State Land Use Planning: Less Is More

"Urban Sprawl" in the United States
Elected officials are gearing up to do something, almost anything, about "urban sprawl," but over half of states are less than 5 percent urbanized.

In state after state, elected officials are gearing up to do something, almost anything, about so-called "urban sprawl."  Michigan policy-makers and citizens, however, should put facts ahead of emotion and think carefully before they act.

Since Gov. Engler's Farmland and Agricultural Development Task Force issued its report in 1994, many proposals have emerged to grapple with urban sprawl, including plans to impose urban-growth boundaries, institute regional land-use planning, and prevent vacant land from being developed.

The most recent "reform" proposal is the Coordinated Planning Act.  This legislation would require Michigan communities to peer into a crystal ball for a vision about what sort of people, jobs, and housing will exist there 20 years down the road.  And somehow, these communities—cities, towns, and townships—also will have to figure out how to change their zoning and land-use plans to fit the vision (irrespective of whether the vision is accurate or realistic).

Supporters of the legislation say that Michigan's planning laws do not foster enough cooperation between cities, townships, and counties.  But even if these parties are asked to voluntarily share plans, the sheer volume of the exercise will surely bog governments down in more paperwork and bureaucracy.  Furthermore, there soon would be pressure to make such cooperation mandatory and the process even more cumbersome.

Under existing law, where issues cross boundaries, plans are shared as needed.  For example, to build a new mall outside city limits a city must extend its water, sewer, and police and fire protection into the adjoining township.  Such cooperation has been worked out countless times across Michigan, and while the process is sometimes lengthy, the solution is primarily local and market-driven.  It is not at all clear that a new layer of plan sharing will improve today's system.

The most recent land development data show that the sky is not falling, that Michigan is not consuming land at some horrific rate.  Michigan's share of land devoted to development increased from 8.5 percent in 1992 to 9.5 percent in 1997, which ranks the state 17th in percentage of developed land. 

Data on Michigan farmland loss complement general land development trends. Farmland loss rates have fallen by more than 75 percent since the 1960s.  Michigan's annual loss rate was significantly higher than the national average in the decades immediately following World War II, but loss rates tracked national downward trends in the 1980s and 1990s, falling from 5.3 percent to 4.1 percent.

With the state about 10 percent developed, total space is not the issue.  Perhaps a greater long-term concern is with Michigan losing seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; we may be facing population decline compared to faster-growing parts of the nation.

One of the more striking trends from the 2000 census data is how the suburbs are changing.  The density of Michigan's metropolitan areas has increased significantly, and these density increases have occurred mostly in the suburbs.  The population density of Ann Arbor's suburban counties, for example, has increased by 23.5 percent since 1990.  Suburban counties in the Grand Rapids area have increased their densities by 17.6 percent.  Even the population densities of major urban counties have increased.

Suburban cities and their counties are also becoming ever more diverse. According to census data, suburban Oakland County's black population has increased by 56 percent since 1990, while the number of Asians doubled and the number of Latinos increased by two-thirds.

Michigan policy-makers should be wary of adopting schemes similar to the centralized growth management planning adopted in states including Oregon, Florida, Washington, and Tennessee.  That approach ignores the dynamic and uncertain nature of the housing market and has produced skyrocketing housing costs and other unforeseen problems of its own.  It avoids tough questions about how to incorporate the costs and benefits of different kinds of housing and neighborhoods into land-use decisions. 

Policy-makers instead should ensure that housing diversity and choice are maximized in Michigan's metropolitan areas by freeing up the real-estate market.   This could be accomplished by allowing more flexibility in zoning codes, administratively approving projects rather than subjecting them to highly politicized legislative processes, and using voluntary overlay districts to accommodate innovative site designs such as cluster housing.

Before moving Michigan toward a more centrally planned land use model, state policy-makers should consider why local governments and the free market are better equipped to deal with local land use issues. 


(Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., directs the Urban Futures Program for the Reason Public Policy Institute in Los Angeles and is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.  Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.)

Elected officials in many states are gearing up to do something, almost anything, about so-called "urban sprawl." But before moving Michigan toward a more centrally planned land-use model, state policy-makers should consider why local governments and the free market are better equipped to deal with local land use issues.

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