By Mary Reilly, AICP, MSU Extension Educator
It was an honor to be invited and present at the MLSA Conference and give a presentation with Rod Cortright (Evangeline Township) on “Why Zoning Matters.” An article on this subject also appeared in The Michigan Riparian in the Spring 2023 issue. To our surprise, the audience enjoyed our zoning presentation, and I was invited to keep contributing articles to the MLSA Newsletter to further educate Michigan’s most-engaged legion of water stewards.
In my work with Michigan State University (MSU) Extension, I often interact with both planning and zoning staff and property owners. A northern Michigan township planner recently mentioned, “we have a group of lake property owners that show up at every meeting.” She embraced the group’s participation, and even guided them to additional training opportunities so they could be more effective.
Comments are not always this rosy… During a training I was leading one of the participants, a township supervisor, said “I am so glad I don’t have any lakes in my Township!” He had heard from other townships about those lake people and how relentless they could be. So, what gives? What is the difference between dreading, or even resisting, a group of waterfront owners (lakes, streams, rivers) or embracing their advocacy?
Continued education for both elected/appointed officials and waterfront residents is key to elevating lakefront planning and zoning at the local level. Note that Michigan has a wide range of local government capacity to address water-related issues. Some communities in Michigan have no planning or zoning; it is not required by state statute. In most cases, communities with no zoning are townships with low population density (under 1,000) and low development pressure (e.g., significant portions of the township are state or federal land).
Other communities do much more—especially those with the budget and resources for full-time staff including planner(s), zoning administrator(s), and code enforcement officer(s). Most communities fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. A large budget and staff do not necessarily corollate with better water-related outcomes. A combination of thoughtful development policy (zoning), plans, non-profits, political support, and public-private partnerships can create excellent outcomes. The work of MLSA is so important to help make this happen!
No Zoning/Planning in your community? Where there is no zoning, it often means a (very) part-time Township board and limited staff (not always) devote most of their time to the efficient provision of mandated services (roads, property taxes, voting). It is extremely difficult to exert local regulatory control over land use or the shape of development here. A lack of regulation detracts some buyers and attracts others. Here, land conservation and preservation, education about personal responsibility for the water resource, and neighbor-to-neighbor exchange/bragging of best practices is a potential course of action.
An interesting exception here are Michigan’s designated Natural Rivers that have their own zoning and plans. If one of these designated rivers flows through a community that has no zoning, the Natural River zoning would be in effect for properties within the described river overlay zone (400 feet from the river’s edge).
For all others: Start with the Plan! In Michigan, all zoning must be based on a plan (MCL 125.3203). The plan is commonly referred to as a Master Plan but could also be a Comprehensive Plan or General Plan. Plans state the goals, objectives, and policies—on which zoning should be based (although the relationship is sometimes quite loose). Read the plan and be sure to review the goals and objectives, specifically as they relate to water resources, watershed protection, natural areas, etc. Large capital improvements like new roads or proposed sewer systems should also be in the plan.
How do I find the Plan? Plans are typically available on the local unit of government website and can be viewed or downloaded at no cost. If not on the website (or your community doesn’t have a website) you may be able to borrow, purchase, or make a paper or digital copy.
Plans must be reviewed every five years. After you review the plan, find out when the next update will occur, and then be sure to participate in that process! Be prepared, a plan update or re-write will take one to two years. With your team, advocate for changes to goals, objectives, and policies that will edge the community ever forward toward protection of water-resources. If goals are already in the plan, can they be improved upon? How?
Your water-loving residents and lake associations typically have a list of critical issues. Some of the issues may occur on water and others occur on land such as runoff, PFAS, the scale of waterfront development (especially on small lots), road ends, septic systems, impervious surface, short term rentals, lake levels and more. These broad issues are often best addressed in the plan. Make sure to put these issues on the radar of local government officials and then participate toward the inclusion of goals or objectives to address these issues in the plan.
If this is your first exposure to local government, the planning process is a terrific opportunity to “read the room.” Are local officials familiar with your concerns or are these topics new to them? Do they have staff or not? How can you support them? You may have to scale down your expectations and lean into incremental change. Or you may find that your local government has the capacity and political will to make swift changes. Remember, there is a wide range of staff capacity within Michigan’s local governments and planning and zoning is not immune from politics.
Want to do more?
Read the regulation: After you are feeling confident about the plan, the next step is to obtain a copy of the zoning ordinance and other regulatory ordinances, if they exist, such as Short-Term Rental (STR), invasive plants, blight, or docks. Not all communities have additional ordinances beyond zoning. Zoning and regulatory ordinances are not the same, zoning is specific to the regulation of the use of land. Counties have limited authority to adopt regulatory ordinances where townships, cities, and villages can adopt a wide range of regulatory ordinances. About 20 of Michigan’s 83 counties have county-wide zoning.
Training and Education: If you attempt to read a zoning ordinance from front to back, there is a high probability of being both confused and bored. Education and training can help. The MSU Extension Citizen Planner Program (classroom or online is 15-18 hours) and Michigan Association of Planning (MAP) Planning and Zoning Essentials, (classroom, 4-5 hours) are both designed to give a foundation for this work. Zoning is both a legal and technical endeavor and training is extremely helpful toward deciphering how it works.
Without knowing this language of zoning or basic planning concepts, a Planning Commission may fully appreciate your comments and passion but may also be thinking “they don’t really know how this works…” If a water-advocate has basic knowledge of how planning and zoning works, they can be more effective at the local level.
Attend a meeting or meetings: Have you ever received a notice in the mail about a zoning public hearing for a variance or special land use? Did you go? If you have not yet been to a public hearing for a zoning application, it is worth your time to go or have someone on your team attend. Knowing how these processes work, or should work, is essential! What are the standards in the ordinance by which an application is judged? What are the facts supporting the approval or denial of a decision? So much to learn.
In the end: start with the plan! Read it and be able to connect the dots between your local concerns and the goals and objectives in the plan. Participate in the next plan update. If you are looking for more, get a copy of the zoning ordinance. If the zoning ordinance does not make sense (join the club, zoning is confusing), then seek out training and education. MSU Extension has a team of land use experts and we offer online training. Or get training from another source- like MAP, a planning consultant or Michigan Townships Association (MTA). If you love this work, try to get on the Planning Commission!
While knowledge of riparian issues is a timeless pursuit, effective water and shoreline advocacy means that some members of your team must speak and understand the language of zoning, know how development works, and become familiar with the workings of local government.