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Glenn Puit: One County, Several WorldsPrint

Thriving Communities | January 29, 2009 | By Glenn Puit

Karen Roberts’ white paper details sharp differences between different parts of Benzie County.

Nearly a year ago, we reported on the significant cultural and political divides in Benzie County that have led, in part, to two townships pulling out of countywide planning and zoning.

Now, a new white paper produced as part of Benzie County’s long-overdue efforts to update its award winning comprehensive plan shows that there are great disparities in age and income between the eastern and western portions of the county. The report, by Benzie County Planning Commissioner Karen Roberts, also found that the growth patterns in the county are gravitating towards sprawl, as opposed to development in communities and villages.

One measure of that sprawl is found in the county’s population figures. In 1960, 7,834 people lived in Benzie County. The population more than doubled by 2000, and the population estimate for 2005 for the county was 17,644.

According to Ms. Roberts’ white paper, in 1960, 47 percent of the county’s population lived in either a city or village. Four decades later, only 24 percent lived in the community centers, and the census prediction for 2005 was a further drop, to 21 percent.

Of growth patterns, Roberts said that “little of it is in the villages or Frankfort; either people are building their dream houses on large parcels or there is the sort of almost suburban development on the eastern side of the county. A bit of an oversimplification, but pretty close, I think.”

The white paper is one of a string of reports aimed at updating the county’s master plan, which was crafted in 2000 with a wide array of community support. It’s update, however, has languished in recent years and stalled even further as questions arose about Benzie County Planner Dave Neiger’s future. With Mr. Neiger’s position now extended through September, the county hopes to complete the Comprehensive Plan update this year.

Ms. Roberts’ paper also took note of sharp age disparities around the county. Lake Township, for example, had a median age of 61. But Blain, Frankfort, Beulah, Crystal Lake, and Benzonia had median ages right around 49.

And Inland, Thompsonville, Almira and Colfax had median ages of about 35.

Ms. Roberts also said she found a wide disparity in income levels throughout the county, and that education levels, which are linked to an individual’s economic conditions, vary sharply as well. In Lake, for example, the percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 48 percent. In Thompsonville, Joyfield, Colfax, Inland, and Elberta, the percentage was at 10 percent or less.

Why does all this matter? By better understanding the demands of future growth from its population, Benzie County can implement planning and zoning strategies that will accommodate them in a thoughtful manner that preserves communities and the natural environment.

“The statistics signal a high likelihood of very different preferences with respect to land use and the importance of job creation,” Ms. Roberts said. “They also suggest very different needs with respect to transportation, health services, and public services, as well as different abilities to pay for those things.”