the process and not about a particular outcome,” said local planner and entrepreneur Bob Russell, who’s helping the regional visioning group figure out how to work together, involve the public, and select planning experts to facilitate the process. “It’s not about whether it’s a bridge or not a bridge, or light rail or not light rail, but a clear vision that can be implemented.”

Envision Utah’s history does point to some almost inevitable pitfalls. There, some groups mistook the support and involvement of then-Governor Mike Leavitt — now the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Bush — as an attempt to dictate local planning from the state capital. An emerging regional vision for Washington, D.C., also ran into problems. It stalled in the late 1990s when it became all too clear, and uncomfortable, for some participants who apparently couldn’t relinquish their own schemes.

“The builder community, seeing that the vision that was gaining strength was an early ‘Smart Growth’ one with lots of transit and compact communities, took their marbles and went home,” recalled Lee Epstein, director of Lands Program at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which was involved in that effort. A new visioning attempt is forthcoming in February.

A Method Emerges
Despite the occasional missteps, a fairly established method for visioning has developed in recent years, according to Steven Ames, a long-range planning consultant and futurist based in Portland. The author of the American Planning Association's A Guide to Community Visioning, Mr. Ames has aided visioning efforts from Flagstaff, Ariz., to Australia and New Zealand.  He say that, at its core, the key steps to visioning generally include a statistical and cultural assessment of a place, an analysis of trends and issues driving its future, a long-term vision connected to the community’s “core values and key trends,” and a short-term action plan meant to begin turning the vision into real results.

“As a result of Flagstaff 2020,” Mr. Ames said, referring to a visioning process he led there, “the Flagstaff regional land use and transportation plan now includes a new urban growth boundary, along with designated rural development areas. This is the only system of its kind in the state of Arizona and had widespread public support, in part due to the visioning process that proceeded it.”

Meanwhile, back in Utah, visioning is measurably transforming the on-the-ground reality. Envision Utah’s Mr. Holbrook, who is retiring this month but may consult with the effort thereafter, says his organization is now working with communities on implementing what they’ve collectively come up with. He points to voters in the tri-county region around Salt Lake City, who approved a sales tax increase for public transit; that, he says, is a major accomplishment that sprang directly from the visioning process. The funds will extend commuter rail service from Salt Lake City to Ogden, expand the urban light rail system, and purchase 185 miles of existing rail right of way for future use. Some local governments are now refining their land use plans to support the transit system’s success.

The overall planning approach is decidedly collaborative and meant to discourage posturing and abstractions, Mr. Holbrook said. “I like to sum up by saying that this process encourages problem solving versus philosophizing,” he added.

Kelly Thayer, a journalist and transportation analyst at the Michigan Land Use Institute, is using his writing and planning skills to help make northwest Michigan a model of Smart Growth. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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