The Commissioner — Fall 2012
Canton, Michigan, Planning Commission
By Karen Finucan Clarkson
Consistency is key to the planning commission's success in the Charter Township of Canton, Michigan. "The commission has never made a decision inconsistent with the [comprehensive] plan — and that's phenomenal," says Jeffrey A. Goulet, Canton's community planner. "The plan is used to communicate goals and guide decisions."
"It's important to maintain consistency — to understand what was done in the past and how, if you make a change, it will affect the future. There must be a sense of fairness. With fairness comes respect," says Craig Engel, vice chair of the township's planning commission.
Although it lacks authority to make final determinations on anything other than the comprehensive plan, Canton's commission is a highly regarded and trusted advisor on planning and land-use matters. Township "trustees have enough on their agenda so, when it comes to new development or ordinance updates, they count on us to have gone through things with a fine-tooth comb," says Greg Greene, commission chairman.
"The board doesn't usually make changes," says Goulet, noting that trustees recognize that the commission's decisions reflect community aspirations. Those decisions often follow negotiations with developers. "That might mean requesting additional landscaping, buffers, or amenities. Most developers don't want to be held up and will do what the planning commission asks, provided it's within reason," he says.
"It's rare that project sponsors come before us and try to railroad an inferior product," says Greene. "They know we're looking for projects with elements that will benefit the community." One of those elements is compatibility. "We always ask ourselves, 'What will this look like to the rest of the community?' Compatibility is more subjective but we feel it's important to consider as we grow as a community."
The planning commission's seven members are appointed by the township supervisor and ratified by the trustees. One member must be township trustee; another must sit on the Zoning Board of Appeals. "As a result of those liaisons, we have three boards communicating well with one another," says Goulet.
Planning commissioners serve three-year staggered terms with no limit on reappointment. "We try to get a broad spectrum of backgrounds and experiences as the commission is supposed to be representative of the entire 36 square-mile township," says Goulet.
While some have prior knowledge of the built environment, others have only a passion for community service. "We require new commissioners to go through the [APA] Michigan Chapter training program," says Goulet. "Some go beyond that." Engel, the commission liaison to the zoning board of appeals, opted for a two-month citizen-planner course through Michigan State University Extension.
While commissioners receive a $65-per-meeting stipend, they are expected "to drive the community and look at sites to gain perspective and understand the context of applications," says Goulet. "That understanding helps them come up with questions that will pull out the intent of the developer and make decisions that reflect the community's wishes."
Looking to Canton's Future
In the throes of updating its comprehensive plan, the planning commission in the Charter Township of Canton, Michigan, will pay close attention to the new census data and trend analysis prepared by the municipality's Planning Services Division. In Canton, "the plan drives decision making," says Jeffrey A. Goulet, Canton's community planner, "so it needs to reflect community needs and desires."
Michigan law requires comprehensive plan updates every five years. "We're looking at adjustments in density limits or changes that will allow more or less flexibility in order to drive development in the right direction," says Goulet. Still, he adds, "we don't see many changes to the future land-use map."
While residential development has dramatically decreased over the past few years, demand is slowly rising. So, during the plan update, the commission will "look at density levels and the type of product to determine where development is best suited. . . . Our master plan dovetails very closely with the utility master plan to make sure we don't get in trouble from a public utility standpoint," says Goulet.
Situated midway between Detroit and Ann Arbor, Canton is home to more than 90,000 people. The median household income — above $80,000 — makes the community attractive to retailers. IKEA, one of Canton's largest employers, is among some 300-plus retail enterprises in the community. While there is some room for redevelopment in the central business district, it's in southern and southwestern Canton "along Michigan Avenue where there's a lot of open area and former farmland not being utilized," says Greg Greene, planning commission chairman. "If the economy starts picking up, we'll see a lot more residential there as well as retail and other business uses."
An improved economy might also lead to the revival of plans to build a hospital in Canton. "Given the population of the township, a major hospital would be most attractive. It's a 25- or 30-minute drive to the University of Michigan Hospital. So having one here is something we're working toward," says Craig Engel, planning commission vice chairman.
"We're always trying to maintain the right type of mix between industrial, retail, commercial, and residential," says Engel. "What we have in Canton is a well-maintained community with different industries and a housing stock of as high a quality as it can be. It's a very stable community."