Planning for Michigan's Urban Future

Is the Coordinated Planning Act Steering the Right Course?

The following article orginally appeared in the September 2001 issue of Michigan Forward, a monthly publication of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.   The article was written in response to a June 2001 Michigan Forward article by state Rep. Patricia Birkholz supporting HB 4571 (the Coordinated Planning Act).

Over the last decade, developed land in the United States has increased 20 percent, a significant increase by almost any measure. Michigan's share of land devoted to urban and built-up uses increased from 8.5 percent of its total surface area in 1992 to 9.5 percent in 1997.

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For some, this growth rate is alarming and has created significant problems and issues. In fact, urban sprawl is increasingly becoming a springboard for sweeping reforms at the state level. The Michigan Society of Planning, for example, sponsored a day-long, statewide symposium focusing on growth-management reform through state legislation with the specific intent of supporting state-level planning-law reform by noting: "Many people sense that we are caught in a race against time. We must regain control over the impact of growth, decline, and change on our quality of life..  Statutory reform of planning laws is a serious contemporary concern that affects every citizen, community, and region in the state." Not surprisingly, policy-makers in Michigan are attempting to address these issues, and one of the most important initiatives has become the Coordinated Planning Act (CPA) or House Bill 4751. While space does not permit a detailed, point-by-point analysis of the bill, House Bill 4571 has a number of significant flaws that make achieving the kinds of planning goals its proponents want problematic. In fact, many of its features work against practical experience with planning and fail to incorporate realistic understanding of how cities and communities evolve.

The Coordinated Planning Act

At its root, the CPA reflects a deep distrust (or misunderstanding) of real-estate markets. The principles underlying the Act suggest that real-estate markets are inherently inferior to centralized control of land use and that comprehensive planning at the local, county, and sometimes multi-county level will achieve superior results.  This view, which becomes clear through a careful reading of House Bill 4751, also implies that a community's evolution is determined by its politics: with the right vision and strong legislative backing, a community can achieve more than through the spontaneous evolution of the housing market where developers and builders attempt to meet the needs and preferences of consumers.  Even if real-estate markets do not achieve an optimal outcome, however, the planning mandates and principles imbedded in the CPA are unlikely to achieve their goals.

First, the CPA lays out a planning process that's impractical and unworkable and, ironically, inconsistent with planning experience. The Act [Sec. 41(a)], for example, requires communities to develop a 20-year vision for their community, and then create and implement comprehensive plans and detailed land-use maps based on that vision. This requires an extraordinary level of knowledge and certainty about future land-use trends that the vast majority of planning departments and staff are poorly equipped to obtain. In fact, much of the vision that underlies a community's comprehensive plans and maps is inherently unknowable because markets create innovations that cannot be anticipated and preferences change over time.

In fact, much of the language that would be passed into law seems idealistic and utopian. For example, the Act (Sec. 41) requires communities to comprehensively plan "the coordinated and harmonious long-range physical, social, environmental, and economic development or redevelopment of the community in a fiscally sound and feasible manner." The plans, among other things, would be required to determine "appropriate" uses for agricultural lands, avoid overcrowding and underutilization of land, and promote "population and distribution patterns that are attractive, healthy, safe, and convenient to workplaces and services, and that can be efficiently served" by public services. The plans are also required to prevent congestion, consider the character of the community, promote "quality" building designs and "good" civic design, and use land-use planning to prevent inequities "between communities, races, income groups, or generations." Nowhere does the Act acknowledge that many of these goals are subjective, be impossible to define in a public setting, and have little if any ability to be measured in a meaningful sense. "Good" community design, for example, is as much, if not more, about ideology than it is about objective analysis of what works and what doesn't.

In short, the Act presumes that communities of several thousand people can come together in a unified, smoothly functioning political process, decide what their community will look like in 20 years, and then implement that vision by prescribing in precise detail housing densities, heights, architecture, and employment mix. 

On a more practical level, the Act adopts a "closed" system approach, where the future of a community can be legislated irrespective of the desires, needs, and changing priorities of community residents. Almost nothing is left to the spontaneous order and innovation of the land market. It fails to acknowledge that communities face multiple development paths at any given point in time, and these paths are determined largely outside direct or even indirect control of individual cities.

Political gridlock

The conceptual problems with the planning process are compounded by an apparent recipe for political gridlock.  Like most planning reforms, a key goal is "consistency"—making sure local and regional plans do not contradict each other. As a result, the Act (Sec. 53) mandates that land-use plans developed by cities, counties, and regional planning commissions "include or incorporate by reference" other plans, specifying more than two dozen plans in the language of the law. Plans that would need to be incorporated into the plans would include downtown development plans, tax increment financing district plans, brownfield plans, housing commission plans, park and recreation plans, historic district plans, sewer system plans, solid waste management plans, and neighborhood improvement plans. While consistency is a laudable goal, achieving this level of plan harmony is an almost Herculean task in the real world.

The gridlock is further compounded by an attempt to be as inclusive as possible in the planning process. As a commission develops its plan, the Act (Sec. 55) requires it to notify virtually any public or private entity impacted by the plan with "a written notice explaining the planning commission intends to prepare a plan and requesting the recipient's cooperation and comment."  Once comments are made, the planning commission is required by law (Sec. 59) to "give serious consideration to, reply to, and attempt in good faith to address every objection or other comment made by a reviewing entity."  The planning commission doesn't have to agree or accept the comments, but it must reply to all of them and state its reasons for disagreement. Clearly, this process alone would require coordinating, consolidating, and responding to dozens, and potentially hundreds, of comments, hopelessly bogging down the planning process.

A third way?

Ironically, these planning law reforms are being recommended at a time when market forces are moderating some of the more visible signs of land development.  Media headlines to the contrary, Michigan's urban development trends track, and may even lag, national trends, farmland loss rates at the state level are at historic lows, and population densities are increasing (particularly in suburban areas). These trends are occurring largely in the absence of a statewide planning law that mandates growth management.

A third option—market-oriented growth management—may contain a more effective set of tools in the long-run, but they are not even considered in the current planning environment in Michigan, even though they would preserve more flexibility, fluidity, and choice in the housing and real-estate markets. Michigan policy-makers should strongly consider alternatives to top-down planning that preserve the dynamism of community and housing choice before endorsing the kind of top-down planning embedded in the current version of the CPA.

"The principles underlying the Coordinated Planning Act suggest that real-estate markets are inherently inferior to centralized control of land use and that comprehensive planning at the local, county, and sometimes multi-county level will achieve superior results."