Zoning plays key role in future development

One of the best ways to tell if somebody just moved to the Upper Peninsula is to look at their front yard in midwinter. In a more affable climate, you only shovel your driveway and sidewalk. Up here, you shovel not only the above but all the places into which you’ll have to shovel.

With the help of a consultant, our intrepid city staff and planning commission are currently revising the Marquette’s entire land development code, the city planning equivalent of plowing your front yard. It’s a slog, makes you swear through your teeth and there are definitely other things you’d rather be doing, but the smooth blank space hacked and chiseled from the knee-high drifts of the current code offers the best opportunity that any of us as citizens might ever have to steer the built environment of our city.

A couple of reasons that you should care:

We are a city of variances. The stunning topography and rich history that make our town such a great place to live also produce gerrymandering lots, narrow setbacks and conjoined driveways that create a whole lot of headaches when we remodel or apply for home financing. The new code will reduce many of these outliers, and pull the majority of these properties back into compliance.

Our economy is changing and should change. Traditional services such as education and medicine comprise a large portion of our economy, probably more than they should. If we are serious about deeply diversifying into the smart manufacturing and creative markets, we need to remove redundancies and streamline the startup process.

This doesn’t mean giving carte blanche to anyone who has a money-making scheme, but to provide level ground and a clear path forward for the folks who have the grit and drive and brains to build a business the right way.

Preserve the reasons we are all here in the first place. You don’t meet a lot of people who decided to live in Marquette because this is where the money is. Charm and natural beauty drip from the pores of this city. The character of Third Street, or downtown, the ease of both physical and visual public access to Lake Superior, these are why we are all here. New development is vital to any community’s future, but it can be managed in a way that complements, not covers up, the great things that are already exist.

So why have zoning at all? Why not just let “the market” figure it out?

First, in general, when someone tells you that “the market” will be the best determining force in a situation, it usually means that they either don’t have a good grasp of that situation’s subtleties, or that they have a personal stake in lack of regulation. “The market” is great at determining prices at two rival sidewalk lemonade stands, but not so good at setting height limits for lakeshore property.

The second point involves the way zoning works: You can’t take away anything once it has been permitted. It’s easy to loosen regulations after an initial period of review. It’s borderline illegal, and definitely bad practice, to give the go-ahead to a structural plan and then revoke it later. Nor can city staff or the planning commission dictate what the exact use of a property might be. Today’s jazz bar could be tomorrow’s adult book store. So we err on the side of caution, take a wait-and-see approach and use the Master Plan and land code as our guides.

Your job, average citizen, is to think back to any experiences you’ve had with permits, or building, or refinancing. Be conscious of how your driving routes continuously evolve. Next time you see a crane, think of how the new structure it is building will change your ability to work, commute and park.

Then let us know what you’re thinking. Talk to staff, or a planning commissioner, or come to a meeting and tell us what was, is and will be on your mind. It’s our job to translate your big picture experience and insight into the long-winded technical miasma that is modern zoning code.

You can then go on your merry way, and we will grit our teeth, mutter a light curse under our breath and set back into digging out the city’s next steps, one shovelful at a time.

Editor’s note: Taylor Klipp is a member if the Marquette City Planning Commission.