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Conserving green space amid housing, development pressure

Traffic flows up and down McRae Hill on U.S.-31, looking north toward Traverse City.
Jan-Michael Stump
Traverse City Record-Eagle
Traffic flows up and down McRae Hill on U.S.-31, looking north toward Traverse City.

Drive far enough north on U.S. 31 and eventually the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay will be revealed.

Anyone who’s not distracted by the view of the water might notice one last green space before getting into the city. This is McRae hill, a property in Garfield Township that has come to represent the intentional use of land in a place where it’s limited and expensive. And it’s not the only one.

The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy wants to purchase parcels of land to preserve. But there’s competition for that land — so much so that the conservancy is changing part of its purchasing structure, according to Jennifer Jay, the organization’s director of communication and engagement.

The conservancy is expecting a $3 million payment from Grand Traverse County after purchasing the former Camp Greilick to resell to the county. If they hadn’t served as the middleman in that property transaction, Jay said a private developer would have purchased the parcel before the county could.

This part is standard procedure.

“This area is under some pretty big development pressure,” Jay said. “There are many properties that are being sold really quickly.”

What isn’t standard is the rapid response fund planned for the money, which allows the conservancy to move faster on “critical” land purchases.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Jay said, referencing two- to three-dozen properties waiting for approval and several more waiting for funds.

“Sometimes those lands come available and we have time to fundraise for their protection,” she said. “Other times, they come available and we have to move much more quickly, and that’s where this rapid response fund comes in.”

The conservancy has a list of properties it intends to purchase when it has enough funds.

Jay said a property makes the list when it has natural elements that need to be protected: The water quality, animal habitats, forests and shorelines all make a property a high priority.

An example is the rapid response fund that started with the county’s payment for purchasing the former Camp Greilick property and, after that, Jay said it will be fundraised for – like everything else.

“Our board will write the policies around that (fund),” Jay said. “We’re a nonprofit with a 501©3, with our own bylaws and a board of directors that’s responsible for such policies.”

It’s standard practice for the conservancy to work with local governments like Garfield Township, she said. They serve five counties and have protected 47,000 acres of land.

“Garfield Township is a really good partner to us,” she said. “They are very receptive to our input and use us, I think, as a resource when they have goals of their own.”

Garfield Township Planning Director John Sych said, when they make plans for land use, his office considers their environmental interests along with development and housing.

Sych said he wants to preserve land, but the need for housing means they have to be creative. Their proposed master plan includes a lot more mixed-use spaces to accommodate both interests.

“This is trying to be more proactive in recognizing that the commercial side of things is uncertain,” Sych said. “For us, it’s important to be thinking of sustainability.

“We have an opportunity … to do this in a way that will be beneficial.”

Grand Traverse County is in a unique position to manage the development pressures because people are moving to – and investing in – the area, Sych said.

Carolyn Ulstad, the Groundwork Center’s Transportation program manager, said she likes the mixed-use spaces that Sych proposed.

Ulstad said she wants to see land preserved the way the conservancy is doing, but the area is still growing. “I think we need (a) greater variety of housing types.

“We’re all different, all our needs are different.”

For example, the idea of a “pocket neighborhood,” or a clustered group of houses or apartments with a shared outdoor space, Ulstad said, could incorporate green space in living areas.

They could also reduce the necessary infrastructure in miles and miles of pipes demanded by standard subdivision setups, she noted.

“It’s a balance of keeping nature – nature – and meeting that housing need,” Ulstad said.

Lauren Rice is a newsroom intern for WCMU based at the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
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