ENVIRONMENT: Michigan Land Use Institute – A vital link between the economy and environment

BENZONIA – Five years ago, a small citizens group was formed to help land owners become more informed about oil and gas drilling issues in northern lower Michigan. Over the course of three years, it grew into a statewide coalition that worked with organizations and local governments to strengthen oversight of the oil and gas industry. Five new laws were passed to help protect landowner’s rights and sensitive state-owned lands.

The group worked to inform, educate and organize citizens about how to lease their mineral rights in a way that maximizes economic return while reducing the effects on the environment.

Through the course of that work, it was determined that a broader mission to build public support for land use policy was needed. The Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI) was created as a vital link between protecting the environment while enhancing economic growth.

This ambitious undertaking brought together a talented and dedicated staff of organizers, journalists and technical specialists. The Institute’s program areas expanded to include initiatives to reform transportation policy, conserve farmland, protect natural resources and provide resources to community groups.

The MLUI outreach has grown from a staff of three with approximately 200 members, to 14 employees, including a part-time staff in Lansing, and over 2,300 paid members all over the state.

“We are helping to raise public awareness that by taking a reasonable approach to the jobs vs. environment issues, we can promote alternatives and solutions that encourage economic growth and still preserve the existing environment,” explained Hans Voss, who recently became Executive Director, the position formerly held by Keith Schneider, founding director of the Institute. Voss joined the staff in 1995 and has worked tirelessly to build statewide support for oil and gas policy reform.

Schneider was the catalyst behind the effort to make the MLUI a reality. He worked to build membership, establish a board of directors and attract funding. This ambitious initiative took off because the mission made sense and the people involved were capable of making it happen. He has assumed the role of Program Director and is concentrating on developing new projects and solution-based strategies, public speaking and journalism.

The MLUI also recently promoted Arlin Wasserman to a new position as Policy Director. He will oversee staff recruitment, coordinate policy and projects, and assist in grassroots campaigns.

Says Voss: “Nothing affects land use and sprawl more than where we build roads, and building roads is a top issue–the ramifications have reached new levels. Both Traverse City and Petoskey are looking at major highway by-pass projects; Traverse City is at $300 million and Petoskey’s at $70 million. Both plans would put the by-pass through existing farmland and the local road commissions have agreed it would not reduce traffic congestion, but rather create a corridor for more sprawl. We are looking at other alternatives, including using and fixing existing roads which saves tax dollars, hiring a traffic consultant from Chicago and focusing our efforts in Lansing to increase funding for public transit.”

For generations, people have come together and organized for common interests and to make a difference, whether they agreed with each other or not. The MLUI adds capacity to those efforts, with research, communication and resources.

“We knew we had a big vision and high goals and we knew it would take a lot of work,” Voss noted. “The rapid rate of growth that we have seen–not only in this region but also across the state–speaks to a need for an organization like ours with the willingness and ability to get behind important issues. It seems like the time is right.”

Development vs. preservation, economic growth vs. the environment, urban sprawl vs. rural life–all difficult dilemmas facing many communities across the state.

“People sense a lot of awareness and discussion, but not enough action,” he added. “By bringing diverse voices together, Michigan can regain its role as a leader in establishing policies that protect land and manage growth that transcend political and economic boundaries.”

Contact the MLUI at (231) 882-4723 or go to www.mlui.org. BN