Friday, July 6, 2007

Study Should Help Us Keep House in Order

(From the July 12 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I’ve noticed an interesting confluence of information recently that all seems related.

First, I read a study that shows that Ottawa County remains one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. The same study showed that most of the growth is happening in suburbs and townships surrounding core cities.

Then I got my summer tax bill, and observed once again that the majority of the taxes we pay in the summer go toward public schools in one form or another. The township newsletter that came with the tax bill included an item about the completion of a statewide wetlands inventory. It can be accessed at

Finally, I read an article that said Ottawa County will be conducting a housing study. The study will be broken down into four quadrants and consider an economic overview, residents perceptions of the safety and affordability of housing, the potential market for additional shelters and special needs housing, among other things.

The central thread connecting all of these things in my mind is growth, and the potential impact of it. I know that growth is generally a good thing for economic and other reasons. You only have to travel to other parts of the state to experience a depressed, declining city to gain a grateful perspective for the hustle and bustle in the tri-cities. However, promoting and celebrating growth needs to be tempered with some careful consideration of consequences. Or to put it in public relations terms, we need to consider whether all publics benefit mutually from their relationship with the community. This is where the housing study can ensure that our area’s ‘house’ is in order.

A long time ago, when I was a reporter for a newspaper in another city, I covered a city commission meeting at which the plans for a new apartment complex were being discussed. I’ll never forget the audacious words of one councilman who complained that more apartments “cheapened” the culture of the city.

I was living in an apartment at the time.

Such an attitude is dangerous. It shows an elitist perspective that those who live in an apartment or trailer are somehow lesser citizens. We must remember that there is a population for whom an apartment or other rental property is their only option. We should also not make the mistake of assuming that apartment dwellers do not pay taxes—they pay property taxes indirectly through their inflated rent, and they pay income tax as well. That income tax is taken out of paychecks they receive for doing the many service jobs that are so vital to a community. The study should ensure that we have enough quality rental properties to accommodate this hard working yet low-income segment of our population.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what the study uncovers regarding the need for shelters and special needs housing. It is easy and tempting in a small, resort community to assume that the problems of homelessness, mental illness, and physical disability only occur elsewhere. We may be a beautiful community, but we are not Shangra La. There is a practical reality and moral obligation for any community to provide for those who truly need such consideration.

At the same time, we should ensure that we have enough affordable, entry-level home ownership options for people who decide to stay and achieve the American dream in the Tri-Cities. While I don’t begrudge anyone from enjoying their material success, I have to admit it pains me more than a little to see the proliferation of condos and “cottages” in our community, realizing that these are second homes that sell twice what I paid for my primary residence. When I think that some can’t even afford to own their own dwelling, I shake my head. Even though the new developments and monster condos garner all the excitement and attention, the housing study should shine a light on the more important information about the need for shelter and affordable housing.

The wetlands inventory is also interesting related to all of this. Wetlands have both economic and ecological value. People move to our area primarily for all the access to water for sport and recreation. However, it’s been alarming to see the increase in construction closer to or on areas that would seem to be protected wetlands. There’s a trend for people to “build” versus “buy” their homes these days. But in our current market, it would be interesting to know how many existing homes could accommodate new move-ins. It would also be helpful to encourage residents to reside in the urban areas, leaving the wetlands natural for the recreation of everyone, and to provide their vital ecological benefits such as filtering pollutants and providing wildlife habitat.

Finally, I would hope the housing study would look at the impact of added housing and population on our schools as well as demand for infrastructure like roads and sewers. I don’t have children, but I don’t mind paying taxes to support public schools because education of a community’s children has great value to all of us and is a shared responsibility. However, I’m not made of money. I worry that all this growth will soon lead to a millage request to build additional primary and secondary public schools. Also, all the new housing brings more cars and people who need and affect our roads, water supply, sewer systems. The argument is always that growth brings more revenue, but it also necessarily increases costs to a community. What is the tipping point? Are we planning for that? Who will pay for new structures and services—current taxpayers, new residents, developers?

I don’t have all the answers, but I hope the survey asks some good questions. I’ll look forward to hearing the results of the survey and the necessary plans that come from it.