Traverse City News and Events

What’s In A Master Plan?

By Beth Milligan | Aug. 30, 2022

While several local communities including the City of Traverse City, Garfield Township, and East Bay Township are going through a process to update their master plans – crucial policy documents that guide land-use and other decisions – many residents are unaware that their opinions are wanted to help shape those documents or even know what a master plan is. Traverse City officials learned as much when they recently began hosting “pop-up” events at different community locations – an effort they plan to continue this fall to reach and engage as many residents as possible instead of making residents come to them.

Michigan communities are required every five years to review their master plan – a “policy document used by elected and appointed community leaders to guide land-use decisions, including those related to transportation, development, housing, recreation, economy, natural resources, and arts and culture,” according to a City of Traverse City release. A complete rewrite of the master plan, which Traverse City is tackling for the first time since 2009, often takes up to two years to complete and is supposed to “rely heavily on community engagement,” according to the release.

But as City Planning Director Shawn Winter pointed out to planning commissioners at a recent meeting, residents who show up at master planning events are typically those who already know what a master plan is and are heavily engaged with the city. Other residents – who may not have time with work and family conflicts to attend city meetings or closely monitor the workings of local government – may be completely disconnected from the process, despite still being impacted by its outcomes.

“Most people don’t know what the master plan is,” Winter said. “If they haven’t been through (the process) before, they don’t know what it is.” City staff humorously discovered that reality this summer as they hosted pop-up events at community locations like parks, restaurants, and events inviting passersby to weigh in on the city’s master plan. Some thought the term “master plan” referred to a conspiracy theory, while others thought the table was affiliated with a religious group. Many people reacted with skepticism or cynicism, Winter said.

“It can be kind of a triggering phrase,” he said. The reactions have prompted staff to update the booth branding going forward to make it clear it’s officially connected to the city and to add language that reads “Help us plan the city’s future.” The reactions also reiterated the need to commit to an “awareness phase” to help educate the public on what a master plan is and ensure as diverse an audience as possible is involved in updating it, Winter said.

To that end, the city – in connection with Beckett & Raeder, the consulting firm assisting with the master plan rewrite – will continue to host pop-up events, along with a community open house planned for October (details to come). The project team will also launch an online survey in September, use both traditional and social media to reach residents, send out mailings, and post regular project updates and engagements online at a website (TCMasterPlan.org) created specifically for the rewrite process. The website allows residents to subscribe to email updates, including “invitations to participate in every public engagement activity,” according to the city release.

“We are being very intentional about getting out into the community, as opposed to asking the community to come to us,” says City Planning Commission Chair David Hassing. “It is important that we reach folks where they are, to invite as many voices as possible into this community plan for Traverse City.” Winter – noting that Traverse City “exists in a changing world, particularly in recent years,” says the goal is to have a new master plan in 2023 that is “inclusive and supportive” of a broad range of residents. “We need this plan to thoughtfully identify opportunities for improvement, preservation, and transformation in response to our changing economy, climate, and society,” he says.

Other municipalities are similarly exploring ways to reach a broad range of stakeholders in their master plan updates. After collecting input from 655 residents and business owners through a community survey, East Bay Township posted its entire draft 2022 master plan on its website. Staff have been accepting comments by email or mail over a two-month period from residents on the draft (a printed copy of the plan is also available to view at the township hall). Township planning commissioners will review all the comments and hold a public hearing on the draft plan in September, according to Township Planner Claire Karner.

Township staff described the master plan as a “guiding document intended to set forth a community’s vision of its long-term future, usually 10 to 20 years. It covers just about everything – an analysis of the community’s residential, commercial, industrial sectors; transportation; and natural features. Typically, a master plan describes the community, outlines goals and objectives and maps areas of different land uses ranging from agricultural to industrial. Plans for new development are then reviewed to ensure consistency with what was planned.” In sharing with residents how the new master plan will affect them, staff said the document will “set the stage for private investment in East Bay Township, like new housing and commercial redevelopment, the provision of public services, and placemaking initiatives.”

Garfield Township planning commissioners and staff also reviewed at their meeting last week how other community partners will impact – and be impacted by – a new master plan. The board specifically looked at development growth patterns, like the high concentration of new housing projects on LaFranier Road, and how that will impact nearby corridors like Hammond and South Airport roads. As development increases in Grand Traverse County’s fastest-growing community, Garfield Township will need to look closely at the relationship between development and transportation, said Township Planning Director John Sych. That means coordinating with the Grand Traverse County Road Commission, which oversees the majority of the transportation network in the township.  

“Certainly there's a relationship between what we approve in terms of land uses (in the master plan) with the transportation,” Sych said. Projects like a proposed Hartman-Hammond bridge could dramatically affect surrounding neighborhoods, staff noted, just as more housing or commercial developments coming online could drive traffic congestion on key roads. Working with community partners like the Road Commission to ensure those issues are addressed in the master plan can help the township “identify its vision” for the future and work toward “developing a more complete community,” Sych said.

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