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MIDLAND, MI-An adjunct scholar for a conservative think-tank here says state officials need to think about facts rather than emotion when dealing with what’s termed “urban sprawl.” Samuel Staley, also the director of the Urban Futures Program for the Reason Policy Institute in Los Angeles, says many proposals in Michigan have emerged since 1994 to grapple with urban sprawl, including plans to impose urban-growth boundaries, institute regional land-use planning, and prevent vacant land from being developed.

For example, the state House of Representatives approved three bills Wednesday requiring local municipalities to adopt open space preservation measures, in the form of ordinances that would allow a landowner to build the same number of units as established by the local unit of government while protecting 50% of the land in an undeveloped state.

Another proposal is the Coordinated Planning Act, Staley says, which would require Michigan communities to create a vision about what sort of people, jobs, and housing will exist there 20 years down the road.

“Somehow, these communities — cities, towns, and townships — also will have to figure out how to change their zoning and land-use plans to fit the vision,” Staley says.

Under existing law, where issues cross boundaries, plans are shared as needed, he adds. For example, to build a new mall outside city limits, water, sewer, and police and fire protection must be provided into the adjoining township. Such cooperation has been worked out countless times across Michigan, and while the process is sometimes lengthy, the solution is primarily local and market-driven.

“The most recent land development data show that the sky is not falling, that Michigan is not consuming land at some horrific rate. Michigan’s share of land devoted to development increased from 8.5% in 1992 to 9.5% in 1997, which ranks the state 17th in percentage of developed land. The state is only about 10% developed,” Staley says.

He says Michigan policy-makers should be wary of adopting schemes similar to the centralized growth management planning adopted in states including Oregon, Florida, Washington, and Tennessee. Staley adds that approach ignores the dynamic and uncertain nature of the housing market and has produced skyrocketing housing costs and other unforeseen problems of its own.

He suggests policy-makers instead should ensure that housing diversity and choice are maximized in Michigan’s metropolitan areas by freeing up the real estate market. This could be accomplished by allowing more flexibility in zoning codes, administratively approving projects rather than subjecting them to highly politicized legislative processes, and using voluntary overlay districts to accommodate innovative site designs such as cluster housing, Staley says.

“Before moving Michigan toward a more centrally planned land use model, state policy-makers should consider why local governments and the free market are better equipped to deal with local land use issues,” he says.

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