The Politics of "Sprawl"

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.[106] 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
Summary of Policy Recommendations
December 1994

  • Institute voluntary Agricultural Security Areas that provide incentives for landowners to keep land in agricultural production. These incentives include "Right to Farm" protection, protection from eminent domain and land condemnation, and access to a state-funded Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program;

  • Base property taxes on use rather than market value for agricultural land and property;

  • Create a statewide PDR program and pass enabling legislation that allows the state and local governments to buy development rights for agricultural land from farmers;

  • Encourage the use of cluster housing to reduce the amount of land used for development. Minimum lot size requirements should also be "avoided when land resources important to agriculture and forestry are concerned;"

  • Encourage the redevelopment of Michigan’s urban centers, including offering incentives for businesses to locate in these cities; and

  • Improve environmental stewardship using a watershed-based approach to solve local watershed issues.

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.[107] 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.[108] 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.