After six months of deliberation, the Land Use Leadership
Council appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm publicly released on Monday its
recommendations for regulating development in Michigan. The report reflects
the dubious nature of its assigned task.
An independent examination of state land-use policy might
have proven useful. For example, a
study released last week by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that
the state’s principal farmland preservation program has failed to achieve its
basic goals and would benefit from reform. Unfortunately, the process in this
instance guaranteed unproductive results.
Even before its first meeting, the 26-member panel was
instructed on 10 "smart growth" tenets upon which to base its policy
recommendations — the assumption being that stricter government control of
residential and commercial development is an environmental necessity. Moreover,
the council was charged with developing proposals to achieve "sustainability"
and "equitable distribution of benefits," which effectively demand restrictions
on private property rights.
Such premises would be unlikely to yield proposals grounded
in sound economic or environmental policy. Instead, the 70-plus pages of
recommendations constitute a central planner’s wish-list, including:
Creation of a statewide land-use plan.
Massive funding for public transportation systems and social programs.
Limits on funds for new road construction and public infrastructure.
New local zoning restrictions.
Imposition of a "Smart Growth" curriculum in public schools.
Equitable distribution of development benefits to urban areas.
The council couched its recommendations in market-friendly
terms, which can be counted as progress of sorts. "The focus on incentives and
assistance rather than mandates encourage private sector cooperation," the
report states. Unfortunately, experience has proven that government interference
in land-use decisions — no matter how supposedly market oriented — distorts the
market. And when economic reasoning is displaced by politic, rarely, if ever,
is the outcome improved.
Much was made of the "bipartisan" nature of the council
when Gov. Granholm announced its creation a month after taking office.
According to the council report, every effort was made to reach consensus. In
fact, diverse opinions weren’t as welcomed as some members had hoped. "We had
to work pretty hard to get any balance," one member said.
A request by some panel members to summarize their
opposition reasoning in the report was denied, as was publication of a minority
report. Instead, the report simply notes the names of panel members who lodged
a reservation or objection (via the appropriate form) to a specific
recommendation — a not insignificant number. Five of the 26 members submitted
20 or more objections, and six others submitted six or less, according to
The body of the report was prepared by Public Sector
Consultants (PSC), a Lansing-based public relations firm hired to facilitate the
council’s work. Some of the background material supplied by PSC staff amounts
to little more than environmental propaganda, such as declarations that
development in Michigan will double by 2040, and that land-use trends in
Michigan have had a "major negative effect" on biodiversity in the state.
Further operating outside reality, the council ignored the
cost to taxpayers in crafting its recommendations. Indeed, the policy
proposals, if enacted, would have enormous budgetary implications, including
substantially swelling the state’s debt load. Billions of dollars would be
needed to expand existing programs and to initiate all the new ones envisioned
by the council.
But Michigan's debt load has
already increased substantially in the past decade. Between 1991 and 2001, for
example, the ratio of general obligation bond debt to total General Fund
expenditures doubled, according to an
assessment by the Mackinac Center. Per-capita bond debt rose 59 percent in
the same period. Meanwhile, Michigan's per-capita debt load relative to other
states has worsened considerably in recent years. The state ranked 36th
nationally in state debt per capita in both 1980 and 1990, but had jumped to
24th by 1997.
Equally troubling is the threat to private property rights
inherent in new government land-use controls proposed by the council. The
report claims, "Where recommendations are made that could involve new regulation
of private property, they have been carefully considered to ensure that (1)
there is a documented, compelling need sufficient to warrant their inclusion,
(2) the negative impacts on private property are minimized, and (3) the
identified problem is not amenable to a nonregulatory solution."
But it is difficult to reconcile such rhetoric with a
recommendation to "enable local governments to adopt and enforce more robust
aesthetic controls." Or to greatly reduce the number of land divisions. Or to
require developers to offer affordable, high-density housing.
The report rightfully acknowledges that stricter land-use
controls are hardly in keeping with public sentiment. "Michigan’s citizens …
continue to express their living choices by moving out of urban communities and
into rural areas; they abandon small lots in cities for large lots in the
Rather than regard such choice as an advantage of a free
society, however, the council instead prescribes social re-engineering. "We
need to alter the current dynamics: the understandable lure of open space, newer
and more expansive homes, and better public services and the accompanying
decline of cities," the report states.
Council members do deserve gratitude for their public
service. It was not for lack of trying that their recommendations lack urgency.
Rather, it’s a thankless task indeed to attempt to make a case for more
stringent government land-use control.
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Diane Katz is director of science, environment, and
technology policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. She conducted the
first assessment of Michigan’s largest environmental spending program and
she is the recent author of a
study of Michigan’s largest farmland preservation program.