Michigan Land Use Institute

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Looking to the County for Leadership

Institute surveys county commission candidates on pressing land use issues

July 18, 2008 | By Jim Lively
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

If we are ever to curb the sprawl that threatens the Grand Traverse region’s rural, small-town character and economy, it will take strong leadership from many local officials.

Why? Michigan’s Constitution is all about local control: Township, city, and village officials have the most power in deciding how we grow. Unfortunately, many county commissioners use that to avoid getting involved in development issues.

"We’d love to help with sprawl," they say, "but land use and zoning is township business."

Voters can’t allow commissioners to duck helping their community make growth decisions. In fact, there are plenty of ways they can help preserve our region’s beauty, make getting around cheaper and easier, build the economy, and attract quality development.

The upcoming elections are especially crucial because the next commissioners will have the first opportunity to implement the regional, citizen-led Grand Vision planning project.

So the Michigan Land Use Institute asked all commission candidates in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Benzie Counties to address the important issues listed below. You can view their answers here: Benzie Survey; Leelanau Survey; Grand Traverse Survey.

Financing for sewer and water infrastructure.
While Grand Vision workshops revealed a strong preference for directing growth to cities and villages, that won’t happen without adequate sewer and water mains. Townships can’t finance these pricey items alone; enlightened county leadership around innovative financing can help.

Managing rising housing and transportation costs
Counties can work with their local units to encourage building more affordable housing closer to working families’ jobs. Streamlined affordable housing permitting, a trust fund for affordable housing developers, and "inclusionary zoning" that makes parts of new developments affordable for working families: These are things that sophisticated county leadership can assist. Better bus service is plainly a county responsibility.

Assisting townships and village with planning and zoning
Benzie, Leelanau, and Grand Traverse Counties have fulltime planning staff; few townships do. County planners host educational workshops, but rarely work closely with townships to control the cost of developing master plans and zoning laws. Townships need help with these complicated, expensive, and even legally risky duties, but officials often bristle at offers of assistance. County leaders must offer help while respecting township authority.

Updating and implementing Benzie County’s comprehensive plan
Benzie County, which administers zoning for several townships, adopted an award-winning comprehensive land use plan years ago, but has yet to complete the necessary ordinances—one reason why it lost the cooperation of some townships.
County leadership on planning and zoning is crucial in this election.

Inspecting septic systems in Leelanau
Owners of older houses on inland lakes are converting them to year-round homes. Too often, inspectors ignore inadequate septic systems that can harm a lake. Benzie now requires septic system inspections and repairs when a home is sold. Many Leelanau residents have unsuccessfully pushed for a similar ordinance.

Checking Grand Traverse’s carbon footprint
Grand Traverse County commissioners boldly authorized a study of its global warming emissions, albeit to save money on fuel. The study’s results are pointing the county toward leadership on climate change, which would be very refreshing in any county!

Making The Grand Vision real
All six of our region’s counties helped fund The Grand Vision. After this fall’s "Grand Vision Decision," many citizens will want local officials to implement its final recommendations. County officials should lead the way.

We hope that citizens pursue such growth issues with their commission candidates, and listen for sound answers. The Institute stands ready to help local officials as they look for solutions to accommodate growth.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org