Canton resident Dick Dionne turns off of Warren Avenue and onto a Ridge Road. The narrow, gravel thoroughfare passes the occasional driveway, but mostly it travels past trees with bare branches.
“In the summer once the leaves leaf-out, in this area we would be in a tunnel because there would be greenery to the side and completely over our heads,” Dionne says.
This roadway is a Natural Beauty Road. The designation was created under a state act in the 1970s to highlight and offer some protections for roads with extensive native vegetation. According to guidelines established by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the speed limit on natural beauty roads should be reduced to 25 mph. The guidelines also limit mowing, suggest tree trimming and removal “only when necessary for safety of the traveling public and vehicles,” and ban the use of herbicides. If these rules are ignored, violators could be ordered to stop or fined up to $400.
In the early 1990s, residents living around Ridge Road banded together in an attempt to designate it and three others as Natural Beauty Roads.
Back at Dionne’s house, he opens up a hefty binder with laminated pages.
“This was the evidence if you will – the foundation, the basis for the roads having been designated,” he says.
He flips past the section for Joy Road, past Napier to the tab marked “Ridge.” The pages are so heavy, he lets out a little grunt while flipping them.
“Here we are,” he says.
Dionne lands on a map of a bird’s-eye view of the trees and plants along the roadway. Accompanying them are photographs of vegetation. There are several pages like this, depicting the entire roadway in great detail.
“For the most part, the vegetation consists of a repetition of hardwood tree species. In the spring, there’s an extensive array of native wildflowers,” says Dionne. “The ones that are in the ‘do not pick’ category are bloodroot, columbine, trout lily, swamp milkweed, Jack-in-the-pulpit, large-flowered trillium and then purple trillium.”
Trillium is protected in Michigan. According to a newsletter mailed out to Northwest Canton homeowners in 2010, it wasn’t the only protected plant found on the four roads. Neighbors documented 13 more types of protected plants, 106 non-protected plants and 140 kinds of animals, birds and insects.
The careful cataloging worked. Ridge Road and the three others (Napier Road from Ann Arbor Road south to Warren; Joy Road from Ann Arbor Road to Ridge Road; and Gyde Road going east about a half mile from Ridge Road) were designated Natural Beauty Roads in Wayne County. To date, the county has only one other Natural Beauty Road, located from Beck Road to Clement Road.
Dionne says he thinks the Natural Beauty Roads are wonderful.
“There is still a rural feeling to part of the area.”
But some of Dionne’s neighbors are worried that might change.
That’s because a developer – Pulte Homes - has been acquiring land located near Ridge Road. Part of the land the company wants to buy is zoned “rural residential,” which means it only allows for a maximum of one house on every two acres. In order to complete the sale, the family that currently owns the land has requested to change the zoning of the land to allow for twice as many houses. This kind of a change requires a public hearing in front of the Canton Township Planning Commission.
In Canton’s Administration Building on January 7th, eight commissioners sit in front of an audience. The chairman calls residents up one at a time, starting in the first row.
Pam Mincher lives in Plymouth Township about 300 feet north of where Ridge stops being a Natural Beauty Road. She says she was involved with the group that fought for the natural beauty status.
“It’s a unique part of the township, you’re never going to get that back. And I just hope you can keep the low density and I would hope you would leave the zoning as is, thank you,” says Mincher.
Canton resident Sally Mitchell lives about a half a mile east of Ridge Road. She’s not a fan of the housing developments that have already been built around her.
“I do live on Joy Road and there are two Pulte subdivisions that have gone up. I know that Joy Road was rural at one time. It’s now not. Pulte has brought suburbia into our area and I just caution so you don’t let that happen on Ridge Road,” says Mitchell.
Donald Garlit is at the meeting representing his neighbors on Shenandoah Circle, a development off of Ridge Road. He says they oppose the zoning change because they’re worried about how development could impact the unique road.
“There are only 3 miles of natural beauty roads in Wayne County. There are only 200 in the entire state and we don’t want to see those degraded,” says Garlit. “Placing more subdivisions in this area of the township will result in more traffic on the natural beauty road which will physically and environmentally degrade the area.”
Richard Rowe says he shares the longest common boundary with the property in question. He says he moved to the area in 1991, because it was the most rural part of town.
“We have llamas right now. We have chickens. We have roosters that crow that might bother neighbors, if they get too close,” worries Rowe.
Junie Morrow lives right on the Natural Beauty Road. She says when she first moved there, on the east side of Ridge Road, it was farmland. But now, she says, there are “huge subdivisions in there. We’re covered with subdivisions all over the place. Are they trying to run us out?”
“We hear these kinds of statements pretty much every time we’re asked to consider a new development, in an area which is surrounded by people who already live there,” Commissioner Dawn Zuber tells the audience after the public hearing portion of the meeting closes. “It’s always challenging for us because as humans, as your neighbors, we hear what you’re saying. But as planning commission members, we are limited to what we can actually consider.”
The proposed zoning change is in line with the township’s future land use map in the master plan. And there are already some subdivisions located near the property. That means the planning commission pretty much has to allow the zoning change. If they don’t, they might open the township up to being sued by the developer.
All eight commissioners present vote in favor of the zoning change to allow for more housing.
If people living by Ridge Road want their area to stay rural, they can try voicing their opinions at hearings for Canton’s master plan. The document will be reviewed in 2022. Until then, the master plan as it stands is to guide land use decisions in the township like this one.
Canton By Design
In his third floor office that overlooks a subdivision, Canton Township Supervisor Pat Williams takes out the future land use map from the master plan. On it, there is no land designated to be used for agricultural or rural land in the future.
“Canton Township, by design is not intended by our master plan to be a rural community,” Williams explains. “We are an extension of suburbia and the lowest density areas that are left in the community, according to the master plan, are R1 – one home per acre.”
In Canton, new residential growth between 1990-2001 resulted in a loss of almost half of its agricultural and vacant land, according to its master plan. Since then, the average size of new houses has grown, and so have their accompanying lots.
Williams says Canton is a desirable place to live, because it’s surrounded by Detroit, Ann Arbor, universities, hospitals, and well-paying automotive and IT jobs. Plus, he says, Canton has great schools and is safe.
“So the market dictates, not necessarily government, the market has guided us to where and what should be in Canton Township over the last 30-40 years,” explains Williams.
I ask him if he’s worried at all about the loss of natural space in the township.
“No. It’s not a loss,” he says. “I have behind me, still, 14 acres that is yet to be developed. I know someday I’m going to wake up and I’m going to be looking at a home very similar to mine behind me. But in the mean time I’ve got deer and coyote, they travel through every day. Yes, I enjoy nature, but it is disappearing in Canton Township. And it will continue to,” he says.
Canton’s own master plan states: “As development continues toward the west and begins to encroach on the community’s open space and natural amenities, it will become increasingly important and difficult to balance the demand for new residential growth and the township’s goal of preserving these natural features and retain the semi-rural character of the community.”
But Williams says, township officials are trying to strike a balance.
“We strongly encourage anybody that’s looking to develop a property to talk to the neighbors before they go public with their plans. In almost every instance where the developer works with the neighboring communities, they come up with agreements on how to separate the properties, to put berms in, trees, planning landscaping, that will make the transition from the existing properties to the new development more palatable” he says.
In the case of Ridge Road, Pulte declined to comment for this story. But Williams says, based on meetings he’s had with the developer, he believes Pulte will be reaching out to residents living around the road and will likely offer to plant additional native trees.
The next step in the process is to submit a site plan review to the township. Construction of the new homes likely won’t start until 2020.
Why did we choose Canton? Canton was selected as a featured area for Crossing the Lines due to its dramatic economic and developmental growth, as well as its rapidly increasing diversity.