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Can Benzie Conquer a Big Divide?

As sprawl heads its way, county hopes summit will boost regional thinking

November 9, 2007 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The Platte River, which flows through Honor, is a pillar of Benzie County’s tourist economy.

HONOR—Anyone who spends time in Benzie County knows that its friendly people, charming rural character, rolling landscape, wild river basins, and gorgeous Lake Michigan shoreline make it a truly special place.

But, these days, many local officials say that, when it comes to governing, Benzie is a truly tense place. They say that big cultural and economic divides—including between many people who have lived here all of their lives and people who moved here more recently to soak up Benzie’s beauty and settle in some of its prettiest, priciest areas—are making it difficult for the county’s governments to work together.

"It doesn’t matter where you go—you hear about it," Mark Roper, chairman of the Benzie County Board of Commissioners, said of the conflict between natives and newbies.

The divide can generate full-scale political feuds, particularly when it comes to planning future growth. A prime example is Homestead and Inland Township officials’ move to break away from county planning and zoning—which they had tried just a few years earlier—and make their own decisions again. Citing what they said was the county’s incompetence, favoritism, and slow response time, the townships wrote a joint master plan this summer and are creating ordinances to back it up.

Stung by the rebuff—and by an independent report confirming some of the townships’ complaints—county officials scrambled to make amends. Benzie officials say they are working hard to reestablish trust and communicate better with township officials.

Next Tuesday, the county takes a big step when it hosts Benzie’s first-ever County Summit on Intergovernmental Cooperation. The more than 60 local officials who have signed up will have a lot to talk about beside cultural divides and administrative missteps: There’s money to be saved in closer cooperation, and population trends indicate the county and its townships had better get ready for the rapid growth coming their way.

Seven years ago, ironically, it seemed that Benzie was ready. That’s when dozens of citizens and officials finished a countywide master plan meant to protect Benzie’s beauty by pointing new development away from farmland toward built-up areas. But Benzie never wrote the zoning ordinances that would put the award winning, citizen-based plan, the result of five years of work, into effect.

Many residents, including those who worked on the county master plan, worry that, between the county’s missteps, its failure to enact its master plan, and Homestead and Inland Townships’ rush to assemble its own plan that some say will encourage sprawl, Benzie remains vulnerable to the kind of development and choking traffic that mars the area around Traverse City, 30 miles east of here.

Most county officials, however, remain hopeful that Benzie can manage its growth to protect the region’s beauty, quash sprawling development and the higher taxes it brings, and promote vigorous economic growth. They say that, with the county now acting on its dormant master plan, and with outreach efforts and a summit focused on repairing damaged relationships, there’s reason to be optimistic.

"When you come together and communicate, you can work out anything," said Craig Seger, Benzie County’s new zoning administrator.

A Fierce Split
But Homestead Township Supervisor Kathy Demitroff is rejecting all such overtures. Mrs. Demitroff told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that she has no intentions of attending the summit and that she doesn’t know if anyone else from her township will.

"I have not heard of anyone who is interested," she said. "It has been done before. It was done when they were doing the 20/20 plans. The first part of intergovernmental cooperation is listening, and they don’t appear to want to listen."

Mrs. Demitroff said that many township residents dislike county government because it does not pay enough attention to their views on zoning. She added that many of her constituents believe that county government is being run by residents living in Beulah and Benzonia—which are adjacent to Crystal Lake, a county jewel lined with expensive vacation and retirement homes—and that they want to stifle economic development in favor of preservation.

"Don’t tell us we have to change our way of living because you are here now," she said, adding that, "Right now, what is going on in this county is that the majority of our people (moving in) are retired people, and that’s not totally bad, but we need to find ways of keeping our young people here."

Mrs. Demitroff said that the last straw for her township, which turned planning and zoning over to the county in 2005, was Benzie’s failure to appoint at least one Homestead representative to the county planning commission when it was formed. She and county officials differ sharply on that: Benzie administrators claim Homestead never nominated anyone; Supervisor Demitroff said they did.

"They didn’t lose it," she said of the nomination. "They just didn’t look."

She added that, although another township resident, Kathy Ralston, applied for and was appointed to the position last year, it did not solve the problem, because Mrs. Ralston "never approached us and asked us if she could represent us or anything." And while she is careful to give Ms. Ralston "a lot of credit" for getting involved, Ms. Demitroff said that, nonetheless, "she has opposed a lot of things that we are doing."

The supervisor also revealed another reason for her township’s split with the county: Once Benzie took over Homestead’s zoning, she said, residents became concerned over rumors that "they were going to make a lot of parcels 40 acres or more, not less than 40 acres." That, she said, would interfere with her constituents’ longstanding plans to subdivide their large lots and sell them to fund their retirements.

"Now we are going to tell them they can’t sell their property in the form that will make them the retirement money they need?" Mrs. Demitroff said. "I cannot do that."

Yet Mrs. Demitroff insisted that Homestead is not interested in facilitating sprawl; she said the townships’ joint planning commission wants to make sure that development along U.S. 31—Benzie’s main transportation corridor—remains visually attractive even as it expands. She also said the township might not be opposed to big-box stores if they meet zoning requirements and offer economic opportunity to the township’s residents.

"(We need) businesses or even factories, for that matter, so that our young people have something to do here and survive," she said. "Right now, there is nothing for them.

County Reaches Out
Meanwhile, Benzie’s outreach to officials in its 12 townships, six villages, and one city, Frankfort, continues.

"A lot of folks on the planning commission and myself are pinning our hopes on this intergovernmental summit," said Dave Neiger, the county’s planning director, who has been an object of intense controversy due to a number of planning and zoning donnybrooks in recent years. "Something has to happen to bring this community back together again. We are all going off in all these different directions. It’s not healthy."

First-term County Commissioner Anne Damm agreed.

"This is an opportunity for everyone to be at the table," Ms. Damm said.

Ms. Damm and other county officials also told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that, despite Homestead and Inland Townships’ indifference to the summit, they have not given up on convincing both townships to return to county zoning. They readily acknowledge that their administration has made mistakes, particularly in their zoning department.

Early this year, the county commissioned what is now a well-publicized study whose title, Crisis in Confidence, indicates just how much it took Benzie officials to task. The study recommended 10 immediate changes to how the county does business, and officials say they have implemented about half of the changes so far. The rest will be implemented in the future, according to Mr. Roper, the county commission chair.

Before Crisis of Confidence was unveiled in the spring, Benzie had already hired Mr. Seger as its first-ever full-time zoning department manager. The move generated intense controversy, in part because the county originally intended that Mr. Seger supervise Mr. Neiger, the planning director. But Mr. Neiger fought back, the county backtracked and made both of them department heads, and gave Mr. Neiger a raise.

But these actions—and the summit itself—do not address growing concerns that Homestead and Inland’s departure from county zoning will facilitate future sprawl. At least one analysis, by attorney and Homestead Township resident Jim Olson, warned the townships’ joint planning commission that, as written, the draft master plan, despite its stated intention to preserve the natural landscape, will encourage more strip development along the county’s main highway.

County chairman Roper emphasized that, like the county administrators that he and his fellow commissioners supervise, he respects the townships’ right to carry out planning and zoning on their own.

"I think the county just wants to make sure that the people of the county have good planning and zoning," Mr. Roper said. "If Inland and Homestead create a nice, good master plan that mirrors what we are trying to do in the county, then we are going to support them, and we are going to help them in any way we can."

Glenn Puit, a veteran investigative journalist, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Emmet County policy specialist. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. Jim Lively directs the Institute’s Northwest Michigan program. Reach him at jim@mlui.org.

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