A short drive down the highway, away from home, takes us into open spaces: farmland, rolling hills and preserved green natural areas surround our interstates. A state park or beach is never far away. The familiar brown-and-white signs steer us toward them anywhere we go.
The water in our taps at home and in our rivers and lakes is clean — most of the time.
Many view land management policies as a hindrance to development and an offense to private property rights. Certainly there are times when regulations do delay or prevent construction projects; without these policies, it is likely that the familiar Michigan landscape we all expect may not exist.
Arguably the most significant set of land-use regulations in Michigan pertains to wetlands. Part 303 of Michigan's Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act ensures that land areas connected to our natural water systems remain preserved and functional. It also limits what can be done with these lands — construction is strictly regulated on these spaces, and economic activities such as logging, mining and drilling for natural gas and oil are curtailed without permits, even if the wetland areas are privately owned.
One often hears comments that such rules curtail Michigan's economic development: If only the laws were more flexible, more jobs could be created and more money could flow into the state.
Frankly, the other costs of such development outweigh the economic benefits.
Wetlands and green spaces drain and filter water naturally, keeping bodies of water clean and our wastewater systems from being overwhelmed during heavy storms. Maintaining green, open spaces keep rising temperatures under control. Without such land management activity, events such as this spring’s historic Grand River flood would be far more common, natural habitats unique to Michigan would disappear and our lives would be quite different.
Unfortunately, recent legislation jeopardizes the protection that previous regulation has provided to these areas. Senate Bill 163, approved on June 12, makes certain development activities on wetland areas exempt from regulation and decreases the number of protected wetlands in Michigan, among other concerns, if signed into law by Gov. Snyder. (We’re hopeful for a veto.)
Beyond environmental concerns, there is a quality of life factor that plays into land-use regulations that is often overlooked. Well-structured urban zoning laws can make our communities friendly and functional.
It is not enough just to build homes and hope that the areas around them will come to life once people move in. Infrastructure concerns must be balanced with the natural capabilities of the land. Neighborhoods need to be laid out to be people-friendly as well as environmentally friendly by providing for the basic needs of their citizens.
The places we think of as “home” — distinct collections of businesses, residential areas, landmarks and streets — cannot exist without some form of planning and management.
The most recent draft of the DNR's Public Land Management Strategy, released a few weeks ago, illustrates this conflict between economics, quality of life and environment explicitly. While the strategy increases opportunities for recreational use of public land and strives to increase the amount of accessible public land, it does not adequately protect the natural, ecological benefits of this land. Destructive uses such as logging, oil and gas production, and mining in these spaces are prioritized in place of land-use policy.
The answer to today's sustainability and community development concerns arguably lies in more land-management policy, not less. Regulation can preserve our open spaces and farmland, avoiding cookie-cutter housing developments sprawling across our landscape. Instead, new policies can condense and preserve our communities, making them friendlier to pedestrians and active, non-motorized forms of transportation.
Smart, "green" zoning laws can create natural alternatives to traditional “gray infrastructure” stormwater drainage systems, instead absorbing rainfall in urban areas through permeable pavements, "green" roofs and rain gardens that not only beautify our neighborhoods, but reduce maintenance costs and environmental impacts as well. A friendlier, more controlled pattern of development benefits all of us, and is only possible if we continue to watch and regulate how the land around us is used.
— By Matthew Kuczynski, a communications professional currently working for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, and a recent graduate of Aquinas College.