Agenda and Facts Collide in Land-Use Report

The report recently released by Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Michigan Land Use Leadership Council is a good example of what happens when political agendas collide with facts: The facts lose, big time.

Where to begin? A good place is where the council tries to scare us into believing Michigan might become like America’s most urbanized state. "Michigan must do a much better job rebuilding its cities and protecting forests and farm lands," the report states, "or risk becoming a concrete-covered, Midwestern imitation of New Jersey."

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From such a statement, one gets the feeling that New Jersey is probably 90 percent concrete, and that Michigan isn’t far behind. In fact, New Jersey does have the largest share of its land in urban areas — 38 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Michigan, at 6 percent, has a ways to go before it can mount a credible challenge.

But according to the Council’s consultants, Michigan will be two-thirds as urbanized as New Jersey by 2040 and will catch up to it at some point after our children’s children’s children enter retirement. True — if the average new home in Michigan from now until we catch up is built on a lot that is 20 square miles or more in size. That figure comes from plugging into the equation the Census Bureau’s projected rate of growth for Michigan. Lot sizes may be increasing, but not by that much.

In fact, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show there has been no loss of farmland in the state since 1997. The Michigan Department of Agriculture recently announced that the number of small farms in our state actually increased in the last year.

The Land-Use Council’s report repeatedly makes assertions — about the feasibility of mass transit for relieving urban sprawl, for example — without offering any evidence that transit can make a difference.

That’s because there is no such evidence. The urban area of the 21st century is too large and diverse to be able to afford transit as an alternative to the automobile, except for trips to and from downtown. In edge cities like Southfield and Troy as well as in the edgeless cities that spread throughout Michigan’s urban areas, few people use transit who have cars available. If all or even most employment were downtown, mass transit would make more sense. But only 5 percent of metropolitan Detroit’s employment is downtown. Transit is similarly limited in other major cities in North America and Western Europe.

One of the consultants writing for the report implies, without evidence, that traffic jams would increase if Michigan does not change its development patterns. Yet, in America, Europe or Asia, more traffic congestion is associated with the kinds of development patterns the Council advocates — in which population densities are higher and there is more transit use. Commuters in such areas spend far more time traveling. In Hong Kong, the developed world’s most dense urban area, so many people are packed into such a small area that mass transit offers a preferable alternative to the automobile. But the average Hong Kong commuter spends 40 minutes longer every day traveling to and from work than commuters in Detroit.

Of course, the reason it’s so easy to find errors, exaggerations and unsupported assertions in a report like this is because of its political agenda, which involves a host of recommendations for greater government intervention with regard to land use in Michigan, with nary a mention of any drawbacks.

For example, the council’s report contains not a word about the fact that if its land-use recommendations were implemented, real estate and land prices would rise to heights never before seen in Michigan. Harvard researchers Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko have shown that the primary difference between high- and low-cost housing markets around the nation is land-use regulation. This effect can be clearly seen in areas that have adopted similar policies, like Portland, Oregon, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

How would such a price rise affect home ownership here in Michigan? For minorities, who lag whites in home ownership by anywhere from 25 to 30 percent, it would pose an almost insurmountable obstacle. Anti-sprawl strategies will, for many minority and other lower-income households, have the same detrimental impact as the now-outlawed racial restrictive covenants — they will keep people from being able to own their own homes. Home ownership is the principal mechanism for creating savings in middle income America. It can be the source of funds for sending the kids to college or for starting new businesses. Take that away and you injure more than just those denied home ownership. You injure the economy and the community as well.

In its report, the Michigan Land Use Council has identified no imperative that justifies its interventionist social engineering. As the Lone Mountain Compact put it, "People should be allowed to live and work where and how they like." That’s what America, and American prosperity is all about. And Michigan is no exception.

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Wendell Cox is an adjunct scholar for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy in metropolitan St. Louis and a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris (a French national university).