Whitewater Township Master Planning Process Collapses Amid Racial Demographics Talk
A special meeting of the Whitewater Township Planning Commission imploded last Friday night, leaving the township without a planning commissioner and a consultant to lead the rest of its master planning process. On the agenda was a discussion of the township’s efforts to update its master plan, which was last revised in 2015. A lively discussion of racial and ethnic demographics included in planning documents led the consultant leading the process to resign halfway through the meeting – and prompted one of Whitewater’s six planning commissioners to resign in disgust minutes later.
Last year, the Whitewater Planning Commission hired Dr. Christopher Grobbel of Williamsburg-based Grobbel Environmental & Planning Associates to lead the update of the township’s master plan. Grobbel is a retired professor from Michigan State University with more than 35 years of experience in community planning.
In a letter sent to the commission last April, Grobbel outlined several updates that Whitewater should include in its master plan, in accordance with the Michigan Planning Enabling Act. These requirements include plans for zoning, economic development, placemaking, transportation, degraded areas, and rezoning criteria, as well as updates to township land use policies, visions, and goals. , and housing/demographic data.
Grobbel presented two papers at Friday’s meeting, one focused on transportation and the other on community demographics. The demographic report has broken down the population of Whitewater Township by age groups, household size, income, and racial/ethnic makeup – among other categories.
“Knowing the demographic makeup of Whitewater Township is important when planning for its future,” Grobbel wrote in the report’s introduction. “Assessed over time, trends emerge and changes become evident that will most likely affect future land uses and community services…”
The talks broke down when the conversation turned to the racial and ethnic makeup of Whitewater Township, which Grobbel described as “predominantly white”. He wrote that, statistically, Whitewater Township has a “racial makeup and national origin” that is “relatively similar to Grand Traverse County, with 94.7% of the population reported as white, 2.6% of the population as Native American/Alaska Native, 0.2% percent reported as Black or African American, and 2.5 percent as Hispanic or Latino.
“I’m opposed to this whole question of color,” Planning Commission Secretary Mike Jacobson told Grobbel. “In my opinion, either you are a citizen or you are not a citizen. And with this government listing everyone by color, it’s the government and the media that are promoting racism.
That comment sparked a heated back-and-forth between Grobbel and several commissioners. Jacobson argued that the report “shouldn’t be about race, kinda” and asked if Grobbel could “word it differently” when presenting this information. Planning Commission chair Kim Mangus, meanwhile, pushed back against what she called the Grobbel’s ‘interpretation’ of the data – such as the ‘predominantly white’ descriptor – and asked if the data could be presented. alone, without analysis. And commissioner Al Keaton said he found “this race thing” “ridiculous”, before declaring: “I have a brother-in-law who is black”. (“My sister-in-law is Chinese,” Mangus told the room afterwards.)
Grobbel told commissioners he was “baffled” by the comments. He admitted that the Census Bureau’s racial and ethnic categories were “problematic” and outdated, but pointed out that census data was required by Michigan law as part of any community master plan. “I do not invent [these categories],” he said. “These are the census categories.
Jacobson argued that “change has to start somewhere” and that a local government unit could move the needle by using different terminology. “I would suggest that we make a comment [in the master plan]something to the effect that we have…a diverse community.
“Well, you don’t,” Grobbel replied. “You have 94.7% white [population].”
Mangus added that Whitewater’s high percentage of white residents “doesn’t mean we care [about race]and Jacobson added that “it’s not like we’re an all-white community; it’s not like we don’t let people of color in.
“If you’re going to be that weird in racing, we can’t work together on this project,” Grobbel concluded. “We have a lot of work to do here… These are social constructs imposed on us by the world, and recorded by self-reporting in the census. If you want a platform to talk about your concerns about people of color or whatever, it’s not here. This is the wrong forum.
Grobbel eventually resigned from his role and left, calling the conversation “totally inappropriate” and pushing back against Jacobson and Mangus’ claims that they “have no problem with people of color.” “If a person of color listened to this conversation, they would take away the exact opposite,” he said.
After Grobbel left, the planning commission continued to work on the documents he had prepared, going through the demographic document line by line and cutting introductions and analyzes in many places. “I just hesitate when you provide analysis rather than data,” Mangus explained. “I would rather err on the side of data, with an individual doing their own analysis.”
“I don’t know why we are considering changing anything,” Commissioner Carlyle Wroubel said. “It’s just data before we even get into the master plan… It’s just context. It has nothing to do with the master plan, except to know in which direction the population is going.
Wrubel later resigned from the planning commission, saying he had “had enough of this shit”.
“You just had a fight, you got rid of a good man who was helping us, for nothing… There was no reason to say, ‘We have to change it to say we are a [diverse] community.’ Were not!”
A closing public comment session – for which Mangus asked Wrubel to stay in order to maintain a quorum – saw many township residents criticize the behavior of the commission. Several landlords were on hand to denounce a controversial 22-home condo development, which the commission is considering for a 30-acre parcel off Baggs Road. Although development is not on the agenda, residents said they felt the topic was relevant since Whitewater’s existing master plan emphasizes the “rural character” of the township, on which a major development could have an impact.
“This lawyer was paid with taxpayers’ money and walked out because you couldn’t listen to him,” said Connie Hymore, a local landlord. “And then when he left, you tried to follow his program, what he wrote, and he wasn’t there to answer any of your questions because he left. It was embarrassing. J am ashamed. It makes me wonder why I want to be part of this community.
Mangus ended the meeting by asking for “a little indulgence from the public”, citing that the commission has “a lot of very new members, and we are trying to work things through”.