New guidebook suggests planning and zoning essentials to protecting water quality

Inclusion of six essential elements in master plans and zoning ordinances can help protect Michigan’s water quality. New water quality protection guidebook can help rural communities understand and include those provisions in their plans and regulations.

Clean lakes, streams and wetlands are vitally important for quality of life and economic development in the New Economy. Local governments have an important role in protecting those resources through their planning and zoning authority.

The new Rural Water Quality Protection Guidebook published by the Planning and Zoning Center at Michigan State University offers six essential elements that are important for rural Michigan communities to include in their master plans and zoning ordinances.

Low Impact Development (LID) is a set of techniques that developers, builders, local governments and regulators can use to minimize the environmental impacts of new development. The primary focus of LID is managing stormwater through site-specific designs. Language can be included in master plans and zoning ordinances that encourages LID approaches as a stormwater management method.

An environmental inventory describes and maps the characteristics and locations of important natural resources within and surrounding the local governmental unit. An inventory includes information about land cover, soils, floodplains, wetlands and unique features. The results of an inventory can be used, for example, to target areas within a community for open space zoning to protect wetlands.

Water quality goals and objectives in master plans identify priorities and establish plans of action to protect community water resources. They also provide the basis for changes in the zoning ordinance and other regulations that help meet goals identified in plans. A statement regarding community intent regarding water quality protection can also be inserted into the purpose section of a zoning ordinance.

Coordinated permitting is an administrative process that gets all of the permitting agencies together to issue approvals in an efficient and timely manner. This approach protects water quality by assuring that needed permits are issued before final zoning approval and building permits are granted. Some communities utilize an environmental permits checklist to help applicants assess what permits they will need and how to obtain them.

Earth change activity is regulated primarily by the Michigan Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act (SESCA). A permit from a designated county agency is required for all earth change greater than one acre, and all activity within 500 feet of a lake or stream. Communities can add soil erosion and sedimentation guidelines to a master plan, and specifically mention SESCA permits in a zoning ordinance.

Accumulation and disposal of waste and junk is more than an aesthetic issue. Harmful substances from waste can leach into water bodies. Junk and waste can be addressed in the general provisions section of a zoning ordinance. Site plan review standards can also require practices to prevent surface or groundwater contamination from hazardous waste storage. Communities desiring the most stringent and comprehensive regulations to address these can adopt a stand-alone ordinance.

The guidebook goes on to describe many other best practices for Michigan communities to consider, especially in rural areas. The Rural Water Quality Protection Guidebook is available as a free download. A related Michigan State University Extension News article provides additional information about the publication.

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