In March of 2008, Governor Jennifer Granholm signed into law legislation called the Michigan Planning Enabling Act (Michigan Public Act 33 of 2008.) This new law replaced three separate laws governing planning for municipalities, townships and counties, bringing their separate provisions into one unified law. Among other things, PA 33 changed how counties must set up their Planning Commissions, requiring that they be created by and ordinance rather than by resolution as required by the original 1945 law. Counties are not required to have an Planning Commission but, if they do, PA 33 has specific directives regarding the number of members, how frequently they must meet and their responsibilities regarding the formation of county-wide Master Plans for development. Good overviews of the new law are HERE (pdf) and HERE (pdf).
In Washtenaw County, the Washtenaw Metropolitan Planning Commission was dissolved in 2002, long before this law was on the books. It was replaced on the advice of consultants from Plante and Moran with a Public Advisory Board (PAB). The PAB gave advice to the County Commission on planning issues. In early 2010, the PAB itself was eliminated due to budget constraints, according to County Commissioner Conan Smith.
“The subsequent elimination was simply because of funding issues: planning was not a mandated service and we simply didn’t have the staff capacity to maintain the PAB,” Smith wrote in an email.
Though the explanation sounds innocuous, the results have not been. Planning may not have been a mandated service, but the Washtenaw PAB, on which Conan Smith sat, had its fingers in numerous pies around the county including transportation plans, support for participation and funding the proposed Aerotropolis in eastern Washtenaw and western Wayne County (a “job creation” plan funded, of course, by skimming money from several school districts). The group was even treated to a presentation by Ann Arbor SPARK. According to minutes of that meeting, “PAB members asked several questions, discussed the organization and expressed support for its mission.”
The deadline for creating the Planning Commission by ordinance was July 1, 2011. With this deadline and the new rules, some Michigan counties with existing Planning Commissions made the decision to eliminate them entirely. For example, Alger, Muskegon, Lake, and Allegan counties all eliminated their Planning Commissions in the recent past.
Why should we care about county Planning Commissions?
The new law, like the previous one, has very specific requirements regarding Master Plans. For example, if the county has zoning districts the Master Plan must explain how land use categories on future land use maps relate to districts on the zoning maps. It is through these mechanisms that counties control how development is done now and in the future. The process of creating a Master Plan invites input from residents, neighboring municipalities, regional planning districts covering several counties, and other stakeholders. Because members of the Planning Commissions are generally from the community and their meetings are open to the public, there is ample opportunity for citizen input and involvement in the planning process that dictates future development in the county.
Master Plans can also help counties to combat undesirable development by spelling out, in advance, how and where development will occur. They can help defend against developers who would like to subvert zoning restrictions through variances (waivers from existing zoning regulations) and stop uncontrolled development. Many a lawsuit has been filed against municipalities by companies like Walmart who wish to skirt existing zonings. Counties and local municipalities that consistently adhere closely their Master Plans are in a much stronger legal position when they reject these types of development projects.
Finally, county Planning Commissions bring more resources and a stronger voice representing a large geographical area when legal challenges arise. This becomes critically important when cities, townships and villages are put into the position of pushing back against unwanted development. Counties can assist local municipalities financially and with other resources in these instances.
Local municipalites vs. wealthy developers — the case of Saugatuck Township
An important and egregious example of local municipalities being threatened by legal challenges came this year in Saugatuck Township in Allegan County. An out-of-state developer named Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Oil natural gas company, purchased land in 2006 on the shores of Lake Michigan in the Saugatuck Dunes. His intention was to develop the land with condos, a marina and a golf course. He proceeded to spend the next five years using every legal avenue at his disposal to subvert the wishes of the majority of Saugatuck Township residents in order to force his development through.
Because Saugatuck Township had an orderly zoning program and a Master Plan, it was able to defend itself legally. However, McClendon, an extremely wealthy man with very deep pockets, simply waited them out, drawing out the lawsuits for so long that Saugatuck Township eventually was forced to pass a special millage simply to pay its legal bills. So, while they were in a strong legal position, they were not in a strong financial position. Finally, this past month, they “compromised” with McClendon to settle the lawsuit. He will now develop one of the most beautiful, undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline ecosystems in our state. The so-called compromise looks like this:
- Development in 12 of the 32 acres on the site
- Up to 100 units to be built on the shoreline property
- A 66-slip marina
- A 25-suite inn
- A nine-hole golf course
All of this is taking place in an area that has been named one of America’s 11 most-endangered places.
So, what does this have to do with county Planning Commissions? Well, as it turns out, the same week that Aubrey McClendon won his five-year fight against Saugatuck Township, after forcing them to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in the process, the Allegan County Planning Commission was dissolved. Two months before this happened, I asked a few questions:
- Did Aubrey McClendon’s Freedom of Information Act request to the County Planning Commission two years ago (which corresponds with the beginning of discussions about this effort) have anything thing do with the push to eliminate the Planning Commission?
- What role does Joyce Watts, the County Clerk whose son works for Aubrey McClendon, have to play in this decision given her position on the Board of Commissioners?
- Why hasn’t the County made any public announcements about this impending and momentous decision, held hearings, or solicited input from County residents?
- Is there a statewide push underway by the Snyder administration and supporters to do away with Planning Commissions across the state to help facilitate development and eliminate the “hurdle” of public review?
And this is what I wrote when it happened:
By disbanding their Planning Commission, Allegan County no longer has a requirement to have a Master Plan for the development of the county. Without a Master Plan, the skids are greased for willy-nilly unplanned development. It’s a developer’s dream community, right on the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan.
This is why, particularly in areas considered very attractive for development, areas with undeveloped natural areas, for example, county Planning Commissions are very important. They can provide resources that local municipalities like Saugatuck Township simply do not have. We should all be outraged that Saugatuck Township was forced to hold a special election to raise more money from its residents simply to defend itself against countless lawsuits from one greedy investor. We should all also be asking what the impetus was for the elimination of the Allegan County Planning Commission, given cloud of questions hanging over it.
The Big Issue
But there is a wider issue here as well. With the elimination of county Planning Commissions, for whatever reason, one more avenue for citizens to have a voice and have a say in the future of the communities is limited. In tough economic times like those we are in now, particularly against a nearly endless chant of “SMALLER GOVERNMENT!”, it is becomes all too easy for county and municipal governments to eliminate things that cost money without producing any revenue. But, this is short-sighted thinking. If we ruin what’s good about our communities by allowing unbridled development by developers who are in it to make a quick profit, over the long term our communities will suffer and become less economically attractive to the right types of development. Preventing urban sprawl, preserving historical & natural areas, making communities walkable and safe; these are the types of things that separate relatively successful towns like Chelsea from towns that are seeing their businesses close, their populations dwindle and their schools without the necessary resources to educate students.
We must all be vigilant as we move forward to ensure that we keep the voice of Michigan citizens one that can be heard and one that is listened to. The Michigan Planning Enabling Act, PA 33, was intended to improve planning in Michigan municipalities and counties. However, as an unintended consequence, in some places it had the opposite effect, helping to make our voices that much less heard and the voices of developers louder. When we turn over the reins of power to those looking only for profit, we will all lose as our state’s economy and our quality of life suffer.