Local Control – A right and a privilege needing will and balance

MansfieldWhen the world went into its downward spiral in 2008, fingers started pointing for who, what, when and why. Then, when the economy did not bounce right back, a lot of the blame for the bubble bursting got pushed from the federal government to the states, to the counties and then to the local municipalities.

In Michigan, this means to the cities, villages and townships – who can, and do, have local control on many key economic decisions, including job creation, licensing, permitting and land use. This right means many elements of living in a specific jurisdiction will be permitted per the design, intensity and character of that local community. In most cases, this works well in achieving the goals and objectives of the local constituency.

But local control over certain uses – even those legitimately allowed via ordinances – can cause extreme turmoil in almost any jurisdiction between the developer and the neighbor, who in many circumstances is a user of that same product. We use local control through our municipality to protect ourselves, but to what cost and what end?

Take into account issues of local resources and of statewide concern – gravel mining to build roads, farming to provide food, timbering to build homes, and even broader issues such as cell towers, wind turbines, power plants, highway development, gas and oil development, etc. We are not cavemen anymore. We do not live off the land. Instead we heat our homes, turn the lights on, drive on roads made of stone, oil and gravel and spend the day on our portable devices, seemingly without any knowledge that these resources need to come from somewhere and be developed someplace. It is for those reasons that municipalities struggle with the balance of maintaining local control while being under pressure from parent governments seeking growth in the economy.

Look at farming, which is now protected in virtually any setting by the Right to Farm Act. Why? Because people that moved into historical farm regions complained to those having local control, and through the various means and processes available, threatened farming to the point that the state and federal government took virtually all local control away from municipalities.

Look at cell towers. When cell technology become available – only some 25 years ago – virtually every local municipality took up arms on behalf of its constituents to block towers from developing in the region. Millions were spent on attorneys, engineers, doctors, and planners as we were convinced they would fall on our homes and we would grow antennas from our head from mysterious emissions. Now we slam our portable devices to the ground if we lose reception for a second and have entire generations who have no idea what a rotary phone even looks like.

On a more current issue, we all like to say we are for clean energy. We seem to know that the wind necessary for efficient energy development only exists in certain areas of the state. So why are we shocked and amazed to see clean energy developments in these regions? And now again we see the same millions of dollars being spent on the same attorneys, engineers and planners as before with generally the same threats.

But more worrisome for the next generation is that if we do not come to a balance and have the will to make the decisions necessary at the local level, where will the next generation of power come from and at what cost? How will we build affordable houses without timber harvesting? How much more will we spend on shipping in gravel to repair our roads, from remote places when the resource exists in our own community.

Local control has kept our region a wonderful place but it is clear that if we don’t strike a better balance and treat the “right” of local control more as a “privilege,” we will not be able to sustain the cost of living here, or worse this “privilege” could be lost to those governments distant from our community who will make the decision for us. Very simply, we need to educate, support and trust our leadership locally.

Doug Mansfield is President of Mansfield Land Use Consultants as has served as the Union Township Supervisor in Grand Traverse County for over 20 years.