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Zoning Gone, Benzie Planners Rethink MissionPrint

Thriving Communities | May 26, 2010 | By Shauna Fite

Benzie County’s planning commission is looking into other services to provid, now that the county no longer manages zoning for its townships.

The Benzie County Planning Commission is not giving up. After the county board of commissioners rescinded Benzie’s zoning ordinance last month and eliminated the county planning department, the planning commissioners were left wondering what was left for them to do. Well, they just took a big step toward figuring that out.

At last week’s planning commission meeting, the members discussed the question with Matt McCauley, director of regional planning and community development for Northwest Michigan Council of Governments (NMCOG). The commissioners accepted Mr. McCauley’s offer to facilitate a strategic planning session that would help them redefine their role now that they have handed off their very time-intensive zoning services to the townships that used to use them.

Among other things, NMCOG offers planning tools and technical assistance to local units of government in a 10-county region that includes Benzie.

Mr. McCauley’s sessions will explain how other county planning commissions conduct business and hopefully allow the commissioners to come to a clear understanding of how they can move forward.

“Several county planning commissions in our 10-county region focus solely on planning duties without zoning authority,” Mr. McCauley told the commissioners. Those counties include Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Manistee.

Until last month, Benzie was responsible for both planning and zoning for seven townships. Since then, Benzonia, Blaine, Crystal Lake, Gilmore, and Platte have each adopted the county master plan and zoning ordinance as their own, while Colfax and Joyfield are now operating without any zoning regulation.

But that still leaves county planning commissions with something to do. At the minimum, they are required by law to update the county master plan every five years and complete an annual capital improvement plan.

The commission can also play a vital role in implementing The Grand Vision in Benzie County. The citizen-led planning process, which involved more than 15,000 people from the six-county region, produced a 50-year plan for growth that addresses roads and public transportation, energy, farming, downtown investments, and natural resources.

Mr. McCauley, whose agency strongly supported the two-year Grand Vision process, also pointed out that resources are being generated by the big project. NMCOG will be awarding community growth grants that offer each Grand Vision county up to $20,000 for planning and technical assistance.

County planning commissions can also provide a much-needed, more holistic view of what their community’s most pressing needs are, and how best to funnel these types of resources to them to provide the most value to residents.

In addition to reaching an agreement with Mr. McCauley, the planning commissioners elected John Schluter as their new chair. Mr. Schluter lives in Benzonia Township and joined the planning commission last August.

“Through document review and planning assistance, we can offer value to the townships,” Mr. Schluter said. “I hope the county recognizes this and provides some funding for the county planning commission.”

The commissioners also discussed other duties they could perform that would generate revenue, such as grant writing.

Ultimately, however, county budget considerations will play a large part in deciding the fate and effectiveness of the county planning commission. Currently, Benzie is funding just two hours of staff support for county planning per month-enough to pay for recording the official minutes at each meeting.

This article first appeared in the May 19, 2010 edition of the Benzie County Record Patriot. Shauna Fite is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach her at shauna@mlui.org.