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Budget Shortfalls Threaten County Planning and Zoning

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Seven townships in Benzie County and property owners there may be left vulnerable to unplanned development when county planning and zoning services are eliminated due to budget shortfalls.

Seven townships in Benzie County may be stripped of all of their zoning protections due to the county’s serious budget shortfall. State law does not mandate planning and zoning protections, therefore county commissioners are not required to fund these services through the county budget. On Tuesday, the County Board approved the 2009/10 budget, which provides only enough funding to maintain the County Planning and Zoning Department for three months.

The consequences of such a drastic move are significant; sound land use protections are essential for preserving Benzie’s quality of life, protecting its natural resources, and expanding its economic base.

Benzie County residents sent a strong message to their local officials through the Grand Vision project that people want to see future growth concentrated largely in our cities and villages. People also want to protect rural areas and natural resources, and invest in walkability, transit, and affordable housing so that people of all means have real choices about where they live and how they get to work.

Implementation of the unprecedented, citizen-led Grand Vision project requires significant collaboration among local governments. There are currently nineteen local units of government in Benzie County. To say the least, there a lot of cooks in the kitchen and this can make collaboration difficult. A centrally functioning planning and zoning department provides that cohesiveness, and a place where all nineteen units can work together, looking at the “big picture” of what is best for Benzie’s future.

The recent turmoil regarding the staffing of the planning and zoning department likely plays into the thinking of the commissioners, who like township officials and citizens have been frustrated with the department’s performance.

Earlier this year a full-time zoning administrator was fired primarily because of poor working relationships between Administration and the Planning and Zoning Department, and just last month the county’s administrator was also released. The county planning director remains, but his job has been threatened for many years. There have been long standing concerns because the county master plan created in 2000 is now outdated. In addition, since 2000, the county zoning ordinance has never been fully updated to reflect that award winning master plan.

Without zoning protections based on sound planning principles, private property values are at great risk, and so is genuine progress. It is zoning that protects property owners from a neighbor who might want to develop a gravel pit, an amusement park, or a very noisy or intrusive business right next door. It is planning that allows citizens to come together, design a more attractive community, and reap the economic benefits.

Certainly there are many different ways to provide planning and zoning protection. This year’s budget crisis and last month’s termination of the county administrator provide a good opportunity for the commissioners to stop, take a deep breath, and look for creative solutions that do not leave property owners and communities vulnerable.

In other words, it is critical that the county not simply and hastily abandon zoning protections after the three months of funding is exhausted.

Currently, five out of twelve Benzie townships administer their own planning and zoning, while the other seven look to the county for those services. If the county budget forces the department to cut back on these services, restructure, or shift some responsibility to townships, then so be it.

But simply cutting them off is not an option. It would be irresponsible to begin dissolving these county services without working closely with the townships and exploring every possible alternative, especially at a time when the county government is undergoing serious reorganization. Time is needed to develop a strategy that will ensure everyone is protected and prepared.

The most critical needs must be evaluated to ensure townships are not left vulnerable or unprepared.

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