Most local jurisdictions follow master plan, but struggle with too few planners

May 7, 2018

Nearly half of Michigan’s largest local governments feel they have little staff capacity for land use planning and zoning, according to a survey from University of Michigan researchers.

This survey is the first statewide attempt to explore which Michigan jurisdictions have land use master plans—critical documents designed to provide a vision for the community’s future—and how many actually conduct planning and zoning.

“We found that 48 percent of Michigan’s largest local governments feel they don’t have enough planning capacity (staff members and/or hired consultants) to deal with their planning and zoning needs,” said Tom Ivacko, associate director at the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) at U-M’s Ford School of Public Policy. “This is certainly a concern for such an important aspect of local government responsibility.”

A reason for this is that many local governments reduced their number of public employees during the recession a decade ago and have not returned to the earlier numbers, Ivacko said.

The data come from the Michigan Public Policy Survey, an ongoing poll of Michigan’s 1,856 local governments conducted by CLOSUP. The fall 2017 survey received a 76-percent response rate with results from 1,411 jurisdictions.

Among the survey’s key findings:

  • About 70 percent of the state’s cities, villages and townships have a land use master plan that covers their jurisdiction and another 5 percent have a joint plan developed collaboratively with a neighboring jurisdiction.
  • Most of the master plans (90 percent) have been updated in the last 10 years, including 28 percent who say it was updated in the last year.
  • About 50 percent say their jurisdiction generally follows the spirit but not necessarily the letter of the master plan, while 38 percent indicate that they strictly adhere to the master plan when rezoning properties.
  • Most local officials are satisfied with their jurisdiction’s approach to land use planning and zoning, including 82 percent in jurisdictions with a master plan.
  • About half of jurisdictions that have master plans don’t have internal planning staff, often relying on external consultants.

When looking at a range of land use issues across the state, medical marijuana was the most common topic for discussion—in 76 percent of jurisdictions. Commercial cell phone towers, farmland preservation, large-scale wind turbines and solar arrays, and short-term property rentals were some of the other topics.

“The land issues survey gives us an idea of topics in front of the local jurisdictions these days and how a master plan helps them approach it,” said Debra Horner, project manager at CLOSUP.

Most of the officials in jurisdictions with land use planning believe that it helps them make decisions that protect property investments, aid economic growth and build a sense of community and place.

View the Michigan News press release here.