NW Ottawa Needs Land-Use 'Targets'

September 22, 2006
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GRAND HAVEN — Smart Growth, reviewing master plans and setting goals were the topics addressed as Grand Haven area community leaders gathered to learn about making their community more economically viable and competitive while preserving their resources.

More than 50 people gathered at the Grand Haven Township Hall Sept. 19 to hear presentations by economic development consultant Greg Northrup, who is also president of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance; Gill White, residential developer and member of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council and the People and Land Advisory group; and Keith Charters, chairman of the Michigan Department of National Resources Commission.

The presentations were part of a Building Competitive Communities pilot program. A grant from the Michigan Chamber Foundation given to the Northwest Ottawa County and Coopersville area covers the cost of professional aid and materials for the project.

“What we’re trying to do is develop a plan to bring our communities together over the long term to ensure that Northwest Ottawa County is a viable community for people to live, work, play and learn,” said Joy Gaasch, president of The Chamber of Commerce for Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg.

Northrup, who said he began working on the project before he became president of the alliance and was not speaking on its behalf, stressed the importance of planning, and setting standards and goals to measure advancement.

“All I want you to do is set the targets,” Northrup said.

If a community is committed to keeping part of its land as open space, they should know how much land they want keep “green” and plan for it, he said. Housing and commitment to a diverse population of residential needs are issues that Northrup said are important to take into consideration.

He compared the system of running a local government to industry ISO (International Standards Organization) standards, which he said is a good system to emulate, especially considering the success the operational standards have had in Michigan.

“There are no surprises, because you know where you are going, where you want to be,” he said of establishing goals and measuring progress on a periodic basis. 

Northrup suggested starting the process by creating a Land Use Action Committee with a mix of government representatives, business leaders, a regional planning entity representative and ISO experts.

Planning and setting goals will lead to predictability of what is going to happen in the future of land use, reliability in the standards of performance, and stability in the measurement of the results, he said.

While Northrup emphasized the necessity of establishing goals and standards, White discussed some of the scenarios that could result from those goals.

White said Smart Growth or “doing things differently” is the key to keeping land use viable and making the best of a geographic area for the growing population.

The population in the United States is predicted to grow by 33 percent by the year 2030, White said. This means that half the buildings needed to accommodate that growth do not exist today and will need to be adequately planned for.

The idea of Smart Growth is based on high-density and mixed-use growth, creating strong neighborhoods with a variety of housing, commercial and transportation options. Smart Growth encourages more neighborhood interaction and less reliance on vehicles.

White said sprawling growth, which can lead to geographic racial segregation, traffic congestion, and separate commercial and residential areas, is a great area of concern.

“There are many different interest groups that are concerned about the conversation on Smart Growth and urban sprawl,” he said.

For instance, labor leaders and leaders of groups against racism are concerned about sprawl, because it creates long-commuting times for workers and segregates people by socioeconomic status and often race, White said.

The fiscal outcomes of Smart Growth are also evident, White said, using a study in New Jersey as an example. The study showed that local governments cut the annual fiscal deficit by 40 percent and spent $870 million less in local infrastructure costs, and, statewide, sewer and other infrastructure costs were $1.45 billion less.

“Density done well can help balance city budgets,” he said.

White showed examples of various Smart Growth areas throughout the United States, and Charters shared his experiences with Smart Growth in Traverse City and the surrounding area.

During a 10-year project with the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, Charters worked with 93 units of government in the area to implement better land-use planning, as well as collaboration between local municipalities to create more uniform codes and ordinances to support growth and development.

Though Charters admitted the subject was not the most interesting to the community members in his area, the group put together the Grand Traverse Bay Region Development Guidebook to help developers implement the best practices.

While ordinances for development are important, Charters stressed that if they do not support good land-use and design, they should be changed to do so.

To do this, he said to start with a master plan.

“That’s the vision for your local unit of government,” he said. “Then you write the ordinance to support that vision.”

In the case of the Traverse City area, Charters worked to get grants and build model communities that would showcase the ideas of better land-use. The process was to first identify conservation features such as watersheds and rivers, then locate the houses, then locate roads and infrastructure, and finally, draw the lot lines. Charters said the reverse of this process is unfortunately more common.

After the model communities were planned and approved, the land and plans were sold to developers to follow through with the vision. During the process, the master plan and ordinances were reviewed and re-written to support the development, which will pave the way for similar developments.

Charters said of the 93 municipalities involved, 82 adopted the principles of the guidebook and the others had their own sophisticated systems in place.

Better land use and Smart Growth can be achieved, Charters said, if municipalities allow for mixed use development and review their ordinances and master plans.

Chamber president Gaasch said the presentation reinforced the importance of good land use planning and master plans, and the information will be taken into account when the Building Competitive Communities pilot program steering committee meets in October.

“They will be evaluating and developing a plan with actions and measurable outcomes.”    

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