Environment Picture

Urban sprawl coming to the U.P., too

Urban sprawl is commonly thought to be a problem only in the outlying fringes of southeast Michigan, or Grand Rapids or Traverse City. But MEC is also tackling this issue in the Upper Peninsula, trying to get ahead of the sprawl curve before it undermines the unique lifestyle and natural resources of the area. A U.P. native said recently, “That will never happen here—the black flies and the long winters will keep folks away.” But another local reminded him: “That’s exactly what they said in Traverse City 30 years ago.”

The U.P. is facing revolutionary change. More than one million acres of corporate-owned timberland was sold within the last year to a combination of timber investment and real estate trusts. Timber company land was traditionally open to public access, supporting the snowmobiling, hunting and outdoor lifestyle cherished by the Yoopers. But real estate investment trusts like Plum Creek have a history of logging, subdividing and selling or developing high-value lands along lakes, rivers and scenic areas, far away from towns and deep into the U.P. heartland.

Massive Plum Creek development proposals, with hundreds of homes and tourist resorts, have completely overwhelmed the rural, largely volunteer planning entities in Maine and the American West, and are likely to do the same in the U.P. in the not-too-distant future. That fragments the land with second-home estates and the roads, sewers and strip mall development that follows them. Accessible hunting land and snowmobile trails are diminished exponentially, as each new house out in the woods removes a much larger tract from the publicly accessible domain. Towns are hollowed out as strip malls and big box stores crop up farther and farther away from existing downtowns, where old main streets and mom and pop stores are soon left empty.

What’s at stake in the U.P. and in towns around Michigan is the ability of citizens to shape growth and development. MEC is working to help these communities grow “from the inside out,” focusing first on building and rebuilding the core of the community: the stoplight streets, where small businesses, affordable housing and entrepreneurial spirit can take root and flourish.

We call it land use, but MEC is really doing old-fashioned community development. Each family and business that stays or grows within the city limits of Iron Mountain, Escanaba, Houghton or Detroit is one more forest plot or farm acre that remains an intact part of a diverse working landscape.
-Brad Garmon, Michigan Environmental Council
RELATED TOPICS: land use, Smart Growth
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