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A Grand Valley expert is helping a thriving county envision its 'highly dynamic' land use future

  • Ottawa County officials are working to manage land use amid rapid growth.

Posted on January 21, 2020

Ottawa County, home to the Allendale Campus, is the fastest-growing county in the state, according to government data. And, it is one of the top counties for economic investment.

It also is one of the biggest producers in the state for agricultural products, from livestock to blueberries to nursery items.

Finding the best way to manage land use given those different abundances is where a Grand Valley faculty member and his students are getting involved as a way to assist county leadership.

Chad Frederick, assistant professor of geography, and some of his students are working with the Ottawa County planning director to analyze parcels of land to help identify areas for both sustainability and growth.

Studying those potential outcomes is important for government leaders who need to balance the opportunities for increasing tax revenue through development with the benefits of agriculture economically as well as from a lifestyle standpoint.

"We're looking at land use development that maintains the character that we are used to in West Michigan," Frederick said. "What's important to cultural continuity is quality of life."

Paul Sachs, the county's director of planning and performance improvement, said he values the work he is doing with Frederick as well as the students as they get real-world experience.

"The relationship has been outstanding and highly beneficial," Sachs said. "We are able to utilize Chad's expertise as well as the capacity of his students to help us do more forward-thinking, long-range planning from a countywide perspective."

Besides the "highly dynamic land use elements that are coming together" an additional challenge is groundwater depletion in the county, Sachs said. Ottawa County has a significant layer of clay about 70 feet underground, a feature that hinders groundwater recharge.

"Those elements necessitate countywide vision planning," Sachs said. "How do we want to grow into the future to protect our agricultural strengths and still allow economic development to occur while also ensuring everyone has a freshwater drinking supply?"

Those big-picture considerations are part of meetings that county leaders have with representatives from local units of government to discuss how different development decisions could affect the county overall, Sachs said. The analysis that Frederick and the students are doing contribute crucial data for those discussions. 

Striking the right balance for a thriving area such as Ottawa County is a detailed process, Frederick said. For instance, he said it is useful to have a clear line of demarcation between rural and urban areas.

"You want to try to make cities more like cities, and make countrysides act more like countrysides," Frederick said. "When you try to make a rural area act like a city, you get neither, and vice versa."

And while population growth is good for West Michigan, it is prudent to guard against the kind of development that would lead to suburban sprawl, Frederick said, adding that such a scenario could affect how attractive the area is to the next generations. Younger people have shown more of an inclination to want a community where amenities are within walking distance and vehicle commutes are diminished.

Frederick and students have not only worked on the future for Ottawa County but also the City of Hudsonville, which is reimagining its downtown as a more connected and livable space. The Grand Valley team created a booklet explaining the process after interviews with community leaders.

These experiences illustrate why the benefit of the work that he does with students is two-way, he said. Students get practical experience, and he has helped three students land permanent jobs and four others get internships, either in Ottawa County or in a township.

Meanwhile, as officials envision how to keep communities thriving in the future, they're receiving the insight of those who will be "populating planning offices in the next 10 to 20 years," Frederick said.