Economic growth, particularly residential development, is a very visible part of the Michigan landscape. The politics of transforming agricultural uses to urbanized uses led Governor Engler to commission a task force on farmland preservation in 1994. The commission’s task was to analyze land use and make recommendations on ways to preserve Michigan’s farmland (see box, below). These concerns were a direct outcome of perceived threats from suburbanization and increased land development.
Michigan Farmland and Agricultural Development Task Force
Urban sprawl has also become the focus of numerous public debates and forums. Both the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News have run extensive — and mostly negative — series on urban sprawl and urban redevelopment issues. Newspapers in Lansing and Ann Arbor have also published significant news articles on urban sprawl. Even the Traverse City area has raised concerns about urban sprawl. Indeed, the first local initiative to preserve agricultural land by purchasing future development rights (PDRs) from farmers was implemented near Traverse City.
Most recently, Washtenaw County released a report offering a blueprint for preserving farmland and open space. Among the recommendations was the suggested establishment of a preservation strategy that would maintain at least 120,000 acres as farmland. According to the report, this could be accomplished, among other strategies, through agricultural zoning, the promotion of "compact development," and tax-financed purchases of development rights.
Clearly, the drive to preserve farmland and restrict suburban development in Michigan is increasing. Several policy recommendations, however, run the risk of using top-down planning tools and government ownership and control of land to achieve state policy goals. Tax-funded PDR programs, for example, are mechanisms that would, in effect, place future land development under the control of local governments and urban planners and circumvent real estate markets.
These policy approaches and the premises on which they are founded, while popular and quickly becoming the conventional wisdom, should be carefully evaluated before Michigan policy makers make decisions on urban development issues. The analysis provided in this study strongly suggests that a market-oriented approach to Michigan land use policy will succeed where bureaucratic, coercive, top-down strategies have failed.