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Townships: Sprawl, Big Boxes May Be Best Bet for Jobs

But expert studies point in opposite direction

March 3, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Our Lancaster First
  Inland and Homestead Townships’ draft master plan leaves room for big boxes. One official unenthusiastic about big-box development said it would at least bring badly needed jobs to the area.

BENZIE COUNTY—When it comes to jobs and the economy, residents of Inland and Homestead Townships are literally caught in the middle.

Just to their east is Traverse City, one of the few Michigan communities that have still-warm in-town real estate and summer job markets. To their west is the rest of Benzie County—with rivers, forests, rolling hills, the dramatic Lake Michigan shoreline—and many pricey retirement homes.

But in Inland and Homestead, as with much of rural northern Michigan, jobs are scarce, unemployment is high, many businesses are closed, and many homes are for sale. Hope for strengthening the economy seems dim; many young people move away to find good jobs.

That, some observers say, is a major reason why, a year ago, both townships’ trustees voted to abandon Benzie County’s planning and zoning services and form their own joint planning commission to assemble a master plan and zoning ordinance.

When they began their work last May, township officials said they were acting to defend their communities against what they said was Benzie County’s ineptly managed zoning and building departments. But since then, experts’ analyses of the townships’ draft joint master plan and interviews with several township officials indicate that the trustees are also acting out of their concern that the county’s master plan will harm them.

Several joint commissioners told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that they believe Benzie’s award-winning master plan, released in 2000 after three years of work by a group of 100 citizens from across the county, will preclude township residents from selling land to family members. And one township official said that the county plan would squelch economic and business development and the jobs that come with them.

"The majority of people either go to Manistee or Traverse City to work," said Homestead Township Supervisor Cathy Demitroff, who provides staff support to the Homestead Inland Planning Commission. "We’ve got to find something to get jobs in here, and keep jobs in here."

But economic development experts interviewed for this article say that the proposed joint plan, which faces public hearings on March 4 and 5, would generate few good-paying jobs. It would merely turn the townships into bedroom communities for Traverse City, driving up taxes to pay for the expanded municipal and public safety services, and transform the townships’ scenic main highway into miles of commercial strip development, which generates mostly low-paying jobs and often puts local merchants out of business.

The joint commission’s draft master plan comes at a pivotal time for the state and northwest Lower Michigan. Four years ago, a bipartisan panel of the state’s top business, environmental, farming, manufacturing, and government leaders studied Michigan’s economy and land use policies, then urged Lansing’s lawmakers to curb sprawl and encourage walkable, "mixed use" communities. They said that was the best way to attract "knowledge economy" firms that could transform Michigan’s fading 20th-century economy into a thriving, 21st-century enterprise.

Because the Legislature has enacted few of the panel’s 158 sprawl-busting recommendations, some areas of the state, including this one, are tackling the challenge solo. Benzie’s master plan, for example, parallels the approach of the bipartisan panel, the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. And the area’s unique, regional two-year, citizen-based Grand Vision planning project has won financial support from Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford Counties, and participation by more than 1,000 residents and officials.

The High Cost of Medium Density
Roger Hubbell, chair of the townships’ joint commission, said worries that the draft master plan is too vague to prevent sprawling residential development or strip malls along U.S. 31 are misplaced. Mr. Hubbell said that the draft is well thought-out, and that the joint commission balanced environmental conservation with economic development.

He said the joint commission chose "medium-density residential development"—which typically means lots with five-acre minimums—because members believe it will make it easier for landowners to pass along some of their property to their children or sell it to suburban developers than if the plan insisted on rural, 20-acres plots.

"We don’t want to see our children priced out of the market," Mr. Hubbell said.

But planning and zoning experts say that five-acre lots quickly chew up valuable agricultural and forest land and that, while certain landowners benefit from selling their land in small chunks, it drives up all residents’ costs.

"It’s the absolute most expensive development pattern you can build, and it its as bad as it gets from an economic point of view," said Jeffrey Dorfman, a professor at the University of Georgia’s Department of Agricultural & Applied Economics. "That is considered the epitome of rural sprawl, and most people consider it the worst thing you can do. It’s not big enough to be rural, and it’s not small enough to be economical."

Mr. Dorfman added that medium density almost guarantees another unpopular outcome.

"Sprawl means higher taxes, and most people don’t like higher taxes," said Mr. Dorfman, who chairs the university’s Land Use Studies Initiative. "You need more roads and a lot more infrastructure. The sheriff’s deputies are driving farther, the school bus…everything costs you more."

One increasingly popular alternative to five-acre minimum lots for suburban-style development, experts interviewed for this article said, is conservation design. It involves the same amounts of property but, by carefully subdividing it, provides the privacy that suburbanites prefer while leaving much of the property available for forestry, farming, or rural character.

Mr. Dorfman’s study, published by the University of Georgia, found that conservation design had both economic and lifestyle benefits. Entitled The Economics of Growth, Sprawl, and Land Use Decisions, it found that:

  1. In rural areas, the approach increased property values of land within a quarter-mile of it.
  2. It also increased perceived quality of life, which attracts more people and jobs.
  3. Sprawling development is expensive for local governments. The same growth, channeled into smaller areas, saved farmland, the environment, and money.
  4. It would cost a local government about $150,000 annually to service a standard, 300-home subdivision, but only $70,000 if the same subdivision used conservation design, because it required less infrastructure.

Big Boxes, Small Jobs
Homestead Township Supervisor Demitroff said she believes that Benzie’s master plan would shut down most development in the county, and that the townships want to encourage growth. That may be why the draft plan so dramatically boosts the amount of land available for commercial development.

Among other significant departures from the county plan, the draft plan’s map designates a two-mile long, half-mile wide swath of land along U.S. 31, the county’s main highway, from N. Lamb Rd. almost to Bendon/Lake Ann Rd., for commercial development. The area has at least one large cherry orchard, large amounts of open space and pine stands, and scattered commercial development. Some of the parcels in the new commercial district are large enough to accommodate big-box retail development.

Ms. Demitroff said that, while big-box stores are not the ideal type of economic development the townships want, it would at least bring in new jobs.

"I heard the other day Wal-Mart was looking at some property," she said. "It was close by, but they quit looking at it. They decided it wasn’t an option, but, well, that might not be a bad deal. It might bring a lot of jobs in. Not necessarily a lot of good-paying jobs but at least it would bring some jobs. Right now we’ve got to have some business or industrial growth, or we are going to die.

"Think about it economically," the veteran township official continued. "What is it going to do for these people up here? We are a poor county overall and our people struggle to survive. Do you think they’d rather drive a few miles to a job rather than drive to Traverse City and burn that gas? It’d be a huge savings for them. I’m not saying I want the big boxes, but when I look at it economically, it’s a real hard decision."

But many studies show that the numbers behind that hard decision work against local residents, particularly business owners. For example, one study, The Impact of the Wal-Mart Phenomenon on Rural Communities, written by Kenneth Stone, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, and published by the Farm Foundation, a publicly supported non-profit organization, looked at the effect big boxes have on local retail businesses in Iowa. It found that when the major chain opened stores there, communities lost up to 47 percent of their local retail businesses over the following decade.

"The massive scale of these big-box stores undermines small independent businesses that form the fabric of healthy communities," explained Sarah Anderson, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. "It is important for (local officials) to try to protect existing businesses that add so much to the local character and tourism revenue."

The draft plan’s proposed jump in commercially zoned lands attracted the attention of Benzie County’s planning commission. In its review of the draft, Benzie’s commission noted that it would likely harm retail outlets in Interlochen, which is in adjacent Grand Traverse County, and in the Village of Honor, which already has many empty storefronts, and which declined to participate in the townships’ joint planning effort.

Al Norman, a national consultant whose non-profit organization, Sprawl-Busters, helps communities fight off big-box developments, also said that viewing big-box retailers as an economic development strategy is a mistake that harms local residents.

"What I tell people is Wal-Mart is not a form of economic development—it’s a form of economic dislocation," Norman said. "It extracts money from the local community almost like a strip mine. It takes the top soil and leaves the rest."

Glenn Puit, a veteran journalist, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Emmet County policy specialist. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. Part One of this story reflects expert commentary on the draft master plan that the Inland Homestead Townships Joint Planning Commission is submitting for public hearings on March 4 and 5 in, respectively, Homestead’s and Inland’s township halls.

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