Tools & Techniques>Rural Character and Land Use Regulations

What is Rural Character?
Click here to view full size picture The following information was adapted from "Watershed Resource Papers" developed for the Dowagiac River Watershed Project by Langworthy, Strader, LeBlanc, & Associates, Inc.

Michigan's diverse landscapes, including its shorelines, riparian areas, open fields, forests, and farmlands, draw residents to a variety of rural areas throughout the state. Rural character is many times a perception unique to the individual. One person may interpret rural character as having a low density of development; another may only recognize it where there is a complete absence of man-made features, such as signs and buildings.

But regardless of any individual interpretation of rural character, it remains true that as more people are attracted to rural areas, preserving the unique character of an area becomes more of a challenge.

Ultimately, it is the community's own definition of rural character that is the single most important part of its preservation. It is up to each community to decide what its rural character is and subsequently, how it can be preserved. For example, definitions of rural character may include the following elements:
- tree-lined streets
- farmlands
- woodlands
- clean air and water
- undeveloped open space
- natural streambanks
- natural lake shorelines
- outdoor recreation opportunities
- small villages and communities
Land Development Options
Development Regulations

Land Development Options

Increasing lot widths can have the effect of separating the distance between homes to allow for a more "open" feeling. This would require changing the applicable zoning requirements along certain defined roadways (generally county arterial roads). Other applicable provisions for these fronting lots could include such elements as:

Increased lot width and/or area.
Greater setback requirements.
Provisions minimizing urban vegetation (manicured lawns, flower gardens, etc.) and preservation of larger trees in areas visible from the roadway.

However, simply changing the district requirements would mean that the width requirements would apply to all roadways. Therefore, to make this regulation more effective, and to discourage development along the roadway, a companion change to encourage development throughout the site may be needed. This could be accomplished by decreasing the lot frontage required on roads that are part of the development project. Again, this does not imply that the site density needs to be greater, only that the lot widths for interior streets be less than what is required along the arterial roadway.

Implementing these provisions requires adoption of an "overlay" district that would apply to residential zone districts along arterial roadways. Lots fronting on the interior streets would require less widths and setbacks.

Another provision that could be implemented would require a minimum development setback for residential projects of more than a single lot. The setback would require that no building that is part of the development could be nearer to the arterial roadway than 200-300 feet. (The weakness of this provision is that it would be more difficult to apply it to individual home sites.)

Other provisions applying to this setback area would be that no native or natural vegetation be removed from the setback, nor any grading or changes in topography occur, except that necessary for entrance roads. The Ordinance could allow the Planning Commission to modify this requirement if the developer demonstrated that the clearing of existing vegetation would contribute significantly to the purpose and objectives of the development.

Or, the Planning Commission could reduce the setback if existing landscaping provided a natural screen, or the proposed development provided a landscape screen. There should, however, still be some minimum setback. This provision would also have to include some allowance for lot variations so that the overall density permitted by the Ordinance could be maintained.

There could be further incentives for the clustering of residential units, also known as "open space development." Under this development technique the "base density" is based on a "parallel plan" showing reasonable and permissible development under existing zoning. While Open Space Development may increase the net density for a smaller area of a larger parcel, the overall density would still fall into the requirements of the existing zoning.

It would also allow for the preservation of significant natural features, provide open space for recreation, or allow the continuation of farming on interior land areas. To preserve the roadside character, some or all of the required open space could be placed abutting the roadway.

Currently, open space development in western Michigan is not particularly prevalent, or indeed, attractive to home buyers. One of the reasons that many buyers are looking in the rural areas is to avoid being too near other homes. Unlike eastern Michigan, where land values are generally higher, open lands are abundant in western Michigan and land prices are very reasonable.

However, there is a segment of the marketplace that can appreciate the value of preserving larger open spaces within a development. Therefore, offering of incentives to developers for using this development technique is appropriate. The basic incentive to which developers will most readily respond is an increase in the number of units which could be permitted over the base density calculated under the parallel plan. This is generally considered a development "bonus."

The amount of the bonus may vary depending on the nature of the development, and they may be used in combinations of one or more different incentives. As an example, incentives may include an increase in the number of units if:

- additional open space is provided, beyond that normally gained in the lowering of individual lot sizes;
- a community wastewater and/or domestic water system is used (avoiding the need for septic systems and individual wells);
- recreational amenities are provided, such as tennis courts, club house, or other similar facility;
- walkways, trails, or bike paths are included within the development;
- significant areas of active agricultural lands are preserved; and
- where appropriate, commercial uses may be permitted (usually subject to certain restrictions to limit size and effect on the area).

Development Regulations

A tree preservation ordinance can be implemented to reduce the number of trees removed from a new development site. Tree ordinances can be general or more specific. A more general tree ordinance can refer simply to the natural features of a site. If a more general ordinance is preferred by a community, then a natural features inventory and a site design that incorporates natural integrity are usual requirements. If a more specific ordinance is desired, regulations can be incorporated that restrict the number and size of trees that are removed from a site or require the planting of additional trees or vegetation to mitigate trees that were removed during site development.

PDR and TDR programs may also be used to promote rural character. (A detailed discussion of these programs may be found in Watershed Resource Paper #2, Open Space Protection.) Generally, these programs have not been highly successful in simply preserving open spaces or rural character since their implementation is usually directed toward the preservation of valuable farmland resources. Of the two, TDR probably has the greatest potential to reduce development density in selected areas, but this would require that additional legislation be enacted in Michigan enabling transfers to happen. It also assumes that the community has areas where higher densities would be acceptable.
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