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Published: Friday, 3/16/2007

Monroe County planners target unruly growth

MONROE - With the population in Monroe County growing as fast as Toledo and Detroit are losing residents, questions of sustainable development in rural areas become more relevant.

The trend in migration from cities began more than a decade ago and shows no sign of stopping.

A two-part workshop yesterday, "Growing Smart," addressed how to sustain rural communities' natural resources while embracing their growth.

Robert Peven, assistant director of Monroe County's Planning Department, said the county lost 17,000 acres of farmland and gained 10,000 acres of residential land from 1990 to 2000.

During that decade, its population grew by 12,345 people, or nearly 0.8 acres per person. Since 2000, the county has grown by 10,483 residents, according to the Council.

The county's current population is 156,428, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

"If we do not use more sustainable land-use practices, we will run out of land very quickly," Mr. Peven said.

In contrast to the county's gains, the city of Detroit has lost 90,482 people, or 9.5 percent of its population, since 2005. Toledo has 27,682 fewer people, for a 8.8 percent loss during that time, census figures show.

Like others at the workshop, Mr. Peven recommended that new developments be built closer to each another and in areas.

"The more we spread out, the more we let development take control of us instead of the other way around," said Brad Garmon, lands program director for the Michigan Environment Council, a collation of environmental and public organizations.

Mr. Garmon said denser developments will allow more open land to be preserved.

"Growth is coming. And limiting density on a site doesn't eliminate that growth. It shifts it," Mr. Garmon said.

But some audience members pointed out that many people move to rural areas specifically because they want low-density housing.

"I've heard it said that there is only one thing that people hate less than sprawl and that's density," Dave Drullinger, an analyst for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Mr. Peven said that along with new landscaping and building ordinances, social and cultural changes are necessary.

"People will start to change if there are social pressures," he said. "Think about the kind of looks a woman gets today who wears fur coats and throws fast-food wrappers out her Hummer window. Any real change will require a change in our sense of social responsibility."

Rebecca Head, director of the county's health department, said communities may become more motivated to change their building-growth practices if they realized low-density sprawl increases human obesity rates, which decrease life span.

"We know that sprawl means we drive instead of walk. We don't have sidewalks, we have lots of parking lots," she said. "We need to look at design issues that promote the health of the community."

She said it is important to narrow streets, widen sidewalks, and create more areas that are destinations where people can congregate - "areas that improve quality of life."

Many county officials advocated creating a model ordinance for more sustainable landscaping and building practices that local governments could pass and make a part of their local planning and zoning procedures. County Drain Commissioner Dan Stefanski said the first step is education.

"This workshop is just the first step in a long journey. Next, we will be going around to local governments and seeing how they can partner with us," he said.



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