Economic Development and Government

A unified planning vision is needed for the county

September 21, 2012
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One difficulty with consolidating the city of Grand Rapids and Kent County into a new metropolitan government, as One Kent Coalition proposed last year, is the city and the county don’t perform, or even offer, identical services.

Because of that, a merger would require more than a handful of adjustments.

The Kent County Community Collaboration Work Group found out recently that most counties in Michigan don’t do planning and zoning, two economically vital services. Instead, planning and zoning largely are left up to cities and townships, which can be a nightmare for an economic developer like The Right Place Inc. to deal with when trying to lure new businesses to a region where ordinances and codes may differ from locality to locality.

“Companies looking to locate here don’t care about boundaries between cities, townships and counties. The harder you make it, the harder it is,” said Birgit Klohs, longtime Right Place president and member of the work group. “It’s a spaghetti soup.”

Jim Brown, a municipal attorney with a seat on the work group, said Mason County is one of the very few counties that do land-use planning and zoning. He said the Ionia County commission tried to take over both duties but voters nixed that idea.

“In Wayne County, local units are responsible for planning,” said Daryl Delabbio, Kent County administrator and controller.

The only land-related planning the county does is through its Purchase of Development Rights ordinance, which preserves farmland and orchards, and its parkland initiative, which sets aside recreational acres for future generations.

Grand Rapids Planning Director Suzanne Schulz told the group that not having a solid planning vision for the county results in high costs for everyone who lives and does business in it. “Planning is an economic activity,” she said.

Grand Rapids Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong reminded everyone that the Grand Valley Metro Council made a couple of efforts more than a decade ago to establish the vision Schulz said was needed.

DeLong said the council’s Blueprint, a detailed land-use plan based on smart growth principles, was approved by the agency’s board in the late 1990s but rejected by its member communities at their respective tables.

So GVMC went back to the drawing board to produce Blueprint II, a kinder and gentler version of the original. But that one didn’t go anywhere, either, and Blueprint III has never surfaced.

“All of us have moved away from that for some reason,” said DeLong.

Schulz said ever since the city created its Master Plan and Green GR plan, both of which comprise a general vision for the city, things have gotten much better.

“We’ve seen a significant change in our neighborhoods because of having a quality vision,” Schulz said.

But Brown noted that a lot of what Grand Rapids has done hasn’t been done in other parts of Michigan because of a 2008 state law, which requires a city to tell neighboring communities when it undertakes creating a new Master Plan or starts amending an existing one. Giving that notice often draws criticism.

“I think it’s made it much more difficult to amend a Master Plan,” said Brown of the law. “It hasn’t been successful.”

George Erickcek, an economist with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said a detriment to reaching a unified land-use planning policy for the county is some government officials might not go along with it because they fear their municipality would lose its authority and autonomy with a one-size-fits-all plan.

Delong added that the late Richard Root, former Kentwood mayor, told him his suburban city only exists because its residents didn’t want to be part of Grand Rapids.

At the last GVMC meeting, Neil Carlson, director of the Center for Social Research at Calvin College, presented the results of a survey that measured the feelings local public officials and county residents had regarding collaborative government efforts and, to a much lesser extent, the consolidation of local governments.

The idea for the survey came from longtime Calvin professor James Penning, who passed away in 2010, after he learned of the One Kent merger proposal that year.

The consolidation results showed that 87 percent of public officials “strongly oppose” and “oppose” either merging their government with neighboring governments or merging all units with the county. Forty-nine percent of the public felt the same about both, while 20 percent said they were neutral to the ideas.

Fifty-one percent of elected officials “strongly favor” or “favor” the sharing of services in the county, while 40 percent of the public felt the same. But 39 percent of the general public were neutral on sharing services or consolidating efforts.

The survey, which was sponsored by GVMC, Kent County, the Frey Foundation and Urban Metro Mayors and Managers, was conducted by the Community Research Institute at Grand Valley State University. Five hundred residents were surveyed by phone and 116 elected officials were interviewed in person.

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