Home > Cultural Movement, Design the Details, Economics, Editorial, Guest Writer > When zoning policies demand large homes, we all lose

When zoning policies demand large homes, we all lose

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Guest Post: The quest for small

~ Guest bloggers, Rolf & Mari von Walthausen 

There has been a lot of talk recently about Leelanau County’s efforts to revive its Economic Development Board (EDB) and create a vision for the County that would bring jobs and young people to the area. As residents of the county we read with interest how the County Commission recently voted to direct the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation to help Leelanau commissioners develop a long-term strategy for economic development (RE).

These are welcome efforts to address the long-standing lack of vision and proactive planning that has led to falling school enrollment, an aging population and an economy dependent on seasonal residents, seasonal jobs and seasonal wages in tourism and agriculture. The current barriers to attracting young families and entrepreneurs to the area to establish new companies include the high price of land, lack of infrastructure (namely broadband) and, according to public officials, “too many regulations”.

Encouraging jobs and luring young people to the County won’t be easy.

For one, creating jobs in an area where people find it difficult to live encourages additional commuting across the region from other counties where taxes and housing are more affordable. Such a situation seems neither desirable nor sustainable with regard to transportation or community development.


An affordable, adorable home.

What’s missing in all the talk of “economic development” is the need for affordable housing and building local community around the towns, villages and economic centers that are already here: A kind of Transition Town Initiative .

Case in point

My wife and I — two ‘young entrepreneurs’ (the kind of folks Leelanau County wants to attract and retain) — several years ago purchased a piece of property in the center of the County with the intent of bringing our livelihoods and desire to live simply and lightly on the land to the local community (N.Express). We discovered supportive neighbors eager to accept us, but making a home on our own land has been a long and difficult process to say the least.

In short, the property had an old dilapidated mobile home on it (ironically a legal dwelling, grandfathered-in) but with a falling ceiling, leaky roof and as Bruce Odom put it, “enough mice in the walls to form their own rodent-sized township.”

The structure was neither safe nor healthy. Furthermore, it was a blight on the community. With the help of Odom Reuse, Bay Area Recycling for Charities and SEEDS-Youth Corps we held a “Trailer Razing” party and deconstructed the blight. In its place we moved in an attractive, totally green, non-toxic energy-efficient small dwelling that was built on skids and delivered on a trailer. The only problem? It’s illegal! The township now requires a minimum dwelling size of 800 square feet, and ours is 240.

Illegal to live in tiny homes, really? 

We asked, “what is the rationale for 800 square feet?” Turns out nobody in our Township knows as the code hasn’t been questioned or changed in 34 years. In fact, nobody in any of the surrounding 10 townships we surveyed in Leelanau County knows why their zoning ordinance is what it is (each township has a different minimum dwelling size, ranging from zero — no minimum — to 1,000 square feet).

Conjecture is that this was an attempt, back in the 1970s, to “zone out” mobile homes. Trouble is, mobile home manufacturers simply increased the size of their single-wides to accommodate the new “restrictions”. The other speculation for minimum dwelling size is the impact on property values. What if someone builds a 400 square foot cottage next to a 4,000 square foot summer home? Turns out we all learned the hard way that property values rise and fall independent of such factors. You don’t have to look back in history very far at the boom/bust cycles of the past 40 years; the last 4 tell the story.

Tiny home story made short


Illegal dwelling?

Recently, the Zoning Board of Appeals wasn’t persuaded by our desire to use fewer resources and leave a smaller footprint on the land. They also weren’t moved by the pleas of 29 of our neighbors, friends and residents who showed up on a cold, snowy night to speak in favor of granting us a variance. However, we have discovered the Planning Commission is open to reviewing the case.

The Planning Commission is where citizens can take a proposal (in this case, a proposal to reduce or eliminate the minimum square footage requirement for dwellings) and depending on its merits and the makeup of the commission (who are all citizen volunteers) receive a hearing and consideration for amending the code.

If, after studying our proposal and researching the issue, the Commission decides to recommend to the Township Board that the zoning ordinance be amended to allow for smaller dwellings, a public hearing will be announced followed by a review by the County and finally a vote by the Board.

We’re hoping that the end result we’ll be able to legally dwell in our 240 square foot dwelling, but even if the zoning ordinance is changed to allow for houses slightly larger than ours but less than the current 800 square foot minimum it will make it a bit easier for people to afford to build, maintain and live in a home that is right-sized for their needs, built with quality and not size in mind, and without going into such enormous debt.

This should be welcome news for County Commissioners as it means not just young people but folks of all ages will have a better opportunity to share in the economic success of the area they’d like to call home and participate in the process of transitioning to a more local and sustainable economy.

Rolf is a pianist and piano technician and Mari is a yoga at Yoga for Health in Traverse City who is training to at Tom Brown’s Tracker School. Both she and Rolf continue to dedicate their lives to learning how to live as simply and connected to the earth as possible.


Guest Bloggers: MyWHaT is always interested in new perspectives. If you’re even a little interested in throwing out an idea, your story, manifesto, or whatever…please don’t hesitate to send a message of interest. 




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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are that of the author and do not represent the opinions of writers previously published here or any of the organizations, committees, commissions or other affiliation the authors may belong to, unless so stated. 

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  1. May 22, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Any word on if you were able to change the minimum sq ft of a dwelling. I am in the same situation and today my variance was turned down too claiming that my 10 acres is able to support the full size dwelling. I claimed that is causes an earth hardship with more drain on our precious resources to heat and build the required structure. So just wondering if you have had any luck with this? Thanks.

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