On November 8th, Americans, well, maybe 56% of registered voters if it’s a “good” turnout year, head to the polls to exercise one of our most defining rights: The right to elect those who will represent us, our voice and our values. Traverse City residents will be heading to the polls to possibly amend the city charter by voting on Proposal 3, a referendum that basically states all proposed buildings over 60 feet tall must go to a vote of city residents. Just as our vote for our representatives helps shape the vision and policies that impact our future, this vote will certainly shape Traverse City’s economic and social future.
You have likely seen the signs around town supporting Proposal 3 with the tagline of “Let the People Decide.” It is brilliant. It is catchy. It is the American way. And, it is misleading.
Let’s start with a basic recap of the current planning process: City residents elect the City Commission and the Mayor. The Mayor appoints 6 residents, with the approval of the City Commission, to serve 3 year terms on the Planning Commission. The Mayor selects one administrative official, and the City Commission selects 2 of its own to serve on the Planning Commission, bringing the total to 9. The Planning Commission then works with the City Planner to…well, plan the city. This includes reviewing all development proposals. Each area of the city is currently zoned with specific guidelines and criteria outlining what type of structures, development and usage may occur within that district. This creates a consistent, objective and fair process. In some cases if a plan comes before the commission that does not meet or exceeds the stipulated zoning requirements a Special Land Use Permit (SLUP) may be issued, as long as those uses are compatible with permitted uses in that district and meet specified standards.
The key document developed by this body is the City Master Plan. The 2009 City Master Plan states:
It <the Master Plan> manages change and focuses priorities for our central role in the region. The Master Plan draws its strengths from a collective vision of our community and support for seven Core Principles to guide our actions and drive interpretation of the Plan. These principles are based on the belief that well managed cities focus on the fundamental barrier to positive change-intensity rather than land use. For it is the intensity of a use, not the use itself, which is of importance. Therefore, focusing on the intensity allows decision-makers more flexibility and nuance when addressing the real challenges ahead. *Source City of Traverse City Master Plan pg. 7
Currently, there are only 9 zones within the City of Traverse City with the option to build above 60 feet. The zones include sections of 8th Street, Munson Healthcare Campus and Northwestern Michigan College.
That’s the quick version of the current planning process. Got it? Good, let’s break down what Prop 3 means:
Proposal 3 would amend the City Charter. Permanently. I believe it is generally a bad idea to alter any core document that serves as the guiding principle for a governing body. The Constitution or a City Charter serves to direct and guide the concepts and principles on which the institution was founded. It should not be used for personal agendas and micro-managing process or people. If you don’t like or trust either, that’s a different issue and this limiting proposal is not the solution.
Proposal 3 would mandate that all buildings, regardless of current zoning, will go to a vote of the city residents. There are so many consequences to consider: added costs to the taxpayers, discouragement of development, additional city resources required, the layers of bureaucracy it will add and the encouragement of sprawl. Another primary concern is the impact this will have on Munson and Northwestern Michigan College, two of our most critical and cherished institutions. Both are currently, and wisely, zoned to build for the growth needed in our area, yet they would now be subject to a vote of city residents. Here’s the problem: the majority of the population that NMC and Munson serve live outside of the city. Our region depends on Munson to evaluate how to serve our growing, and aging, population best. Even though the supporters of Prop 3 have basically said “well, that’s not what we meant, we like Munson, we support that project, of course it would pass.” But, what if it doesn’t? Munson, and every other project, will need to rely on city residents taking the time to go to the polls. Let’s be honest, our track record of showing up to vote isn’t great. (See voting stats in September16 TCBN commentary.)
NMC is a remarkable resource in our community. Our state and federal tax dollars help fund this vibrant institution and Northern Michigan needs NMC to continue to thrive, grow and work to keep future generations in our area. Yet this regional education hub would now be subject to the opinions of only city residents. Let the people decide? Well, just the minority of the tax base when it comes to NMC. Prop 3 is short sighted, limiting and misleading.
My hope is that the preamble from the Master Plan will inspire the right action:
Because we cherish Traverse City and all that it has been, we hope the Plan will help us to protect what is unique and adopt what is best. We hope the Plan evokes within all decision-makers their better voices, their best reasoning, and their soundest judgment.
On November 8th, let your better voice and sound judgement be heard. Vote NO on Proposal 3.