Land-Use Council Prescribes Social Engineering

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.

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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:

  1. Creation of a statewide land-use plan.

  2. Massive funding for public transportation systems and social programs.

  3. Limits on funds for new road construction and public infrastructure.

  4. New local zoning restrictions.

  5. Imposition of a "Smart Growth" curriculum in public schools.

  6. 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 council staff.

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 country."

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.