INTRO: Michigan’s economy is improving. Our old stand-by, the auto industry, is filling our pockets again. New car sales are also creating new home sales and new homes require new land. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports on a small group that’s trying to change how land gets developed, especially when times are good.
You are not likely to know the North Oakland Headwaters Land Conservancy. They have just 2 paid staff people. And because they’re a non-profit, the board members have to work for free. One of them, named Sue, led me here.
I-75 expressway. You may have driven past the sign for Sashabaw Road.
“We are between Flint and Pontiac along the I-75 corridor. So we expect that this is good develop able land.”
Sue Julian walks through a 20 acre patch that contains the Sashabaw Creek. Small oak and ash trees are springing up. 15 years ago, a developer cleared trees and trucked in sand.
“Yeah, look at right here. You’ll see it’s not like the soil we can see down there. And right up here you can find pure sand. It was part of creating an interesting golf course. They bulldozed and took down land that should not have been. So this is going to be a DEQ mitigation property. They’re going to restore grassland in the areas that were destroyed before.”
“So state taxpayers have to pay for the repair of the land that the private developer destroyed.”
“Oh no, no.” Said Julian. “The private developer is going to pay for the land that he destroyed.”
Land conservancies have different roles. They can be watchdogs like in this case. They can take donated land and keep it natural. They can set rules for land owners who pledge never to develop it. Conservancies like North Oakland know it’s tough to stop development. So they advocate for lots of housing on a smaller property then leaving natural space for recreation.
“We don’t need more golf courses. We have many in Oakland County. The buyers’ market for it doesn’t exist. That’s why the developer is interested in seeing other options to use this property.”
The SouthEast Michigan Council of Governments gathers data about residential home building permits. When the banking and housing crash hit in 2009 Oakland County approved just 40 homes. Last year it rose to 1,500 houses. Just as many are likely this year. So sprawl is back.
“When you get to about 17% paved or impervious surfaces which means the tops of buildings, sidewalks, and roads you pass the point of being able to keep working with a natural system. This area in Clarkston is right about at that threshold. It’s important for us to preserve areas like this.”
Well water and septic tanks don’t work in subdivisions. So they get sewers and city water pumped in. Township taxes usually cover this cost. Not developers. And infrastructure drains poorly compared to how nature does it.
“We frequently have an inch of rainfall here and an inch in Troy. In Troy they are closing streets because all the water rushes into one place trying to get into the sewers. Here it is in the wetlands and is released slowly over hours and days back into the river.”
Sue Julian and I drove our cars a quarter mile to the nearest subdivision. Pat Zagorski was watering her flowers on Golf Classic Drive. She said she had never visited the Sashabaw Creek preserve. She and husband Tom Zagorski moved from Troy.
“How come you moved out here?” I asked.
“To get away from some of the traffic. And now look what’s happened in 15 years. It’s all built up.”
Sue Julian started teaching natural science as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia. That was in the ‘1960’s. She doesn’t scold people for making problems worse. She just tries to avoid new ones.
“And there’s just no turning back You’re forever going to be paying for it. Pay for the repair of it. And digging up a sewer down the middle of the highway is going to be much more expensive than it was to put it in. It’s really to the advantage of any community to avoid falling into that pattern.”
For your own land use education, check out nohlc.org or go to the Michigan Association of Planning annual conference, October 2-4. That’s in Kalamazoo.
For Michigan Now I’m Chris McCarus in Clarkston.