Berrien County commissioners discuss new master plan

Published 12:15 pm Friday, January 20, 2023

ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Commissioners got a sneak peek at the county’s new master plan Thursday. The final draft of the plan is scheduled to be presented to the board’s finance committee next week and the full board Feb. 2. 

Community Development Director Dan Fette gave an overview of the proposed new master plan to commissioners Thursday morning. He outlined the process of how the plan was developed and then highlighted what’s in it. 

Fette said work on the new plan was kicked off in August, 2021 and began with community meetings as well as data collection about everything from population and demographics to housing, trails and traffic patterns. The last major plan revision was done in 2009 with a minor revision done in 2015. 

He said county planning commissioners and staff reviewed municipal master plans for common themes and followed that up by conducting an online survey and having conversations with local leaders. He said the survey showed that the quality of life issues most important to respondents were affordable housing, security and safety and job opportunities. 

He told commissioners that people answering the survey want the county to encourage both single family housing and multi-family developments as well as enhance business opportunities in the restaurant and manufacturing sectors. 

The plan’s four main elements are housing, economic development, natural features and land uses and community facilities such as transportation and infrastructure, he said.  

Housing goals include having livable, safe and affordable housing stock, enabling the development of a variety of housing types and having second or seasonal homes well maintained and appropriately regulated.  

With economic development, Fette said the planning commission itself made sure the new plan includes language about agriculture and agriculture related businesses. Such ventures should be vital, strong and supported in the county. 

In the natural features and land uses section, the plan supports efforts that promotes development that reduces sprawl and preserves natural resources and having the county provide guidance to local municipalities. 

With the community facilities, transportation and infrastructure section, the county will promote the use and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure, support community collaboration to provide services to people, promote trail and public transit efforts and make sure utilities in the county meet the needs of residents. 

Fette told commissioners that comments were received and incorporated from Be Healthy Berrien, Friends of Berrien County Trails and the Southwest Michigan Regional Planning Commission. The plan now totals 88 pages. 

Also Thursday, commissioners discussed their 2023 meeting schedule. The night meeting topic remains up in the air with commissioners disagreeing on how many night meetings there should be and where they should be. The topic first came up last week when a St. Joseph area resident encouraged the board to hold more night meetings. 

County Commissioner Jim Curran from Niles Township said he’d like to see just two night meetings held in the home areas of the two new commissioners, Alex Ott of Sawyer and Chokwe Pitchford of Benton Township, and do away with the rest.  

“I’m opposed to a number of night meetings, I don’t know if they’re productive and they are a strain on the staff,” Curran said. He and others pointed out that committee meetings are normally not held when there’s a night meeting and other sites don’t allow for the board meeting to be livestreamed. 

County Board Chairman McKinley Elliott told commissioners to think about the options and expect a board discussion on the topic in February. Besides Curran, some favored having more night meetings at the Administration Center in St. Joseph so they can be broadcast on YouTube, while others liked the idea of traveling to different parts of the county. 

In action Thursday, commissioners approved literacy classes and the Fresh Start Program for jail inmates, approved the county hazard mitigation plan, applied for a beach wheelchair grant for Silver Beach County Park and approved a resolution supporting state park grant applications by local municipalities.