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Zoning laws.

Those two words alone might not grab your interest.

But watch residents pour into city commission and council chambers when there is some proposed change to the zoning laws in their neighborhood.

Maybe it's deciding whether to allow big-footprint houses and extra-large garages. Maybe it's deciding whether to permit residential and commercial buildings to coexist or how many stories a building may be.

But what one person thinks is a great idea, such as allowing more shops or restaurants into an area, might be a horrible idea to that homeowner who wants to come home to a peaceful street.

Grand Rapids recently implemented a new zoning policy that allows more mixed uses. Director of the Grand Rapids Planning Department, Suzanne Schultz, and University of Michigan Urban Planning Professor Dr. Jonathan Levine joined us today.

Listen to the full interview above.

Just what do you want your city, your community, to look like? Crowded bustling streets? Quiet, residential homes only? Zoning laws determine these things, and although those two words don't sound altogether exciting, zoning laws are creating debate all over the state. We found out more on today's show.

Then, what was that noise outside today? Did you hear it? Sounded like thunder? Well, in this crazy Michigan weather, we're getting thundersnow. We found out about this winter novelty.

And, we spoke with the man who designed and painted the masks on the U.S. Olympic hockey teams. 

Also, we checked in with Daniel Howes on the UAW bid to unionize workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

And, head to Ford Field on Saturday if you want to be part of a world record. ComePlayDetroit is organizing the world's largest indoor yoga session at the home of the Detroit Lions.

First on the show, the state of Michigan is ending its exclusive contract with the Education Achievement Authority to oversee the worst-performing schools in the state.

Michigan School Superintendent Mike Flangan sent a letter to the EAA saying the state will pull out of its exclusivity agreement with the Authority one year from now.

Martin Ackley is with the Michigan Department of Education. He says the state still intends to use the EAA to help turn around struggling schools.

“Now, this is in no way a statement or an indication of a lack of confidence in the EAA or its academic strategies. This is just an action that needed to be taken in order to provide flexibility and to provide options other than the EAA in which to place these most-struggling schools.”

So, what are the other options the state might use to help failing schools? And what's ahead for the controversial EAA?

Jake Neher, who covers Lansing for the Michigan Public Radio Network, joined us today.

James Fassinger / Stillscenes


A meeting of the Detroit Board of Zoning Appeals yesterday resulted in some verbal firework, some confusion, and much scrutiny.

That's because the hearing involved a request from the company that was home to massive piles of petroleum coke last summer. The petroleum coke — or pet coke, as it’s called — is a byproduct of refining heavy crude oil brought in by pipeline from Alberta.

The people who had to live near four-story piles of pet coke, and breathe in clouds of pet coke dust last year before the stuff was moved out, are now watching to see if Detroit Bulk Storage is trying to get pet coke back on the Detroit Riverfront.

Dave Battagello has been tracking this story for The Windsor Star.

Listen to the full interview above.

Grand Rapids will appoint a task force to take a deeper look at how it should regulate people who want to rent out rooms in their homes on popular websites like Airbnb. The websites allow people to rent out a guest room or just their couch for a night or two.

Technically it's illegal in Grand Rapids. The city commission was considering adopting regulations to allow them. But many people renting space said the city fees and taxes wouldn’t be worth the money.

Update 11/20/13: This week Grand Rapids City Commission voted to create a task force to study this issue deeper. See this new post for updated information.

The growing number of people renting out a room or just a couch in their homes on websites like airbnb.com has some cities considering how these set-ups should fit into local zoning regulations, business permits and taxes.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

It now appears even less likely Enbridge Energy will meet a federal deadline to dredge oil from the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. The cleanup is related to the company’s 2010 pipeline spill.

Enbridge wanted special permission from Comstock Township to build a dredge pad, a place to process the waste and truck it to a nearby landfill.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

On Thursday a Kent County district court judge ruled in favor of a farmer with two huge political signs on his property. The signs are critical of socialism and President Obama.

Gaines Township argued what the signs say is not at issue, just the size of them. Under local zoning laws, people can have commercial signs up to 32 square feet, political signs up to 20 square feet.

The township issued Vernon Verduin a citation, since his signs are much larger than 20 square feet. One can see the signs from a nearby freeway.

Some people in Saugatuck Township are pushing township officials to review its zoning laws to resolve an expensive legal case with a private developer.

Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon owns more than 300 acres in the township, including coastal dune land along Lake Michigan. McClendon says Saugatuck Township officials adopted unfairly restrictive zoning laws for his property.

Michigan Islamic Academy

An Islamic school may sue a Washtenaw County township over a zoning decision. The Pittsfield Township Board of Trustees last night turned down the Michigan Islamic Academy’s request for a zoning change that would have allowed the academy to build a new school in the township, just south of Ann Arbor.   

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

A federal judge still has to approve a settlement between a private developer and Saugatuck Township to resolve a long-standing land-use case. But there is already talk of a new lawsuit at the state level if the federal judge approves the agreement.

Steetsboro, Ohio

Zoning is the DNA of a community: it controls how you live, shop, and work.

After nearly a century of many cities separating those uses, now, they’re going back to the future: trying to recreate an old way of life.

Streetsboro, Ohio is one such place.

Drive down its main commercial district and it has nearly every chain store you can imagine: A Walmart and a Target, a Lowes and a Home Depot.

Some call it sprawl. Streetsboro calls it economic development.

This six-lane strip of big box shopping centers has served this city well since its explosive growth started in the 1960s. It just doesn’t look like a traditional town.

The town center is an intersection with a grassy knoll on one side. But Jeff Pritchard is in charge of planning there now and he’s aiming for a future Streetsboro that would look very different.

These big box stores could eventually be replaced by attractive housing and shops. The way towns and cities used to be.

 “A place where they can walk to a corner store, maybe live above a store, says Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “And, those kinds of things, that’s illegal in America today in so many of our communities."

Illegal because of zoning.  In many cities and towns, zoning codes don’t allow living and working in the same place. And, when zoning spread across the country in the 1920s and 30s, that was considered a good thing.

 “ You didn’t want to have a slaughter house next to a residential apartment,” Flint says.

But those issues aren’t as big a deal anymore.

As the Great Lakes region reinvents itself, there’s a growing feeling among planners and thinkers that much of the public wants to spend less time in their cars.

Joe Gratz / Flickr

Monday a federal judge in Kalamazoo will hear arguments in a case that pits Saugatuck Township against a billionaire looking to develop his property that includes coastal dunes along Lake Michigan.

Aubrey McClendon owns more than 300 acres north of where the Kalamazoo River empties into Lake Michigan. He wants to build a marina, condos, houses, and a golf course there.

Township officials have to approve special zoning for him to develop his property. McClendon’s attorney Jim Bruinsma says the officials are biased against his client.

“We contend that we have been unfairly singled out for unique zoning restrictions and really unfair procedures.”

Bruinsma alleges the township worked illegally with an environmental group to restrict development and fund the township’s legal defense.

Saugatuck Township officials deny they’ve done anything illegal. They’re attorney Craig Noland is asking the judge to dismiss the case, forcing McClendon to go through normal zoning procedures. 

“Our position is that they should be required like any other citizen to file an application and allow the township to consider the application and make a decision.”

Noland says Saugatuck Township’s attorney township officials are prepared to handle McClendon’s zoning request fairly and transparently.