With the Grain
Reason to Plan
Land Classification
The language of land use may seem strange. Simple comments about a parcel are very easy to misunderstand. Throughout Michigan, the same terms may be used to describe land for (at least) five different purposes. Some are official, others are informal:
  • Land Character (what a technically informed observer calls it)
  • Future Plan (what a municipal planning document calls it)
  • Zoning District (what local ordinance legally calls it)
  • Existing Use (what a casual observer of daily activities calls it)
  • Tax Class (what the assessor or equalization office calls it)
Please notice the sequence.
  • Land Character is defined by factual observation (not politics)
  • Future Plan derives naturally from Land Character (not politics)
  • Zoning District must be based on Future Plan (not politics)
  • Existing Use must comply with Zoning District** (not politics)
  • Tax Class reflects Existing Use (not politics)
Also, please notice the pattern. Your biggest obstacle is politics.

(**If an Existing Use pre-dates the ordinance, it may be 'grandfathered' as long as it continues mostly uninterrupted, and without expansion or fundamental change. Your ordinance may be more specific.)

Studying the lists below may not qualify you to make official decisions. However, it should help you comprehend (or perhaps even correct) how those decisions are made. Often, the terms are used so carelessly that you can improve the situation simply by remembering that they overlap.

After reviewing these lists, consider the brief examples that follow.


Tax Class is the most limited list, legally. There are only six classes for real estate in Michigan. The first four are common, the last two more likely in the north (timber-cutover) or near large cities (developmental). Personal property taxes apply primarily to things (such as equipment, not land) owned by a business or other legal entity.

Led by: Assessor
Tax
Class
REAL PROPERTY
Agricultural
Commercial
Industrial
Residential
Timber-Cutover
Developmental
PERSONAL PROPERTY
Agricultural
Commercial
Industrial
Residential
Utility

There is no official list of existing uses. The use may be obvious to passersby, or not. For example, commercial uses may exist--or be hidden--anywhere. Small industrial uses are often overlooked when surrounded by agricultural land. Uses often overlap: a corn field with a house on one corner, for example.

Existing
Use
Led by: Landowner
Agricultural
Commercial
Industrial
Residential
Recreational
Conservation
Terms to listen for:
"tilled; orchard; animals"
"business; store; office"
"manufacturing; equipment"
"house; dwelling; church"
"park; open space; wildlife"
"silviculture; habitat"

Zoning districts are named in local ordinance, and identified on a related map. No zoning district exists without both. Zoning identifies permitted uses, and related rules. It is not obvious from viewing the site. Note that the technical names for common districts often include a single letter followed by a single digit. (Such as R-1, R-2, and R-3 for various Residential styles or densities.)

Zoning
District
Led by: Elected Officials
Agricultural
Commercial
Industrial
Residential
Recreational
Conservation
Terms to listen for:
"A-1... Ag-Low Density"
"C-1... Office Park"
"I-1... Manufacturing"
"R-1... Single Family"
"Quasi-Public"
"Open Space"

Like zoning, a municipal plan (likely called a land use, master, or comprehensive plan) is both a descriptive text and a related map. It calls for certain future use in certain areas. While zoning has more legal weight, zoning should comply with the plan, and rezonings should always be toward the plan.

Future
Plan
Led by: Local Planners
Agricultural
Commercial
Industrial
Residential
Recreational
Conservation
Terms to listen for:
"productive; prime; unique"
"access; parking; utilities"
"transportation; gas and electric"
"near schools; sewer and water"
"wildlife; open space"
"native species; hydrology"

Land character has the most scientific foundation, and is therefore the least likely to be known. However a wise community would make it the basis for every other decision. The plan should recognize the use for which the land is best suited. That would point to the appropriate zoning, which would influence the use, and control the tax classification.

Land
Character
Led by: Depends on your Faith
Agricultural
Industrial
Recreational
Conservation
Terms to listen for:
"prime or unique; soil type"
"impervious soils"
"steep slopes; forested"
"wetland; hydric soils"

Imagine a large, flat parcel in a rural area. It is tilled, and contains no dwelling. Its use and character are obviously agricultural, and it is planned, zoned, and taxed as agricultural. When you describe it as 'agricultural,' everyone understands.

Now imagine another parcel a mile away, on the edge of the village. This one has similar size, shape, and soils, though it contains a recently vacant house. The parcel sits along the local highway, near a newly developed industrial park. The school district just leased it to construct varsity practice fields. What would you call it?

Although its natural, physical character may be suited to agriculture, it may be taxed as residential, zoned commercial, planned to become industrial, and used for recreation. There are many other possible views of the situation, based on local policy and interpretation.

In this imaginary case, some of the parcel's classifications seem likely to change every few months for several years.

With the Grain - - Box 517 - - Mattawan, Michigan - - 49017-0517 - - wtg@wtgrain.org

...head home now!
Reason to Plan Preservation Spoken Softly Waiting to Die