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Glenn Puit: Grand Visions, New DesignsPrint

Thriving Communities | May 17, 2009 | By Glenn Puit

Seventeen years ago, some Grand Traverse-area residents launched a grassroots movement to better manage the area’s growth. They wanted to protect the area’s pristine environment, farmland, and uniqueness.

The end result was New Designs for Growth, a program that established a way to evaluate whether proposed developments fit the community. The program also produced a highly regarded guidebook to help residents and government officials shape commercial and residential development.

“Clearly, New Designs for Growth was one of the leaders early on, and they recognized you can’t kill the goose that laid golden egg,” said Matt McCauley of the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. “New Designs saw the connection between our natural resources and economic prosperity.”

Today, as the groundbreaking, citizen-based Grand Vision regional planning study gets ready to roll out a 50-year growth plan for Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford Counties, some local leaders are realizing that New Designs and The Grand Vision compliment one another very nicely.

The Grand Vision enjoys strong support among thousands of residents, business leaders, and government officials. More than 15,000 people participated in the land use and transportation study. A large majority said they want future growth directed primarily to existing community centers, villages, towns, and cities. They also want walkable communities with more bike paths and more transportation choices, and to protect the natural environment and live close to work.

The trick, most observers say, is to figure out how to translate that popular support-which has been confirmed by a random, scientific survey-into adaptation by local governments. New Designs’ history, it turns out, offers some guidance.

Antrim County Planner Pete Garwood, who’s been involved in New Designs since the 1990s, said that, at the program’s zenith, grants went to local units of government that followed New Designs’ principles. That is very similar to what The Grand Vision expects to do in the coming years as its plan is implemented.

Mr. Garwood recalled that, in order to get a New Designs grant, local units had to show how they were going to implement the program’s principles.

“It was a very good way to actually encourage local units of government to use the principles,” he explained. “They had to demonstrate they were using them. Whatever product they came up with, they had to share it with other units of government, and that kept together a lot of planning projects that were successes that could then be redistributed with other communities.”

But the challenge, Mr. Garwood said, was often finding the money that would persuade communities to follow New Designs’ principles.

Mr. Garwood sits on the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments’ New Designs for Growth advisory committee. The committee has talked about how New Designs’ concepts can mesh with The Grand Vision.

“The regional development guidebook is great, and if you look at some of the stuff coming out of The Grand Vision, it is similar,” he said. “I think it would be a pretty good fit. Potentially, New Designs for Growth can embrace both.”

Mr. McCauley, of the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, said a great strength of The Grand Vision is that it directs growth to existing community centers, while critics of New Designs often say it doesn’t do enough to address the crucial issue of where growth occurs.

“It’s a big distinction,” Mr. McCauley observed, “and it’s now a very good reason why the two programs blend.”

He also said that the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments is seeking long-term funding for a staffer that can maintain New Designs’ presence.

“I think that New Designs can play a significant role in The Grand Vision, in growth and investment…and helping communities decide, within their own framework, where development can occur and how it should look within their own master plan and zoning ordinances,” he added.

 Mr. Garwood said he believes The Grand Vision’s ability to offer financial incentives to communities will be important, as will the ability of local governments to balance growth in communities with some citizens’ desires to avoid living in central communities.

 “You do have those who want to live outside of the cities or villages, and there are no cities in Antrim County-there are small villages,” he said. “You’ve got to really rely on the hope that people want to live closer to towns and in the villages, and tap that desire, and figure out what types of housing arrangements are acceptable.”