SPRING 1999 - ISSUE NUMBER 47
Citizens' Action Pays Off
Working with local government ordinances to conserve natural resources
"You can't fight big money. Don't even try. You'll never win." If you've ever been involved in fighting a big development, you've heard these discouraging words as you tried to enlist friends and allies to help. It's unfortunate, but if you take your argument to court based on environmental issues, those words might prove true. Though you know, without a doubt, that a habitat or watershed is going to be damaged, it's a hard case to prove in court until the damage is done.
While environmental impact is the most obvious issue at hand, it might be wise to consider other grounds. Our experience proved land use was the argument we could win. I think you'll find the disparity interesting when you compare the big money backing the developer to the $411 in legal fees and probably another $400 in postage and miscellaneous expenses that it cost our group to force them to abandon their plans.
In October of 1996 the headlines in our local paper read "Developers Dream, Naturalists Nightmare." The initial plan consisted of 72 homes, 50 condos, a 100-room guest hotel, a 27- hole golf course, a kennel, convenience store, and an environmental education center. The site was right in the middle of the 6,000 acre Port Huron State Game Area, one of the most beautiful river valleys in southeastern Michigan where groves of hemlock and hardwoods border deep ravines falling to the Black River. Standing on the high bank, you'd swear you were four hours north.
Built as a 28 room Tudor style hunting lodge in 1928 on 736 acres, no one cared that it existed. The small village the developers had planned was another story! Tender soils, endangered plant species, fragmenting a migratory corridor, mitigation of wetlands for the golf courses, light pollution, noise pollution, runoff of pesticides, herbicides, leakage from vehicles, and the added traffic to the area were cause for concern. Of course, the domino effect of attracting other developments to capitalize on this high end, exclusive community was a frightening afterthought.
I hope that the following synopsis of events with my observations will prove helpful. Of course, this tactic will not apply to every scenario, but might in some. I also hope to provoke some serious thought regarding environmental activism in the form of participation on local planning commissions and boards, which isn't new, but never hurts to mention, as not everyone understands the significance or real potential.
Local government is where a community conceives the vision of itself through its ordinances and Master Plan regarding future growth. You can't stop development from coming in, but you can certainly curb thoughtless sprawl and write ordinances (which are this country's most local laws) to protect tender areas. If the ordinances and restrictions aren't already in place, there is absolutely nothing to stand on once someone applies for a permit. With this in mind, I hope writing about our experience will be of benefit.
In February of 1997, The Thumb Bioregional Alliance, our watershed organization, called the first meeting regarding the development I mentioned above. The consensus was to form a specific group to organize efforts to oppose the development. Board members were nominated, nudged into service, and the name "Friends of Beard's Hills" was adopted, since the area was referred to locally as "Beard's Hills." With an environmental attorney in our midst, we started the process of incorporating and began talking strategy and fundraising.
The assumption that the area was used exclusively by hunters wasn't true. Hikers, cross country skiers, birders and canoeists were also big users and the mix was pretty even. As it turned out, this became our strength. The group was able to keep a sharp focus on the survival of the valley, not the differences in philosophy that existed regarding its use. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding to reinforce the common goal of saving the property. Because our diversity spoke to everyone, we were able to enlist the support of a wide cross-section of people in the numbers necessary to fill the township hall and speak their mind.
Even though the group worked well together, things were looking grim as we realized how much money it would take to go to court with this developer. Plans to begin logging had been halted temporarily for an endangered species assessment, but that wasn't going to hold for long. We were grasping for environmental impact, looking for endangered mussels in the river, plant species, or the detriment to the migratory corridor. We were almost ready to start groveling for compromise relating to the location of the golf courses.
Since a request for rezoning had been filed, I ended up at the county planning department looking at the township's zoning ordinances as well as the Master Plan. As I leafed through the plan, I noticed a strong theme for preservation of natural areas. I ended up with two pages of excerpts that advocated conservation and protection of natural areas. With a strong Master Plan like this, surely there would be support of the residents to challenge the board if they approved the rezoning. Bingo!
The arguments in favor of the owner's plans ironically became the Achilles heel of his project. He had the right to do what he wanted with his property as long as it was within the township zoning ordinances. Condominiums were not a permitted use the way the property was currently zoned and required a request for rezoning. Several of us knew that a change in a zoning ordinance could be challenged by referendum, which became the basis of our strategy. The township hall is a much more level playing field (and much cheaper!) than a courtroom.
I can't stress enough the importance of understanding what a powerful tool township law can be.
The Planning Commission, by writing the Master Plan and local ordinances defines how the township looks, feels, and is developed. This is an awesome statute that most folks don't have clue about, so unfortunately, turnout is low for the public comment portion of the process.
Since the Planning Commission is the author of the zoning ordinances, requests for rezoning are submitted to them. The Planning Commission reviews the request, then sends their recommendation to the Township Board. If the residents disagree with how the Township Board votes on that recommendation, they have the right to a referendum, the outcome of which is legal and binding.
The mechanism for calling a referendum in Michigan is pretty standard, although minor differences in the percentage of registered voters needed to sign the petition may vary. This township required 10% of the voter turnout in the last election of Governor, which was under 200 signatures.
To avoid this turning into a mini novel, I'm going to cover some points that we found useful and give a condensed summary in bullets of our overall strategy. I'll also leave my phone and email numbers if there are any specific questions anyone has.• As I mentioned before, it's wise to keep your focus on the issue, not on differences that exist within the group. If you feel the need to judge someone's philosophy, perhaps you should question whether your opinion or judgement is truly more important than saving that land (which, by the way, has no opinion or judgement.) Perhaps the fact that you all want to save it is enough reason to put those differences aside.
• Another energy drain to look out for is getting wrapped up in side issues. Shedding light on some scurrilous deed the opposition's attorney did last year or what scumbag they represented once upon a time, or similar claims against the developer, or what the township board member did, have nothing to do with the real issue at hand. Don't let your meetings degenerate into who did what to who when! Focus! Keep your eye on the prize!
• Credibility of your group is important. Try not to be emotional, angry, and accusatory at public meetings. Stick with the facts. Once you have identified the issue, stay on it. A public meeting that resembles the Jerry Springer Show is not good for your group. Some of the public at large may shout insults, but don' t let your spokespeople fall for cheesy behavior.
• Once you have established credibility, other groups are more apt to listen to your position and write letters supporting that position. Friend's of Beard's Hills sent 25 organizations requests for written support that the land be spared from development and got 20 responses. Document all the support you get, and remind the press, township, (city and state) it exists every chance you get.
• Again, alliances across the board are important. Environmentalists and hunters stood shoulder to shoulder in the township hall and that was reflected in the letters of support as well.
• In raising public awareness, we identified the issue as not just a township issue as it was Michigan Department of Natural Resources land that would be impacted by this development, so there were many stakeholders involved.
• Excerpts from the Master Plan, which, by the way, were beautifully written, were referred to often to reinforce the township's vision of itself and desire to protect the natural areas.
• A field trip was planned and publicized. A group of 40 people showed up to walk through the game area to the edge of where the golf course would start. It was very graphic after walking 25 minutes surrounded by ravines, maples, oaks, and hemlocks. The press being invited got that message across.
• All township meetings were well attended with public comment made regarding the request for rezoning. Again, with so much presence it became local news and was always covered by the press.
• Public hearings were emphasized. Flyers were designed stressing the importance of public comment and the entire township received notice. Of course, the press got a flyer, too.
• In any situation there is always an educational piece. We organized a workshop that covered four aspects. A biologist spoke about effects of fragmentation of established habitats. Another educator gave a slide show with comments and aerial photographs of the area that would be affected. The Director of Planning for the county spoke about planning, its purpose, and citizen participation, after which one of our members gave a summary on the petition for referendum. Everything was a timed agenda, 20 minutes each with questions and answers afterward. Keep things short and to the point. People can stay around afterward if they choose. Handouts were available and contributions were solicited for mailings. Cheese and crackers were part of the program and, of course, the press was invited.
• Public sentiment is always important. Many editorials were written, and because we were able to keep our focus and make a good argument based on the language in the Master Plan, even the local paper wrote it's own editorials backing our position.
If you have a similar situation where zoning needs to be changed for a development to go through, consider this strategy, but don't think it's a cakewalk to get to the point where you have enough support to win!
It took a lot of organizing, leaflets, workshops, phone calls, and letter writing. A lot of volunteer hours, financial contributions, and contributions of people's office equipment and staff. Some family business got put on hold.
The other piece I didn't mention was the township board was very much in favor of the development, so their vote was going to be to rezone the property for the developer. The $411 in legal fees was spent in drafting language for the referendum, which we were willing to go through with.
We were confident the majority of the township would vote against rezoning, and apparently the developer made the same assumption. At the October 14, 1997 Planning Commission Meeting, the chair read the attorney's fax to withdraw their request for rezoning. The headlines in the October 15, 1997 paper were "Owners Drop Wingford Plan."
The property went up for sale and the person that ended up the purchaser had canoed through the land twenty-some years ago, fell in love with it, and was fortunate enough to acquire the wealth along the way to afford it. He and his wife intend to keep it pretty much the way it's been with the exception of some farming on the perimeter uplands. They've attended a couple Friend's of Beard's Hills meetings, and last I heard they're fixing up the kitchen.
It was an intense, emotional year. I feel joy, relief, and a genuine sense of pride that it's still there. Most of all, I am thankful.
I hope this was useful, hopeful, and perhaps encouraged some to consider doing some preventive activism in terms of getting on some boards and commissions. I'm available for any questions you might have by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at: 810.987.6277
Peace and perseverance,
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