Does zoning contribute to forest parcelization? – Part 1

Michigan forestry professionals recently met to discuss current causes and research about forest fragmentation. Zoning is one of the factors that can influence this issue, both negatively and positively.

Michigan’s forests are growing at a healthy rate, but in smaller and smaller parcel sizes. When forest land is divided and sold, a process called parcelization – managing the resource for forest products and wildlife – becomes more difficult. Reduced land base for traditional forestry threatens sustainability of that industry in some areas. This problem is most acute when parcel sizes become smaller than 10 or 20 acres.

Members of the Michigan Society of American Foresters recently met to discuss these issues. Information presented by Michigan State University Extension, conservation organizations and agencies provided a current update about the challenges associated with these changes in private forest ownership.

Parcelization may lead to forest fragmentation when woodlands are converted to residential use or cleared, creating isolated forest pieces that no longer provide good habitat and diversity for wildlife.

There are many reasons for parcelization: aging landowner population, real estate markets, property and estate taxes, demand for recreation land, and many others. Regardless of the underlying reasons for dividing land, local zoning regulations largely determine the rules for minimum size, location and use of the new parcels. For that reason, zoning can influence parcelization in a negative way, or conversely can help reduce the impact and retain large parcels.

Part of the issue dates back to a 30-year period between 1967 and 1997. During that time, Michigan’s Subdivision Control Act permitted landowners to create a limited number of splits less than 10 acres in size without having to go through the burdensome subdivision process, or, depending on zoning, an unlimited number of parcels larger than 10 acres. Because of this law, a large number of 10 acre parcels were created in Michigan, whether or not there was actual demand for property that size.

Changes to the Subdivision Control act (now the Land Division Act) in 1997 may have remedied part of this situation by changing the formula for creating land splits. Still, many land splits were created during the housing boom.

Another zoning factor contributing for forest parcelization is the trend toward large minimum rural lot sizes – 5 to 10 acres. Many Michigan townships require those large parcel minimums as a way to retain rural character and spread rural housing apart. (Some courts, though, have questioned the public purpose of these mid-sized parcels.) The result on forestland in some parts of the state is significant, with houses sprouting up in the middle of woodlands.

It’s hard to see the impact of parcelization while driving around Michigan’s countryside. Parcel lines are, after all, mostly invisible. The effects, though, are long-lasting. Part two of this article outlines planning and zoning techniques that can help slow the pace of forestland fragmentation in Michigan.

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