My Story

Zoning Issue

The Day We Saved Our Neighborhood

By James Donahue

As part of my duties as a news reporter I attended more than just town council meetings. While working in Sandusky, Michigan,  I found that the city had an active Planning Commission that was busy drafting a master plan for future city development.

At the time in the 1970s most towns in the nation were doing this kind of thing. It was a requirement before towns qualified for federal grant money for urban renewal and other community development projects.

Sandusky hired a professional planner to help draft the city’s master plan. One night I attended a commission meeting when this man unveiled the proposed final plan for commission approval. Once accepted by the commission it was to go before the City Council for final approval. After that it would become the official master plan for the city. I was shocked at what this document contained.

While it identified existing industrial properties, residential properties and commercial properties, it also marked the houses in the neighborhood where I lived for a zoning change from residential to industrial. The planner reasoned that these were homes occupied by moderate to low income families and were not as good a tax base as they could be for the city. He felt they could be sacrificed for new industrial development, thus raising the town’s property tax revenues substantially.

What this man and the members of the commission were overlooking was that the people that worked in the factories already in existence were the moderate and low income families that lived in the houses he wanted to demolish. Had they been removed, the workers would have had to move out of town to find homes of comparable value.

A public hearing was set on the master plan.

While it was against protocol for reporters to get involved in the events we reported on, I had a personal interest here. I first wrote a news story, explaining what would happen to the neighborhood if the plan was adopted. Then I went door-to-door throughout the neighborhood, making sure that everybody knew how their homes would be affected. Most of the houses, like ours, were owned by young married couples and were nearly all being renovated. This was an era of home improvement and it was an inexpensive way for just about anybody to own a home.

Thus it was that I led a large delegation of citizens to the hearing. There were so many of us that the meeting had to be moved from City Hall to the Sandusky High School cafeteria. It was a long and heated meeting, with a lot of citizens speaking out against this part of the master plan. I even broke the rules and personally addressed the issue. It was difficult writing that news story and dealing with myself in the story. I don’t remember just how I handled it. Somehow my editor at that time proved to be somewhat understanding and I got away with it.

Our protest was heard and the Planning Commission revised the master plan to leave our residential neighborhood alone. I felt good about that. To this day the homes on those streets remain intact. I did a recent Google exam of the old neighborhood and am happy to report that the homes have all been greatly improved. Consequently, the city’s tax base was improved without having to tear these houses down.