Rural Smart Growth to reinforce regional placemaking: Part 2

Regions are the smallest geographic unit of sustainable growth and development. Rural Smart Growth strategies combined with urban Placemaking efforts contribute to a region’s quality of life and sense of place.

Conventional commercial development and design-based commercial development in a rural setting. Courtesy of the Center for Rural Massachusetts.

Conventional commercial development and design-based commercial development in a rural setting. Courtesy of the Center for Rural Massachusetts.

The first half of this article highlighted five rural smart growth strategies for communities to engage in to reinforce a regional sense of place. Rural communities should also consider:

  1. Carefully regulate rural commercial development. Poorly planned and designed commercial districts in rural areas can quickly undermine the rural sense of place. Where concentration of commercial development near existing development is not feasible or practical, consider adopting design standards for rural commercial sites that take into account building placement, commercial signage, shared parking, and screening of parking lots from the roadway (see image). Throughout the rest of the jurisdiction, it is important not to stifle entrepreneurial activity that can originate in rural places. Rural communities can reduce or eliminate regulatory controls on home businesses that have no external evidence, such that the activity is permitted by right. For home businesses that have external evidence, create a simple permit review process.
  2. Rural places can also support value-added opportunities in agricultural and forestry enterprises by broadening the definitions of agriculture and forestry to allow more related types of land uses by right. For example, agriculture is a land use and an industry. As an industry, land use policies and regulations should support economic viability in agriculture – the same as is done for other industries. Also, agriculture is not just production of commodities anymore; entrepreneurial/value added opportunities abound and are necessary for farms to stay in business. Processing, manufacturing, marketing, direct sales, agritourism, etc. are all primary activities associated with agriculture as an industry.
  3. Where valuable farms and forests do exist and studies in the master plan support the long-term continuation of such uses (e.g. agricultural land use on prime farmland), take steps to protect such lands through exclusive agricultural zoning or permanent preservation through a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) or Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs.
  4. Rural places have another unique opportunity when it comes to resource production and that is production of alternative energy. Whether used on site or for commercial, utility-scale production, wind and solar energy conversion systems are opportunities for rural places to offset costs and/or increase revenues from the land base. Simple fixes include amendments to zoning that allow small-scale alternative energy production as a use by right and larger-scale alternative energy as a special land use. First, existing data should be studied to determine where the best wind potential exists in the community and the master plan should be amended to add wind and solar energy policy statements, along with corresponding changes to the future land use map.
  5. Another strategy for placemaking in rural communities is to engage in joint planning with neighboring units of government. As the introduction to this article points out, the region is the geographic scale that provides the range of quality of life attributes that attracts new residents and visitors or not.  By engaging in joint planning with urban centers, rural jurisdictions stand a better chance of prospering themselves by retaining rural character, concentrating development where services exist, and keeping costs of service provision from breaking the municipal budget. The community of Fremont (with Sheridan Township and Dayton Township) and the community of Norway (with Norway Township) are excellent Michigan examples of joint planning.

The above ten strategies (see Part 1 of the article) are basic smart growth approaches for rural communities to reinforce a regional sense of place. Combined with urban placemaking efforts, such strategies will help build prosperous, sustainable regions. Still, many other strategies exist and readers are encouraged to study the additional resources referenced at the end of this article. Also, a Michigan State University Extension land use educator can assist communities rural and urban in exploring the best smart growth strategies or placemaking approaches for a particular community based on its unique assets.

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