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From the Field

Out Front on South Fox Island

August 1, 2001 | By Jim Lively
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

When I moved to northern Michigan 11 years ago to take my first job as a regional planner, I was idealistic and excited about the opportunity to work with local government officials. I believed I had a fresh perspective on protecting natural resources and special community assets that would result in more visionary master plans, innovative zoning ordinances, and cooperative approaches to managing the region’s burgeoning growth.

Ten years later I was proud to say I had provided better maps and natural resources data to support local planning and zoning efforts. But I couldn’t point to many regional land use issues that I had influenced in any significant way.

That changed last January, two weeks after I joined the Michigan Land Use Institute. My first assignment dropped me right in the middle of one of the hottest, most divisive public land issues in recent memory: The Engler administration’s attempt to trade away the most resource-rich and publicly accessible lands on South Fox Island, off the Leelanau Peninsula, to a wealthy campaign donor. My task was to help Leelanau Township officials understand how they could stand up to the landowner, his cadre of attorneys, a pool of state resource experts and — behind the scenes — Governor John Engler himself.

What a contrast. What a pleasure!

I am still adjusting to my new role as an outspoken advocate for Smart Growth and resource protection, but I am enjoying the freedom to speak up on issues when previously, as a government employee, I could only watch. I am also respectful of the awesome responsibility I have as an advocate to frame the issues accurately and fairly while taking a strong public-interest stand.

From my experience working with local government officials, I know they are busy — often grabbing hours from their families and day jobs to study issues and attend meetings, where they make decisions that can have tremendous implications for the future of their communities. Pressed for time, they often look to outside “experts” for the information and perspectives they need.

Too often the only “expert” available is a hired-gun consultant who works for the person or corporation that stands to gain the most from the proposal. I came to work for the Michigan Land Use Institute to provide another source of information and ideas — one that comes from the public’s point of view.

That was exactly the need in Leelanau Township, where the Michigan Department of Natural Resources was actually applying on behalf of the wealthy campaign contributor for a permit to blast a road through critically steep, publicly owned sand dunes on South Fox Island. I was there to say that, because of a special provision in the state’s sand dune protection law, Leelanau Township officials had every right to say “no” to the damaging development.

In my new role as a public interest advocate, I was able to collaborate with several other groups opposed to the road plan and to back up the voices of more than 100 local residents who packed the township hall. Together we put forward a logical and legal rationale that helped the majority of township officials vote down the road-building plan, a key element of the sweetheart land swap deal.

What a change. What a victory!

The public won the first round of the South Fox Island land swap debate. The last word will come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is currently drafting an environmental impact statement on the administration’s plan to swap the most valuable parts of this public treasure.

But even though the final outcome is unclear, I know now how reasoned analysis and a bold voice can make a difference.

I like this job.

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