Whitewater Township's Master Planning Process Crumbles Amidst Discussion About Racial Demographics
By Craig Manning | March 16, 2022
A special meeting of the Whitewater Township Planning Commission imploded last Friday evening, leaving the township down a planning commissioner and without a consultant to lead the remainder of its master planning process. The agenda was a discussion about the township’s efforts to update its master plan, which was last revised in 2015. A heated discussion about racial and ethnic demographic data included in the planning documents led the consultant leading the process to resign halfway through the meeting – and prompted one of Whitewater’s six planning commissioners to quit in disgust just minutes later.
Last year, Whitewater’s planning commission hired Dr. Christopher Grobbel of the Williamsburg-based Grobbel Environmental & Planning Associates to lead the township’s master plan refresh. Grobbel is a retired Michigan State University professor with more than 35 years of experience in community planning.
In a letter sent to the commission last April, Grobbel outlined several updates Whitewater would be required to include in its master plan, per the Michigan Planning Enabling Act. Those requirements include plans for zoning, economic development, placemaking, transportation, blighted areas, and rezoning criteria, as well as updates to township land use policies, visions and goals, and housing/demographic data.
Grobbel presented two documents at Friday’s meeting, one focused on transportation and the other on community demographics. The demographics report broke down Whitewater Township’s population based on age groups, household sizes, incomes, and racial/ethnic composition – among other categories.
“It is important to know the demographic composition of Whitewater Township when planning for its future,” Grobbel wrote in the report’s introduction. “Assessed over time, trends emerge and changes become evident that will most likely effect future land uses and community services…”
Discussions broke down when conversation turned to Whitewater Township’s racial and ethnic makeup, which Grobbel labeled as “predominantly white.” He wrote that, statistically, Whitewater Township has a “racial composition and national origin” that is “relatively similar to Grand Traverse County, with 94.7 percent of the population reported as white, 2.6 percent of the population as American Indian/Alaskan Natives, 0.2 percent reported as black or African American, and 2.5 percent as Hispanic or Latino.”
“I'm opposed to this whole color issue,” Planning Commission Secretary Mike Jacobson told Grobbel. “In my opinion, you're either a citizen, or you're not a citizen. And with this government listing everybody by their color, that's the government and the media promoting racism.”
That comment ignited a heated back-and-forth between Grobbel and several commissioners. Jacobson argued that the report “shouldn’t be about race, one bit” and asked if Grobbel could “word it differently” when presenting that information. Planning Commission Chair Kim Mangus, meanwhile, pushed back against what she referred to as Grobbel’s “interpretation” of the data – such as the “predominantly white” descriptor – and asked if the data could be presented by itself, without analysis. And Commissioner Al Keaton said he found “this race thing” to be “ridiculous,” before stating: “I have a brother-in-law that's black.” (“My sister-in-law is Chinese,” Mangus subsequently informed the room.)
Grobbel told commissioners he was “taken aback” by the comments. He admitted that the Census Bureau’s racial and ethnicity categories were “problematic” and outdated, but stressed that census data was required by Michigan statute as an element of any community master plan. “I'm not inventing [these categories],” he said. “These are the census categories.”
Jacobson argued that “change has got to start somewhere” and that a local unit of government could move the needle by using different terminology. “I would suggest we make a comment [in the master plan], something to the effect that we have…a diverse community.”
“Well, you don’t,” Grobbel replied. “You’ve got a 94.7 percent white [population].”
Mangus interjected that Whitewater’s high percentage of white residents “doesn’t mean we care [about race],” and Jacobson added that, “It’s not like we’re an exclusively white community; it’s not like we don’t let colored people in.”
“If you're going to be this strange on race, we're not going to be able to work together on this project,” Grobbel concluded. “We have a lot of work to do here… These are social constructs imposed by the world on us, and recorded by self-reporting in the census. If you want to have a soapbox to talk about your concerns about people of color or whatever, it's not here. This is not the proper forum.”
Grobbel ultimately resigned from his role and departed, calling the conversation “totally inappropriate” and pushing back against Jacobson and Mangus’s claims that they “have no problem with persons of color.” “If any person of color listened to this conversation, they would take the exact opposite away,” he said.
Following Grobbel’s exit, the planning commission continued working through the materials he’d prepared, going line by line through the demographics document and trimming introductions and analysis in numerous spots. “I'm just hesitant when you're providing analysis as opposed to data,” Mangus reasoned. “I would prefer to err on the side of data, with an individual making their own analysis.”
“I don’t know why we’re discussing changing any of it,” said Commissioner Carlyle Wroubel. “This is just data before we even get into the master plan… This is just background. It's got nothing to do with the master plan, except knowing which way the population is going.”
Wroubel then resigned from the planning commission, saying he’d “had enough of this crap.”
“You people just put up a big argument, got rid of a good man that was helping us, for nothing… There was no reason to say, ‘We’ve got to change it to say we're a [diverse] community.’ We're not!”
A closing public comment session – for which Mangus asked Wroubel to stay in order to maintain a quorum – saw numerous township residents criticizing the commission’s behavior. Several property owners had attended to speak out against a controversial 22-home condo development, which the commission is considering for a 30-acre parcel off Baggs Road. While the development was not on the agenda, residents said they felt the topic was relevant since Whitewater’s existing master plan emphasizes the township’s “rural character,” which a major development might impact.
“That attorney was paid with taxpayer money and walked out because you couldn't listen to him,” said Connie Hymore, a local property owner. “And then when he walked out, you tried to go on with his agenda, what he wrote, and he wasn't there to answer any of your questions because he left. It was embarrassing. I'm ashamed. It makes me question why I want to be a part of this community.”
Mangus ended the meeting by asking for “a little bit of lenience from the public,” citing the fact that the commission has “a lot of very new members, and we’re trying to work with things.”Comment