Michigan Farm Bureau wants to increase the number of farmers serving in government 20% by 2022. This is part of a series of articles aimed at informing Farm Bureau members about elected and appointed positions that offer opportunities for representing agriculture in government.
By Matt Kapp
Do you want to preserve your community’s rural and agricultural heritage? Interested in hosting agritourism activities like on-farm weddings or other value-added activities to diversify revenue from the business that keeps the family farm in your family for future generations?
Does your township allow such functions within their agricultural zoning district? Interested in solar or wind energy, but can’t move forward because of zoning restrictions?
If so, you should seriously consider lending your voice to your township or county planning commission, where decisions are made about local-level land use regulations and potentially restrictive zoning ordinances are drafted.
Without farmers’ valuable input, planning commissions can make farming harder than it already is — and potentially much harder than it needs to be.
Township-level planning commissioners are appointed by the township board and are responsible for developing the municipality’s land-use policy.
Commissions vary in size from 5-11 members, with each member typically paid a per diem for their service ($100 per meeting is an example). Per state law, standard terms of service are three years, although there are exceptions.
Charlevoix County Farm Bureau member Dave Skornia operates a 250-acre diversified crop and livestock farm, and has served on the Bay Township planning commission for about 18 years, including 12 as chair.
“Like most municipal governments, townships have legislative, executive and judicial branches,” Skornia explains. “Planning commissions are on the legislative end, charged with creating or amending zoning ordinances. The township board is the executive branch and the zoning board of appeals is the judicial branch.”
Other planning commission duties include issuing special land-use permits to allow uses not allowed ‘by right’ in a particular zoning district — a common example being the incorporation of agritourism uses in areas zoned for agriculture. Further responsibilities include site-plan reviews for potential land development or use and, with input from township residents, the development of master plans.
“Master plans are state-required documents that guide growth and, more importantly, provide residents with a means for expressing their preferences.
“It’s a good system. In our township, 'rural atmosphere' scores very high on community surveys,” Skornia said. “At one time our zoning ordinance contradicted the master plan and wasn't favorable to the modern agriculture needed to maintain rural atmosphere.
“Some of the ordinance was ridiculous. It was once interpreted that you had to have a house to have buildings on a site. Well, in an agricultural area, why would we require that? Someone might want to have a barn without a house, so we amended that language.”
Respecting and safeguarding the local community’s preferences and priorities is vital in local governance, and sometimes that means putting a critical eye toward outsiders’ ideas.
“As a planning commission, we would not have been able to accomplish what we have without the assistance of a professional planner. This is where it’s critical to have a voice representing agriculture — to make sure your township isn’t guided away from favoring agriculture.
“It's okay to butt heads sometimes with a planning consultant to make sure what’s important to your community is understood. One time I had to speak up when someone proposed we ban GMO crops in our agriculture zone.”
That’s the kind of practical, common sense farmers bring to any level of government.
It’s a good project for your county Farm Bureau to look at your townships with agricultural land and see if a farmer is representing the industry on those boards.
“Find a farmer to serve in your township,” Skornia said. “It’s not too painful — it’s a must to protect our way of life.”
Matt Kapp is MFB’s Government Relations Specialist.
Local government positions examined in this series (and more