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Glenn Puit: Grand Vision’s Next StepsPrint

Thriving Communities | April 9, 2009 | By Glenn Puit

Most of the more than 1,000 Benzie residents who participated in The Grand Vision said they wanted to see Frankfort, Benzonia, Beulah, Honor, Lake Anne and Thompsonville grow.”

With the votes tallied and the surveys sifted, the results of the six-county, citizen-based Grand Vision land use and transportation study indicate that residents of Benzie County and the five other counties in the Grand Traverse region largely agree on how they’d like to see the region grow over the next 50 years.

The 15,000-plus people who participated in the Grand Vision project, which launched in October of 2007, mostly say that they want new growth to occur in already-existing community centers. They also indicated that the growth should spare northern Michigan’s rural landscape and natural resources, and should lead to more walkable communities that offer better roads and more transportation options, including transit.

But now comes the truly tough part: Turning the groundbreaking Grand Vision into local plans and ordinances that reflect it.

Work began on that in Benzie County recently when two local leaders deeply involved in the project visited the Government Center to update area residents about the project’s next steps. They reported that they and other Grand Vision “champions” are starting to coordinate implementation of what will be the “Final Vision” with officials in Benzie, Antrim, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford Counties.

“The really tough part is going to be the implementation,” cautioned Marsha Smith, executive director of Rotary Charities of Traverse City, during her presentation to more than 40 people. Ms. Smith, who chairs the project’s Public Involvement Committee, added: “We are going to have to work within county structures, with village and county planning commissions, and with individual property owners to get it to work.”

The multi-million-dollar project drew data from more than a dozen well-attended workshops, two scientific surveys, traffic and ordinance studies, and the preferences of more than 10,000 people who filled out ballots based on the workshops’ initial findings. Ms. Smith pointed out that more than 1,000 Benzie residents participated.

All of that information, she said, guided the first draft of the final plan. The draft is posted on the project’s Web site,www.thegrandvision.org; after some final testing of how well it conforms with the data the project has collected, it will be tweaked into a Final Vision and released next month.

Benzie County Planning Director Dave Neiger, who has participated throughout the project and says he is a strong supporter of it, also spoke at the meeting.

Mr. Neiger said that a key component to implementing Benzie’s portion of the Vision is updating the county’s own master plan and zoning ordinance to match its findings. He added that the other critical step is finding a way to finance infrastructure improvements in existing community centers like Honor, Beulah, Benzonia, and Frankfort, where citizens clearly want to see new growth occur.

“We will be putting quite a burden on villages for new growth,” he pointed out. “Right now, sewer systems are just maintained, and there will be a need for new water systems to support the growth.”

“There needs to be a good look at how the villages are going to support that growth and how they are going to finance that,” he concluded.

Ms. Smith said she and other Grand Vision leaders are already organizing a Grand Vision “Alliance”—six working groups that will figure out goals, objectives, and action plans for the six parts of the Final Vision. Those groups will look at growth and investment, affordable housing, transportation choices, food and farming, energy, and natural resources.

The work groups, which invite public participation, will be led by various non-profit organizations from around the region. Those include New Designs for Growth, the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, Community Housing Choices, the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Michigan Land Use Institute.

The Final Vision, Ms. Smith reminded the audience, will need township, village, and city approvals, as well as funding for financial incentives for communities that pursue its goals in their ongoing planning and zoning decisions.

She said those funds would come from “some federal, some state, but most likely philanthropy, and some in terms of private, individual capital. We’ve had some discussions with large philanthropic organizations to try and put together this framework and an opportunity for money for implementation.”

Ms. Smith also explained that The Grand Vision does not identify specific projects for any community. Instead, its findings and land use maps will reflect what residents want to see in their local planning and zoning decisions. Ideally, master plans and zoning ordinances will then be adapted to reflect the Final Vision. It will be up to local business leaders, citizens, and government representatives to work together to make sure local projects are in line with the Vision’s recommendations.

This is already starting to happen, Ms. Smith pointed out: In Traverse City, the state recently postponed repaving Division Street when residents, community leaders, and the Michigan Department of Transportation agreed that the project did not adequately represent the desire for more walkable communities that The Grand Vision calls for.

Bob Otwell, chairman of Grand Vision partner TC-TALUS, the intergovernmental agency that coordinates transportation planning and spending in part of the Traverse City area, told the crowd that a successful Grand Vision process—one that gets master plans and ordinances on the books of jurisdictions across the region—would make it a model for the rest of the state.

"We have been told repeatedly that building consensus around one clear vision will increase our ability to secure state and federal funding for future transportation projects," said Mr. Otwell, who also manages the region’s TART bike and pedestrian trail system. He added: "Our goal is not just to create a vision, but to begin acting on it."