2017-09-28 / Views

Are zoning costs out of control in county?

our opinion

It’s perplexing why Leelanau County spends somewhere around $300,000 annually to enforce local zoning laws.

We’re not saying that zoning in general doesn’t serve a purpose, or that all zoning administrators are overpaid.

But we are saying that the cost-benefit ratio seems out of control. That’s the cost of adding nearly four full-time deputies with patrol vehicles to the Sheriff’s Office.

Shouldn’t we be able to find a more cost-effective way to regulate land use?

If not, the reason is zoning has grown complex through the years in both its goals and its interpretations. No better example exists than a Solon Township man’s attempt to gain approval for a large-scale medical marijuana facility.

He wanted to build it in the Agricultural district — basically, erecting a processing plant on farmland. Instead of seeking to change the zoning on his property to industrial or business — or changing the parameters of ag zoning to allow such a facility — he sought to change the ordinance to allow “conditional zoning.”

That’s when just about any use is allowed just about anywhere as long as the Planning Commission agrees.

But wait a minute. Wasn’t zoning created with the intent of avoiding just such a conflict in uses?

Thousands of dollars were spent in trying to fit the square peg in a round hole before the proposal collapsed under its own weight.

So can anything be done to get a handle on the cost to zone?

Among the many planning seminars held and experts hired in the county, we’ve not heard such a question pondered. So we have no path to follow in making some cost-lowering suggestions other than our intuition.

For what it’s worth, here goes.

 Perhaps with 11 township and three village zoning ordinances already in the books, the time for simplicity has come and gone. We hope not. Every five years local governments are required to review master plans, and many follow up by revising their ordinances. We’d suggest a self-enforced “ordinance reduction” movement to reduce the page count of ordinances with the goal of making them easier to understand and enforce.

 Is Solon Township that different than Kasson? Is Cleveland Township that different than Centerville? In Kalkaska County, most townships rely on a county zoning ordinance. Many still-rural townships in Leelanau seem like-minded enough to share ordinances. Or better yet, like-minded townships should consider doing away with their own ordinances while asking the county to create one for the peninsula. Townships and villages could considering opting in or out with the county plan, at their own expense.

 Even if townships and villages kept their own ordinances, they could do more to share zoning administrators and planners. Here we give credit to Suttons Bay and Bingham townships for creating a contractual arrangement to share the services of zoning administrator Steve Patmore and planner Kathy Egan. At one time Suttons Bay Village and Township came close to sharing a zoning ordinance, but unfortunately that effort fizzled.

Township boards should jointly seek resumes and hire zoning administrators and planners to cut their costs.

 Village and township governments should recognize that zoning administrators are both their employees and public officials. In particular, we’re concerned over the five contracts for zoning held by Tim Cypher through his Cypher Group business. Mr. Cypher submits ambiguous invoices that are paid without questions that should be asked. For instance, he submits mileage stipends without saying when or where he went. The same is true for his hourly reports. For the protection of both local governments and Mr. Cypher, more detail should be demanded by township boards.

We also strongly feel that local governments should make it known to zoning administrators that they are public officials. At one time Mr. Cypher told an Enterprise reporter that he was not a public official because he works for his private firm, which is paid by the township. A zoning official must realize that such insulation does not go with the job. Ultimately, zoning administrators are responsible to the residents they serve, not a company they created.

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