Benzie Discovered: An updated master plan will guide Benzie’s growth

BENZIE CO. – Tucked along Lake Michigan, with its high bluffs, deep woods and crystal clear waters, Benzie County is one of northern Michigan’s best kept secrets. For years the area was known more for its wildlife than its nightlife. But in the past 10 years, Benzie has been discovered and is now one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. And the evidence is everywhere.

New roads are going in where there used to be none, housing construction has jumped 223 percent since 1989, and property values are increasing each year. Population rose nearly 12 percent between 1990 and 1995 and 2,000 new jobs have been created in the county since 1990. Per capita income has risen 44.6 percent, while unemployment in the region last year fell to 5.5 percent.

The growth is everywhere, from increased traffic to many area businesses becoming year-round instead of seasonal. Overcrowding issues in the Benzie Central School District have resulted in a new elementary school under construction in Lake Ann and major additions at the junior and senior high schools.

Even the Village of Elberta–one of the last undeveloped waterfronts along Lake Michigan–is feeling the building buzz. A plan calling for a $6 million yacht club, including a 150-slip marina, permanent pier, boat houses, restaurant and up to 80 condominiums, is being proposed on Elberta’s waterfront by developer Scott Gest of Vaunt-Courier, Inc.

The village has worked to push the sale through, as the proposed improvements are expected to create about 125 new jobs in Elberta, which has been economically depressed since the early 1980s. At the same time, the Village of Elberta continues to develop an 8.5-acre historic waterfront park next to the marina and condo development.

Vaunt-Courier has also considered an option on property on Warren Hill, a steep hilltop near Crystal Lake with expansive views in all directions. Because the development does not coincide with present zoning, a February meeting planned by concerned citizens drew 150 people.

A preliminary meeting with developer Ken Gest and the county zoning administrator occurred in September, but he has not filed a formal application. Gest, father of developer Scott Gest mentioned above, did not return calls made by The Business News.

At the other end of the county, the biggest jump in population has been in the Lake Ann and Almira Township area, which many refer to as a “bedroom community” of Traverse City. Subdivisions have sprung up, the population has doubled and concerns about sprawl and uncontrolled growth are rising.

“We know growth is going to happen,” county planner Dave Neiger said. “We want to make sure it’s going to happen in the right way.”

Concerns about what has happened in Garfield and Blair townships near Traverse City, where there has been an increase of strip development, prompted a citizens group to form in Benzie County in 1994. Citizens for Positive Planning (CFPP) was formed to address the issue of growth in the county. The Benzie County Master Plan, which is the guide for development in the county, was over 25 years old and did not deal with the tides of population growth and development sweeping over the area.

To update the Master Plan, the CFPP brought together representatives of almost every organization in the county, and formed a working partnership with the county Board of Commissioners and Planning Commission. They held citizens forums all over the county and have spent the past three years working on the new plan, which is expected to be completed in July.

“The Master Plan sets the tone for what the area will look like in the future,” Neiger explained. “We had very strong citizen input, and we found that everyone, whether a sportsman or environmentalist or business owner, agreed that we want clear water, wildlife, open spaces. We all want the same thing, and it’s also what draws the tourists. We don’t want to tax people out of business or put too many regulations on agriculture or forestry. By working together, the community can be supportive of everyone’s concerns. It will take this kind of inter-governmental respect and cooperation to wrestle with these difficult issues as the years go on.”

Due to a booming tourist industry, the population in Benzie County triples in the summer. Three years ago the Benzie Area Chamber of Commerce initiated the creation of a Convention and Visitors Bureau to market the area for overnight stays.

“Our greatest asset in Benzie County is our natural splendor,” said Chamber Director Carol Davidson. “It is northern Michigan preserved. People come for hiking, biking, camping, the lakes and rivers, fishing, skiing and snowmobiling. We need to protect the beauty of the area while we encourage sensible growth and development. The Chamber worked closely with the CFPP in the work toward the Master Plan and many of these issues were addressed.”

More than 300 year-round residents, summer residents and visitors attended a Conservation Day last August, sponsored by the CFPP and the Benzie County Planning Department. The event was heralded by the Grand Traverse Community Foundation as exactly the kind of thing they want to see take place as communities continue to face growth issues.

“In 100 years or more, Benzie County could look like Garfield Township,” Neiger offered. “But we can provide for the preservation of wildlife corridors, rivers, streams, parks, and make sure they are included in the development consideration. “

To that end, Benzie County appears to be ahead of the game. BIZNEWS