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Benzie’s Moment of TruthPrint

Thriving Communities | December 10, 2009 | By Jim Lively

Like every other local government in Michigan, Benzie County is really feeling the state budget crunch. That’s why, earlier this year, Benzie officials decided to cut their entire planning and zoning program; it’s a “non-mandated” service, so it is an easy target for cuts.

But residents know that it’s a very bad idea to go without zoning. That’s why six local civic, business, and citizen groups — including the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Benzie County Chamber of Commerce – and lots of local residents have raised the alarm because a loss of county zoning would leave seven townships completely vulnerable to uncontrolled development. That was the situation facing township officials when county commissioners suddenly announced their intention to cut the service a few months back.

Strong public pressure has now convinced the townships that they must prepare to start up their own services, probably in a joint arrangement-and pay for it themselves. That indicates two good things: First, townships are willing to work together; second, townships recognize that such services are worth paying for.

That second part was not always the case. Benzie County officials have approached the townships before, asking them to chip in to help pay for the zoning service. But the townships said no. For years, township officials complained that Benzie was not giving them enough say in its planning and zoning program and was running it poorly. Those were the same reasons given by Inland and Homestead Township officials when they chose to abandon county zoning administration two years ago and struck out on their own.

There have been plenty of reasons to complain about Benzie’s planning and zoning program since it won an award in 2000 for it’s effort to engage a large group of citizens in the preparation of a county-wide Comprehensive Plan. Since then the county planning program has languished; officials never managed to write the required new zoning ordinance for it, and now the plan itself is five years overdue for an update. In 2007 the county hired planning experts from Michigan State University to offer advice. A report titled “Crisis in Confidence” was scathing in its review, and suggested significant reforms.

Improvements have been slow in coming, although there is evidence that county officials have been trying. This year Benzie fired two key staff-its zoning administrator, for personality conflicts , and its county administrator, who managed county staff poorly and did little to resolve the planning and zoning crisis. This summer, the planning commissioners addressed the township representation concern by revising the appointment procedures to ensure better representation. And they recently demonstrated real leadership on key issues such as zoning protections for water quality and a model wind turbine ordinance. All this good, conscientious work, and more, was done free of charge to the townships.

Now here’s the real kicker: Just as the townships prepare to ante up for zoning, county officials are indicating they may no longer be interested in offering the service –  even if the townships pay for it. The county appears focused on eliminating these services due to their extreme budget crunch, while the townships seem reluctantly willing to take on the burden of creating and managing their own land use policies as an improvement from the county’s long standing problems.

This raises an overarching question about which government is best suited to providing quality zoning administration - the townships or county? Since one way or another tax dollars will be used to provide these services, the argument needs to change from a dollar and cents mentality to what’s best for the residents of Benzie County.

Township oversight can provide residents with a more direct say in how their property is developed, but adds an additional layer of government.  County administration can allow for coordination between townships and connect zoning rules with a county-wide comprehensive plan. And since it seems that one way or another tax dollars will be used to provide these services, the argument needs to change from a dollar and cents mentality to what’s best for the residents of Benzie County.

There’s a real concern about inefficiency that comes with township zoning administration: to create a new planning and zoning program from scratch will cost the townships considerable legal and professional planning fees. The townships would have to appoint a planning commission, develop their own master plan, hire a zoning administrator, hire or contract professional planning staff to write the master plan and zoning ordinance, and take on legal liability for zoning administration. Meanwhile, the county indicates it intends to continue to pay for its own planning program. This is duplicative and uncoordinated government, at a time when resources are most scarce.

Another advantage of county administration of zoning is that it makes it easier to take advantage of regional planning opportunities such as The Grand Vision, which is working diligently right now to locate resources that will bring economic opportunities directly to our communities.

It appears clear that the townships are prepared to pay to keep zoning. If the county continues improving its communication and service delivery-something that is underway and could be rapidly enhanced by hiring a competent new administrator - these eight local governments could start truly working together. If the townships began sharing the cost of zoning with Benzie County it would save them  money and time, and make them stakeholders with real financial leverage.

County and township officials must look beyond the moment and put aside pride, past mistakes, and politics to create a new efficient and excellent planning and zoning program. The opportunity is at hand. It’s within everyone’s grasp.

Attend tonight’s 7:00 p.m. public hearing of the county planning commission at the Benzie County Government Center, in Beulah, and share your thoughts with county officials.

Jim Lively is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s program director. Reach him at jim@mlui.org.