2011-02-12 / News

Mackinac Island Master Plan Focuses on Preservation, Maintenance

By Matt Mikus

Mackinac Island’s master plan, being updated for the first time in 12 years and just undergoing a public review, reflects a community in “maintenance mode,” says consultant Fran Brink, one where residents would like to maintain what they have without encouraging further development or expansion. One reason for this, she said, is the fragile balance of a sewer system that’s near capacity, and another is local concern for the impact of development on the island’s physical and historical assets. Overdevelopment and holding the population density to sustainable levels are among concerns identified by residents.

A public hearing on the plan was held February 8, and the Mackinac Island Planning Commission sent it back to the Master Plan Committee for further work. (See story elsewhere in this issue.)

Mackinac Island’s plan focuses on guiding development so as to preserve historical, environmental, and cultural characteristics while providing necessary municipal services. Sewage processing and police and fire services may need to be updated if the Island sees growth in the future. Serving its year-around population of 500 residents and a summer resort population that swells into the thousands, the sewer system is near capacity.

A community’s master plan should be unique to that community, as it reflects its residents’ collective vision for the future, and is used to shape decisions made by city officials as issues come up about local land use planning, growth and development, and sustaining or protecting aspects of the community that its residents think are important, such as landscape features (like waterfront land) or community character (like historic buildings). Sometimes called a comprehensive master plan, it can include such considerations as land use, infrastructure, housing, transportation, parks, and open space. By design, it is required to be updated frequently because needs of communities change, and new state requirements must be periodically adopted.

The guiding plan for the community, it is used to shape its zoning and other ordinances, which have their genesis in the goals laid out in the master plan.

State law requires municipalities to update the plan every five years or lose the opportunity to receive state grant money.

The current master plan was adopted in 1999. A mandatory updating process began in 2005, but was stalled for five years, until May 2010. Finally complete, the updated plan before the public uses citizen input reaching back to 1999, combined with surveys conducted five years ago, in August 2005. Of its information-gathering responsibility, the plan draft says, “Even though these public outreach activities occurred more than a decade ago, many of the comments are still relevant today and are used for comparison to public opinions provided for this current master plan update.”

The process of putting the required update in place has been a long one for the City of Mackinac Island. When the city decided to do much of the work in-house to whittle down the $50,000 price tag set by an earlier consultant in the process, who began working on it in 2005, it learned it could go back to the firm that initially prepared its master plan in 1999, Wade Trim, for an estimated cost of $10,000, on top of the roughly $15,000 it had spent with the first consultant. Already five years overdue on the update and looking for an expedited resolution to the process, in February 2010 the city hired consultant Fran Brink of Wade Trim to guide the update to completion. Mrs. Brink has participated in developing master plans for 20 years, including Alpena Township, Maple Ridge Township, Presque Isle Township, Bois Blanc Township, and Mackinac County.

Every community has a unique process and plan, she notes, but Mackinac Island has features that stand apart from other plans she has worked on. One unusual part of the Island’s plan was the approach to gather public input. During plan development, residents are asked by state law to voice their opinion about what they want to see in the master plan. Communities typically hold public hearings, send out surveys, and host focus groups to gather public input, Mrs. Brink said.

In 2005, Mackinac Island solicited input from three sources, a focus group, public surveys, and a high school survey. Responses included providing better quality of life, restricting development to limited areas, and no development at all. The surveys had 48 respondents.

A survey of students, while not typical in many communities, said Mrs. Brink, has its benefits.

“I think it’s a good idea,” she said, “They’re the next generation of citizens. They should have a say in the development of the community.”

The idea to include student input emerged when school secretary Barb Fisher, who was on the planning commission at the time, brought high school students copies of the original survey for residents. Twenty-eight responses came from the students.

The updated plan summarizes points raised in the 48 citizen responses, noting that citizens suggested the city manage congestion better, restrict development of houses and condo- miniums, add more public toilets, and add more attractions for younger visitors. An improved cost of living, more stores available in winter, more winter jobs, and maintaining the quality of residential neighborhoods were other considerations named by citizens. Expanding downtown amenities and better management of the downtown area, as well as improved housing for citizens, were also suggested.

The master plan committee, in its report in the document, suggests the city balance the rate of land development with the infrastructure and services already available. Specific areas pointed out for improvement are to address the concerns of rooftop clutter that’s visible from elevated areas and debris often found in alleys and behind buildings. The committee wants to see horse and bicycle transportation preserved, while also preserving unique features of the city and its businesses, and mentioned that using “standardized business practices and corporate logos” works against that goal. The city must always maintain an air link to the mainland, survey respondents said, and should further consider the transportation needs of mobility-challenged people.

After reviewing public input from 2005 and earlier, Mrs. Brink saw a few priorities surface. Residents, she said, seek to guide development by limiting its effect on the environment and on the city’s physical and historical characteristics. Residents at the time, she added, said they would also like to preserve a high quality of life and suggested that public services like fire and police may be strained by a growing population.

“They’re in a maintenance mode right now; maintain what you have” Mrs. Brink said of the residents. “They’re not looking for any expansion at this time.”

Committee Chair Mike Hart agrees that overdevelopment and unsustainable density are two of the top concerns on the Island. Even though public input hasn’t been formally collected in five years, he said he’s confident that the concerns and goals of the residents haven’t changed since then.

“The conversation has been ongoing and, even though the formal research was done five years ago, the conversation since then bears that out,” Mr. Hart said Friday, January 14. “The conversation has been among commissioners and just by walking down the street and talking to people. The information that came out [five years ago] is fundamentally born out in conversations we’re hearing now.”

The plan that the committee has worked on reflects these concerns, he said.

“It gives a really clear picture of the potential look of the Island under current zoning, and makes it easy to see the possibilities within the existing zoning structure of what can happen, as far as density downtown and so forth, and points out ways of addressing what could become somewhat of a scary picture. There are concerns on the Island of overdevelopment and unsustainable density. This plan provides a framework for new ordinances to be developed that more comport with what people have expressed as a future vision of Mackinac. How do we preserve the essence of this Island and its community lifestyle?”

Restricting development may be impacted by a shift in housing that the Island is currently experiencing. According to the draft of the city master plan, the community is seeing more seasonal residents convert their homes to year-around dwellings, and new families have moved to yeararound homes in the neighborhoods of Stonebrook, Trillium Heights, Stonecliffe Manor, the Annex, and British Landing. As more year-around homes are developed, whether new or converted from seasonal housing, the city will need to provide the necessary infrastructure.

Specifically, the plan states that the “current capacity of the city sewer system is at least very near capacity. … This must, in fairness, take priority over new development, because it may entail outright loss of homes.” Though the Department of Public Works has undertaken a recent project to update and improve efficiency, the current project will not add the necessary capacity to sustain growth.

Sewage treatment and housing density are the main issues the city needs to address in the future, said Kelly Bean, assistant to the mayor.

“The question is how much more density do we want to allow,” Mrs. Bean said, “and if we allow more, then we need to update the sewage plant.”

The city is required to submit the plan to neighboring municipalities for review as an effort toward regional development harmony. The city council approved sending the Master Plan to Mackinac County, Cheboygan County, Bois Blanc Township, Marquette Township, St. Ignace Township, City of St. Ignace, and the Eastern U.P. Regional Planning and Development for review and comment. So far, the plan has only received comment from the Mackinac County Planning Commission, which said that the overall plan was well put together, but commissioners pointed out parts of the narrative of the plan that weren’t directly mentioned in the goals, like protecting flora and fauna and the importance to Mackinac Island of preserving views of the dark sky. The county planning commission mentioned the City of Mackinac Island may want to address these issues, since they were mentioned in the goals.

“They’re helpful comments, and they’re usually pretty positive,” said Mrs. Brink. “They tend to be things that tell the city ‘you might have forgotten this’ or ‘you may want to add more detail to that.’”

A digital copy of the plan is available for download at the city’s Web site, www.cityofmi.org under press information.

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