The Circle Of Decay

June 20, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Certain aspects of doing business locally and living here have been recognized nationally. Many have been very positive. A few were even cause to celebrate.

But one national acknowledgement hasn’t been so grand.

Earlier this year, USA Today rated the resulting sprawl from years of development in the metro area as badly significant. In fact, the daily national newspaper reported that sprawl was so utterly significant here that it ranked the area as the sixth-worst sprawled-out metro area on its index of 271 places in the nation that had a population of at least one million.

No champagne corks popped locally in February when that national recognition was learned.

But while USA Today was creating its sprawl index, the Kent County Urban Sprawl Subcommittee was doing a little indexing of its own. The seven-member subcommittee, created by Kent County Chairman Steve Heacock, was looking into the countywide seriousness of the sprawl problem. Twenty-one months after its start-up, the subcommittee released its findings and recommendations at the end of September.

“Traffic congestion, loss of economic viability of agriculture and related businesses, and urban areas that are left without population and sometimes tax bases for important services,” said Al Vanderberg, assistant county administrator, naming just a few negative factors the group found that result from over- and improperly planned development.

The standard sprawl pattern is called the “circle of decay.” It starts from an urban core and spreads in a circular fashion from that core. First it creates suburbs beyond the city. Then it creates townships beyond the suburbs. In turn, those two moves then create economically deprived cities. Detroit provides a good example of how the circle of decay works.

Population flight and growth are the usual culprits. In Michigan, the emphasis on local authority is a special offender, as it puts planning in the hands of smaller communities within the larger region. And flight has been a concern here, largely an economic one, even though the city grew by 5 percent in the 2000 Census.

But population growth is rapidly becoming the major perpetrator.

“Virtually all of Kent County is expected to be urbanized in the next 20 years,” said Vanderberg. “The population will become much denser in the rural areas by 2020.”

Vanderberg said property splits began to increase about five years ago, reaching 10,000 in one calendar year and then leveling off to 7,500 annually for the past few years. But despite the drop-off, the splits doubled over the last part of the previous decade.

“Kent County’s sprawl is nationally significant,” said Vanderberg, who then referred to the USA Today index, which measured population density and the growth of that density.

Knowing that, the subcommittee, chaired by county commissioner Tom Postmus, came to several conclusions on what has to be done. Green space has to be preserved to maintain the quality of life and the diversity of the economy. Planning has to be done regionally. Farmers and agribusiness owners have to be helped. Sewer systems have to be standardized. And the public has to be educated on sprawl’s effects.

Based on these findings, the subcommittee suggested these recommendations:

  • Kent County should work closely with the Grand Valley Metro Council on Blueprint II to streamline area planning.
  • Kent County should establish a green-space preservation program, including allowing townships to implement a purchase-and-transfer-of-development-rights program.
  • Kent County should join the MSU Extension office to educate residents about sprawl.
  • Kent County should set countywide standards for storm water drainage and sanitary sewer systems.
  • Kent County commissioners should support the United Growth for Kent County initiative sponsored by the Kent/MSU Cooperative Extension.

In about a month, the recommendations will go to county commissioners, along with any funding requests. The Metro Council has already asked the county to contribute $500,000 to the regional planning agency’s $2 million Blueprint II project.

“County planning has never been given real authority over planning and zoning in Michigan,” said Vanderberg. “County government is not structured such that it can reduce or eliminate growth, nor would this be a desired outcome. We’d never want to do that.

“However, our recommendations do focus on managing growth to minimize the negative impacts of sprawl. And the recommendations are intended to place planning ahead of rapid growth so that the unique character of Kent County can be maintained,” he added.

Joining Vanderberg and Postmus on the subcommittee were Jack Horton, Paul McGuire, Harold Mast, Rick Smoke and Dave Guikema. Horton, Mast, McGuire and Smoke are county commissioners, while Guikema directs the MSU Cooperative Extension.

“I greatly appreciate this work,” said Heacock of the subcommittee’s effort. “And I feel it will provide a great service to the people of Kent County.”

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