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
Summary of Policy Recommendations
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
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
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.