With the Grain
Spoken Softly
Addicted to Sprawl
Is land in your community used as prescribed, or are you hooked on downers? Has anyone overdosed yet? Just one official or landowner can set an entire community into a cycle of abuse. There are many warning signs. Citizens must learn how to recognize the signs, and help the afflicted.


Medical professionals have obligations regarding proper drug use. However, some folks--even professionals--lack self control. They may use drugs for the wrong purpose, or without concern for side effects, seeking ever larger doses. Some may use drugs in ways that are unsafe--even illegal--or seduce friends into joining them. The behavior is damaging to them, to others, and to society. We recognize it as drug abuse.

Public officials have obligations regarding proper land use. However, some folks--even public officials--lack self control. They may use land for the wrong purpose, or without concern for side effects, seeking ever larger parcels. Some may use land in ways that are unsafe--even illegal--or seduce friends into joining them. The behavior is damaging to them, to others, and to society. We recognize it as... land use.

We often say "land use," when we mean "land abuse." The paraphernalia are visible (weeknights, around 7:00 pm) in scattered rural municipal halls. The problem usually springs from ignorance of the community's own approved plan for future conservation and development. Obtain a copy of your community's Comprehensive Plan, Master Plan, or Land Use Plan. Study this document! It is your prescription.

Is land in your community used as prescribed, or are you hooked on downers? Has anyone overdosed yet? Just one official or landowner can set an entire community into a cycle of abuse. There are many warning signs. Citizens must learn how to recognize the signs, and help the afflicted.

The top ten signs your community has a land abuse problem:

10. A public official doesn't recognize quotes from the local plan.

Memory loss is tied to land abuse. Sufferers of land dependency forget promises made in their own plan. Gently reassure them, reading from the plan until they recover a sense of responsibility. If an official doesn't even know they have a plan, shake them firmly until they awaken.

9. The land use plan describes the community's future "through 1990."

Addicts may fail to attend to normal bodily functions, like updating the plan, or implementing it. As this syndrome progresses, they increasingly lose touch with reality. Many fall into a '60's groove: "Man, I am so huge and the world is, like, infinite--I could do anything." Sufferers may inadvertently injure others. Restrain (or retrain) them until they become lucid.

8. The plan or ordinance 'discourages' a certain use, but large areas are zoned for it, and it expands every year.

Abusers ignore label warnings. ("Use permits only as directed. Do not exceed recommended density. Avoid operating motor vehicles or heavy equipment in wetland areas.") Real estate pushers then take advantage, encouraging experiments with more harmful trips over time. (The most commonly abused class goes by the street name "strip commercial.") Implementing the plan through clear ordinances, and fair enforcement, is the only way to end the madness.

Clues of a bad habit may appear in the budget. Do officials spend hundreds of thousands of dollars paving roads and building sewers-- though the plan doesn't recommend it--then pretend they are surprised by development? They expect you to buy that, literally. Just say NO!

Once the stupor sets in, most addicts lose sight of cause and effect. They pave; Orchard Estates pops up; they disavow any link. Hot asphalt seems to dull their pain. They pave; the plat of Turtle Ridge appears; they shrug their shoulders... Denial ain't just a river in Egypt!

7. Officials can't state what a permitted use is, or agree what the ordinance means (or one official decides for everyone else).

Deep confusion is a symptom of serious land abuse. Hallucinations increase the chaos. Officials see four men sharing a garage with six trucks and heavy equipment--and imagine it is just a hobby. The 'clean' officials admit that the ordinance agrees with common sense: new dwellings are incompatible with sounds or smells of farms. Others deny it ("I visited the site, but I didn't inhale"). Interpreting or clarifying ordinances on the fly is not within the authority of elected officials or a planning commission. Only a trained Zoning Board of Appeals should undertake this task. If ordinances or officials are delusional, seek professional help.

Hopeless land junkies become deceitful, and hurt other folks. For example, officials tell Bryan, in private, that he can start an industrial use in an agricultural area, if it remains hush-hush. He buys property, only to discover that his business is not a legal use. In a commercial area, Jim asks permission to operate a semi-industrial use. The same officials obstruct his request, but won't openly vote against it. The officials lose respect, while the community loses business opportunities. Time for a little tough love!

6. Official debate on variances, site plans, or rezonings include phrases such as "We know him," "Nobody will complain," or "Let's waive that requirement."

Even subtle abuse makes an official feel above the law. They crave more and MORE. (Higher self-dosing may lead to so-called 'bull-dosing.') They soon stop following rules, and begin rolling their own. Ordinances are law, however, and apply to officials, their friends, and families. Variances typically require unique circumstances and/or demonstrated hardship. Site plan standards must be documented clearly, and applied uniformly. Rezoning should occur only when consistent with the plan and other standards. Breaking these rules leads to greater abuse, further eroding self discipline. A loud reading of local ordinance or state law may snap an official out of this condition, if only temporarily.

5. When citizens document specific ordinance violations, an official says, "So, what do you expect me to do?"

Irresponsibility is a tragic symptom. An official, accountable for community welfare, may abandon the public trust and ignore the ordinance. If the abuse is severe, you may even see ordinances rewritten to eliminate the violation on paper, rather than address underlying problems. This very dangerous condition requires professional intervention.

4. An official says, "Don't worry, [insert agency name] will protect [insert resource name]." Common usage: "Don't worry, DNR will protect wetlands."

In deep dependence, we see elevated levels of irresponsibility. Blame for all past problems also goes elsewhere. However, no outside agency is responsible for preserving the character or livability of your community. To protect wetlands, farmland, groundwater, or other resources, a community must act through proper plans and ordinances. The state laws that enable local planning recognize purposes such as soil conservation, forest, wildlife refuges, and others. After years of being oblivious to this reality, an official may regain consciousness only after lengthy treatment.

3. An official acts as though more sprawling growth will help the tax base.

This is an advanced symptom, usually chronic, and often lethal. Since new development brings more taxes, it's good, right? Think! Cows don't dial 911. Turtles don't go to school. Trees don't need sewers. Since the demand for services increases more than the tax base, scattered development costs the community more than it returns in taxes. This is so well documented that one would expect the pushers to manufacture propaganda to the contrary. They hate stepping out into the light. They hope old superstitions will keep the product moving.

Land abuse is worse near big cities. Cities spawn real estate pushers because (1) that's where it's easy to learn the trade, (2) the pickings look easier in the country, and (3) even with their larger tax base, cities can't afford to maintain services. So, pushers and potential abusers leave in droves. Arriving in the country, they demand downtown services. Officials borrow from our children to provide them. Meanwhile, the existing downtown infrastructure rots. Build rural schools; demolish urban schools. This is your society. This is your society on sprawl. Any questions?

2. The building inspector (also a builder) is paid per house. His construction business partner is the municipal attorney. They, and your chief enforcement officer (also a Realtor), are pals with the local developers and their investors. Their incomes rise only as more plats, conflicts, and land sales occur.

(I am not making this up.) Land abuse requires pushers at all levels. Cash provides them a false sense of self worth, enticing them to abandon ethics, principles, and the welfare of the community. The abuse so controls their behavior (and their comrades') that they believe it is the norm.

Columbian cartels have nothing on these guys. Their conduct is erratic. They quote imaginary laws, and fanciful rights. They exhibit paranoia about open meetings. They attack the citizens as a trivial 'minority' of their empire. Warnings about impending risks to their position--even the kingpin--fall on deaf ears. They're simply unable to swear off the demon dollar. Call the narcs!

And, the number one sign your community has a land abuse problem:

1. Someone says, "If you deny this residential rezoning, you might see hogs out there tomorrow!"

The speaker may be desperate, DWI (Developing While Ignorant), or both. He is either an unsophisticated developer, or a seriously strung-out official. He is about to go cold turkey, and will do anything to score.

This threat is to (1) supply more of the rural character neighbors are defending (2) in a way the speaker knows will taint his own property, (3) by doing something the speaker obviously knows nothing about. This person is under the influence. Do not administer coffee or other stimulants!

The swine threat is proof of land abuse, revealing the speaker's belief that bullies are somehow more entitled to rezoning. (Of course, even that is more honest than threatening a lawsuit. You know they're even further over the legal limit when they're DUIL: Developing Under Intimidation of Litigation.) Hogs or attorneys. Why do you think they call it dope?

The only cure for land abuse is public participation. It can be slow, painful therapy. People who care about the community must come back month after chilling month to end the cycle of abuse. The addicts who compulsively focus on personal and financial goals will fight desperately for another hit, then another. Some can come clean for good, but only with a lot of help.

Fortunately, help is available. The Michigan Society of Planning Officials, Michigan Townships Association, and other organizations provide valuable training throughout the state, year round. Do your officials attend regularly? Find the time to go yourself, then ask an official to attend with you. (You'll find the steps easier with a sponsor). You may soon come to know more about your community, and the law, than the abusers. Then we can kick the habit!

© 1995 WTG All Rights Reserved.
With the Grain - - Box 517 - - Mattawan, Michigan - - 49017-0517 - - wtg@wtgrain.org

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Reason to Plan Preservation Spoken Softly Waiting to Die