The second stop on the land use tour introduced visitors to Bonner Hills, a residential development on the edge of Tecumseh that protects existing wetlands and woods.
A unique zoning classification “broke the rules” to allow a new concept in residential design.
Paula Holtz, economic development director for Tecumseh, said the city annexed the 84 acre parcel 10 years ago without any specific plan for use.
The property was considered for several uses, including a new high school and a technological research and development park. The property included more than 17 acres of wetlands and a 2.5 acre pond, and when any uses were discussed, there were several area residents who pleaded for retention of the natural features among the rolling hills.
“The city started to think differently,” Holtz said. “We looked for a new approach to development.”
A proposal for housing listed 392 sites for townhouses, but that was too much for the planning commission. The developer came back twice with reduced density and finally settled at 194 sites.
To make it all work, planners developed a new zoning classification—Environmental Residential Community (ERC)—that, among other changes, allowed cluster housing to maximize open space.
Traditionally, said Tecumseh development director Brad Raymond, land is leveled when a new residential community begins. That wasn’t the case at Bonner Hills.
“ERC recognized the natural features to preserve,” he said. “The rolling hills and wetlands are still here. It’s development with a sensitivity to the environment.”
The city made concessions, such as using natural drainage features rather than curbed gutters and a storm water sewer system. Street width was reduced to 18 feet.
There were issues with the maneuverability of garbage and fire trucks, Raymond said, but some tweaking to the plans alleviated the concerns.
The site includes four retention ponds, and a few culverts, and riprap is placed in certain areas to address erosion problems.
“It wasn’t an overnight process,” said Bob Fox who represents Bonner Hills. “We’re thankful the developer was willing to work it through and go with a smaller density. It’s one of a kind in southeast Michigan.”
During the tour’s lunch break, Lee Wagner, Macon Township supervisor, spoke about the agricultural land preservation measures in force there. He described them as the strongest in Lenawee County.
Residential splits require 40 acres of land with 300 feet of road frontage.
Wagner said township residents have been surveyed twice to gauge support for the measure and both times the majority favored the law—even non-farming families. The ordinance was formulated when encroachment began claiming farmland.
Wagner said the ordinance has been challenged twice by developers hoping to bring in subdivisions, but the township board has prevailed.
“You never know how good it’s going to work until you get challenged,” he said.
Wagner noted that it works well for Macon, an area without any major roads or communities.
“Every township is different,” he said, suggesting that it wouldn’t be the right fit for every area.
Purchase of Development Rights
Kendra Wills, land use agent for the Kent County Extension Service office near Grand Rapids, spoke about land preservation through the purchase of development rights (PDR).
“Agriculture is expected to soon take over as Michigan’s number one industry,” Wills said. “We need to look at agriculture as an economic development tool.”
Twenty-five percent of the state’s land is used for agricultural purposes, she said, and one in four jobs are somehow linked to agriculture. In Lenawee County, 89 percent of the land is used for farming.
With the PDR program, farmland owners can voluntarily sell the development rights to property at fair market value in return for deeding a permanent conservation easement held by the county. The easement stays on the deed through subsequent sales.
PDR protects the land, not the owner of the land, Wills said. It doesn’t designate a particular use of the land, but it ensures availability for future agricultural use.
Fair market value is the difference between the enhanced value of land if it were sold for development and the basic value if sold for farming.
For example, if land were selling for $5,300 an acre for development and $2,000 as farmland, the development rights would sell for $3,300 an acre.
PDR has been funded by state and federal money, along with local township and private donations.
The afternoon session of the tour included stops at Swindemans’ Applewood Orchards and Gary Iott’s tomato and cabbage farm, both located near Deerfield.a