ENVIRONMENT: New Designs for Growth – Its impact is felt across the state

REGION – Five years ago, the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce recognized a dilemma. How do you manage growth and retain the character of the community that propels the growth? The Chamber went beyond just recognizing the problem and implemented a program to take action. The New Designs for Growth Committee was created and Keith Charters was tapped to lead the effort.

Charters was no stranger to the issue. He was president of the Chamber Board when money was approved to create the “Grand Traverse Bay Region Development Guidebook.” This publication is an illustrated guide to sound development practices that protect the environment and the special characteristics of our area. Charters notes, “We had a good distribution, but they were collecting dust. The principles were not being implemented.”

The New Designs for Growth Committee was created to implement the principles of the guidebook but were given no specific direction on how the implementation should take place. What they did have was the Chamber’s number one stated goal: “To preserve and enhance the quality of our natural resources and environment as the basis for a healthy economy.”

With his personal need for a new challenge after his retirement from the restaurant business, and his long-standing commitment to the Grand Traverse region, Charters was the perfect choice for the job. The need for community involvement was the basic premise that led to a multi-faceted implementation process that has proven very successful.

A primary goal of New Designs is to hold one community workshop in each local unit of government in the five-county service area (Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska and Antrim counties). There are 93 units of government, including county, city, township, and village. Going forward with a workshop requires a request by the elected officials in the unit of government.

The community stakeholders are then identified and invited to a series of meetings describing the New Designs project, problems the project can address, and some examples of good land use designs.

In the workshop, the participants work on design charettes. These are large 3-D panels used to draw out from the participants what they envision the community should look like from a land-use point of view. These are brainstorming sessions with no rules, no master plans. Each group/panel comes together and describes what they designed and why.

New Designs staff take notes during these working sessions. This data is summarized into a list of priorities that should be incorporated into the master plan. The participants must then answer the $64,000 question: “Does your current master plan and/or ordinances allow you to do what was described on the design charettes?” In all of the workshops that have been held, only one community replied “yes.”

At this point the community needs to decide whether to modify their master plan and supporting ordinances to reflect the land use design created in the workshop. If they decide to move forward, New Designs has access to grants for matching funds, and provides direct services to the community in assisting in grant development.

“We created a process where citizens have told us what they want and what they have,” Charters says. “We have completed workshops with over 60 units of government in our service area. Of the 60 units, 54 are in the process of redoing master plans and/or ordinances. From these units of government, 120 design modeling charettes have been developed to aid in describing the vision of the community.”

The second element of New Designs is the implementation of model projects. The purpose of model projects is to take a specific property where development is inevitable and work with the local units of government to ensure that the development is done in accordance with the Guidebook principles. The community purchases the property and New Designs contracts to do a land use design. As the property is sold, the community pays back New Designs on a pro-rated basis.

There have been two of these model projects in the villages of Benzie and Bellaire. The Bellaire Broad Street project took a vacated piece of property with a large wetland and oil contamination from an abandoned railroad bed, and is turning it into a centerpiece for environmentally sound development.

The Village of Bellaire bought the property and New Designs subcontracted the design plan to Russ Clark & Associates.

The end result is a mixed-use plan that protects the wetlands and takes advantage of the recreational use of the bordering Intermediate River.

Ray Mills, Bellaire Village President, is enthusiastic about the project. “The property has been purchased and the Village is satisfied with the resulting plan. The last of three public hearings is scheduled for January where we hope to approve the final site plan and the performance bonding. The Broad Street Developers plan to start in the early spring. The Village has recovered its investment and will now be getting tax revenue. Keith Charters and New Designs made it all happen.”

A third element to the New Designs program was not initially envisioned. “While the original charge of developing the community workshops was an evolving process, we found ourselves faced with hot issues that could not wait for the long process of consensus building within a community,” Charters noted. “These are the cases where a developer is knocking on the door for a particular piece of property and there is no time to assess if the project fits into the long term view of the community.”

For these hot issues, Charters created the Peer Site Review Subcommittee. This group reviews projects that have significant community impact. They review the site plan based on the Guidebook principles and send a letter to the local planning committee recommending changes.

Charters and the Peer Site Review Subcommittee then act as a buffer between the local units of government and the developers. The Subcommittee is co-chaired by Bob Bach, a retired planner, and Norm Cline, a retired architect.

“Initially, local planners came to the group for assistance. Now it has evolved that developers ask for the Peer Site review,” said Charters. “This is because the Peer Site Review Subcommittee can talk the language of the developers in these contentious cases.”

From June 1999 through November 2000, they have handled 15 such high-profile projects.

The New Designs program has also had significant exposure throughout the state. Charters estimates he does 30 land use presentations per year outside of the five-county Chamber service area.

The original Guidebook has had seven printings, 38 percent of which have been sold outside the five-county service area. New Designs is recognized as a model throughout the state for managing growth and preserving what makes this area special. BN