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Gratiot County Communities Work Together to Form County-Wide Master Plan
By Jennifer Eberbach
So how can you cooperate without losing your community’s identity? It can be done—just ask a group of Gratiot County leaders.
Symbolic of their collaborative spirit, the Gratiot officials sat down recently to share their story about how 23 Gratiot County communities (plus the county and the Greater Gratiot Development group) worked together to create one county-wide master plan for all (and all for one). This is a unique effort that has not been done before to this scale in Michigan.
Alma City Manager Phillip Moore, Gratiot County Assessor Doug Merchant, and Greater Gratiot Development, Inc. President Donald Schurr, along with Project Manager Chelsey Foster, explained how the Gratiot Regional Excellence and Transformation (GREAT) plan lays out goals and objections that approach placemaking, development, land use, and improving Gratiot County communities with the entire region in mind. The draft came out of active collaboration and open dialogue between Gratiot County’s cities and townships, Greater Gratiot Development, and Partnerships for Change—Sustainable Communities, a program managed by the Land Information Access Association.
Like with any cooperative effort, one concern early on was maintaining the individual identities of each community involved. It was important that no one community lost their individual autonomy. To accomplish that goal, each individual governmental unit also has their own version of the master plan and the option to amend its goals and objectives—if they want to. However, there does not seem to be any talk of disagreement to date. The group’s account of the collaboration is one that champions the process of coming together to discover and negotiate similar goals. What they found was that they were able to get on the same page quite easily.
The GREAT plan is not the first instance of intergovernmental cooperation in Gratiot County, but this particular type of collaboration between so many different jurisdictions is quite unique. The idea grew out of a 2006 land use agreement between Alma, St. Louis, and Pine River Township. At first, their intentions were not to draw up a county-wide plan, however, they wanted to consult with each other on their ideas. A new idea dawned: Why don’t we just do this together? One after another more municipalities jumped on board and it “snowballed.”
The master plan operates under this simple assumption: If a person’s view doesn’t end at a jurisdiction line, then it is likely that community, culture, and economy does not stop there either. What one governmental entity builds, grows, or offers ends up belonging to the greater economy—especially when it might only take 10 minutes to drive to the next city or the neighboring township to shop or do business.
A number of specific intergovernmental agreements and collaborative projects have been inspired by the convergence. Agreements related to public works, like Alma and St. Louis’ joint Solid Waste Authority, and additional discussions about water and sewage are happening between municipalities. They are also working together to determine the scope of a pathway, called the River Walk. It currently starts in Alma and they are figuring out just how many communities it will eventually span. There is also a general sense that everyone shares the county’s cultural and natural resources, along with the responsibility to preserve and improve them.
A few wind turbine farms have been proposed in the county. If they are built, they will stretch across jurisdictional boundaries—even individual farms would cross geographic boundary lines. In the process of collaborating together on the GREAT plan, Gratiot County successfully created a common ordinance for wind turbines that could be applied to all of its jurisdictions.
Working together on a master plan also helped them define their collective vision for how to best reign in development that would compromise the integrity of Gratiot County’s agricultural heritage and natural beauty. “One of the things we discovered fairly early on was that our goals and objectives were either the same or they were compatible. We value the rural lifestyle and the agricultural nature of our community and want to preserve that. At the same time, we’d like to have commercial and industrial development,” Alma City Manager Phillip Moore explains.
Over 90 percent of Gratiot County is zoned as agricultural land with upward of 80 percent under cultivation. Farming makes up a significant part of their local economy—from the farmers themselves to the businesses within the county that support the agricultural economy. Numerous mechanisms for managing development and land use are built into the plan that are meant to preserve this heritage as well as the county’s rural charm.
Greater Gratiot President Don Schurr thinks, “The key reason why we are doing this is to increase the efficiency and the effectiveness of local government; to avoid the duplication. To work towards a greater market orientation to provide services, the functions that we need individually in our municipalities, and collectively to make us an attractive place to live.” He further explains, “One of the goals from the beginning sitting in the chairman’s position was to get people utilizing the same language—the definitions, the terms, the nomenclature—and to gain an understanding that when somebody is mentioning (for example) a business district on one side of a jurisdiction’s boundary line, it was the same as a business district on the other side of the line.” He thinks, “It’s a seemingly simplistic concept but I think basic language is at the heart of understanding and the capacity for everybody to get along.”
Focusing on creating one master plan also ended up saving each community a bit of cash—a nice fringe benefit that came along with the collaboration. Instead of each community having to pay for a separate master plan, its assessment, and the cost of hiring a consultant, they split the costs. Moore points out that the time and money they saved is no small thing. “For some of the townships, developing a master plan is a lot of work. Townships, which may have no paid staff to speak of, may find it very hard to undertake a good master plan. By working together, we shared the burden a little bit and it made it much more obtainable for everybody.”
Jennifer Eberbach is a freelance journalist and professional copywriter. You may contact her at 734-929-2964 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her online at www.jenthewriter.info.