Local Map Resources in Michigan
Kathleen Weessies, Maps/GIS Librarian, Michigan State University Libraries,
Public and academic reference librarians may find they receive questions about
local land use that are not easily addressed through mass-market publications.
To find land use information in Michigan, it is necessary to understand who creates
the information, where the information is stored, and if and/or how this type
of information is distributed. This article examines a variety of map resources
that relate to zoning, flood risk, and historical land ownership. The purpose
of this article is to assist librarians in guiding patrons to resources that exist
inside and outside the library. The author urges librarians to build collections
of local government maps that may not otherwise be preserved.
Questions relating to land use are frequently received at reference desks,
particularly in public and academic/college libraries. Common questions may be
from an entrepreneur interested in zoning, a landowner concerned with flood risks,
or a genealogist looking for historical ownership. These three hypothetical patrons
have a common interest in very large-scale information, parcel-by-parcel and house-by-house
data. For the reference librarian wishing to address these needs, large-scale
maps are necessary. Such products, however, aren't always available for purchase.
Maps and atlases published each year and made available through standard map and
book vendors are small-scale, and of virtually zero use for detailed information.
This article will examine a variety of land use resources as they relate to the
needs of these three patrons. Not all the materials that can help them are located
in libraries or can be acquired by libraries. The purpose of this article is to
help librarians guide these types of patrons to the correct answer, wherever it
Finding Land Use Information
To find land use information or to direct a patron to the correct source, it
is necessary to understand who creates the information, where it is stored, and
if and/or how this information is distributed. Of the three patron groups mentioned
in the first section, landowners are most interested in topics that affect their
status as ultimate rulers of their domain. These topics include the presence of
wetlands on a specific piece of property, the property's susceptibility to disaster
(which in Michigan primarily means threat of flooding), and local planning issues
such as eminent domain, assessment projects, and zoning changes. Real estate developers
are interested in existing or future legal encumbrances on land they do not yet
own. Genealogists are interested in learning which parcel of land a person or
family owned. These questions can all be addressed using large-scale maps. In
map terms, 'large-scale' means the maps are close-up, showing great detail for
a small area of land. Scale in maps is relative. There is no rule of what is 'large-scale'
or 'small-scale'; the terms are most meaningful in comparison to other maps (Larsgaard,
1998). This article is concerned with the level of detail that provides information
at a house-by-house level. For this purpose, only maps with a scale of 1:24,000
(1" = 2,000 feet) or larger will be useful.
Large-scale information, often produced by local governments, is expensive
to create and requires some work to discover and gather. For those reasons, it
makes most sense for librarians to concern themselves with the resources available
for their local area. Map reference literature is very limited, but what little
there is makes note of the fact that patron requests are skewed toward the local
area (Larsgaard, 1998). In one small college library study, more than 50% of map-related
questions were for areas within 100 miles of the library (Brunvand, 1991). In
another study, 80% of questions were for places within 200km [124 miles] of the
library (Leeuwenberg, 1982). Therefore, librarians may focus their attention on
building local information resources for their area, and be confident that they
will be serving the majority of patron requests.
The Creation of Land Information
The responsibility for regulating land use is shared between national, state,
and local governments. The activity of creating large-scale maps to reflect such
regulation is similarly shared. Land use decisions are largely a product of local
government, but are heavily influenced by state and federal government decisions
that have land-use implications (Johnson, 1989). The federal government retains
control of such issues as defense and interstate commerce. In recent decades the
federal role expanded to include structural defense against flooding and improving
navigable streams, lakes, and ocean shorelines. Even more recently the role has
further expanded to protect wetlands of a certain size and to regulate the quality
of water for human and wildlife health reasons (Gaddie & Regens, 2000).
The balance of administrative responsibility between the three levels of government
varies widely from state to state. Michigan, for instance, is somewhat unusual
with its robust township level governments. In many states, townships exist largely
in theory and have little administrative responsibility. Michigan is also unique
in its long history and expertise with
wetlands and flooding. This is partly due to the presence of the Great Lakes and
partly because Michigan has so many scattered wetlands and readily available groundwater.
The Michigan state government also is one of only two states to administer
the regulation of larger wetlands normally under the jurisdiction of the federal
government. In an unusual agreement with the federal government, Michigan was
able to streamline state and federal administration at the state level. The state
government goes further to regulate small wetlands (Cwikiel, 1996) and to limiting
development in floodplains (Michigan Compiled Laws, 2001). County, township, and
city governments concern themselves with parcel mapping and assessment issues
relating to the collection of property taxes. Since 1921 city and village governments
also have had the right to organize zoning boards and regulate land use within
their jurisdiction. Townships and counties gained similar rights in 1943 (VerBurg,
Fourteen regional planning organizations have formed within the state to coordinate
land-planning activities in particular regions. They do not take away the legal
authority of local governments, but pool resources and expertise for issues of
Figure 1: Regional Planning Commissions in Michigan
|Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (Region
||143 government units in Wayne, Oakland, Livingston,
Macomb, Monroe, St. Clair, and Washtenaw Counties
|Region 2 Planning Commission (Region 2)
||Local units of government in Hillsdale, Jackson,
and Lenawee Counties
|Southcentral Michigan Planning Council (Region
||Local units of government in Branch, Calhoun,
Kalamazoo, and St. Joseph Counties
|Southwestern Michigan Commission (Region 4)
||Local units of government in Berrien, Cass and
Van Buren Counties
|GLS Region V Planning & Development Commission
||Local units of government in Genesee, Lapeer,
and Shiawassee Counties
|Tri-County Regional Planning Commission (Region
||Local units of government in Clinton, Eaton, and
|East Central Michigan Planning & Development
Regional Commission (Region 7)
||Local units of government in Arenac, Bay, Clare,
Gladwin, Gratiot, Huron, Iosco, Isabella, Midland, Ogemaw, Roscommon, Saginaw,
Sanilac, and Tuscola Counties
|West Michigan Regional Planning Commission (Region
||Local units of government in Allegan, Kent, Ionia,
Mecosta, Montcalm, Osceola, and Ottawa Counties
|Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (Region
||Local units of government in Alcona, Alpena, Cheboygan,
Crawford, Presque Isle, Montmorency, Oscoda and Otsego Counties
|Northwest Michigan Council of Governments (Region
||Local units of government in Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix,
Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee, and Wexford Counties
|Eastern Upper Peninsula Regional Planning &
Development Commission (Region 11)
||Local units of government in Chippewa, Luce and
|Central Upper Peninsula Planning & Development
Regional Commission (Region 12)
||Local units of government in Delta, Dickinson,
Marquette, Menominee, and Schoolcraft Counties
|Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development
Regional Commission (Region 13)
||Local units of government in Baraga, Gogebic,
Houghton, Iron, Keweenaw and Ontonagon Counties
|West Michigan Shoreline (Region 14)
||Local units of government in Lake, Mason, Muskegon,
Newaygo, and Oceana Counties
Publishing and Preservation
As previously mentioned, to find land use information or to direct a patron
to the correct source, it is necessary to understand the origins and distribution
of land use information. The economics and logistics of map creation affect how
this happens. Governments are less likely to mass publish and distribute maps
of large scale for a number of reasons. Original maps are extremely expensive
to make. Also, a larger scale means that more sheets of paper are required to
print a map for a given geographic area. Further, the product will be of interest
to a smaller number of people and, therefore, less likely to return the cost of
publication. Once printed, the publisher has the inconvenience of housing maps
that are bulky and awkward to store. For historical information, the maps must
also survive the dangers of being lost or thrown away. To survive, the maps must
be perceived to have future value that offsets the cost and inconvenience of storage.
While local governments often have such information open to the public, little
budget is devoted to make the information widely available. Local governments
generally treat these maps as working documents and not as things that should
be saved for their own sake (McGlamery, 2000). The government office may own only
a single master copy of a map that is continuously updated and unable to be reproduced
well, if at all. Maps are not produced with future users in mind. For instance
the author recently viewed a local wetlands map that had no title, no year of
publication, and no statement of responsibility. The few people who needed to
use it understood this information; it wasn't considered a necessary addition
to the document.
With the assumption by local government that such maps are of little or no
interest to the general community or to posterity (or at least not valuable enough
to offset the cost of and issues related to storage), little effort is made to
archive them for an extended period of time. Local maps and plans are most likely
to be stored and made available to the public if the government passes copies
along to a library or other organization interested in long term preservation
of documents. The maps are often not printed on a long-lasting media, not credited
properly, and are stored rolled with rubber bands and paper clips that eventually
destroy the paper and ink of maps.2
One improvement over the last decade is that maps are now rarely printed on diazotype,
or 'blueline', a reactive paper that produces blotchy prints that yellow quickly
in sunlight. Today's paper, ink and toner commonly used for plotting and photocopying
large sheets are no better or worse than standard photocopy paper and toner. Color
ink-jet prints still have serious fading issues (Yegyazarian, 2001) but, with
careful storage, they are more readable and reproducible than the old bluelines.
Data is moving online, but databases evolve continuously and are rarely archived
as snapshots in time. Map creators may be unaccustomed to making and selling copies
of their products, but with polite negotiations they may find a way to do so.
In time, government officials may discover they are pleased to be able to refer
casual enquirers to the library in order to use maps.
Sources for Land Use / Land Cover Information
As stated before, much of the most valuable parcel-by-parcel information is
generated at the local level. The federal government, however, does produce some
maps of great utility. Libraries may acquire some of the resources listed below
but the acquisition process is more laborious than the procedures used with mass-distributed
responsibility of keeping track of who owns which bit of land is shared between
county and township/city governments. Maps containing information on every plat
of land are known as "parcel maps". Creating and maintaining parcel
maps is not legally mandated, but is convenient to local governments in carrying
out their business. A county government often creates parcel maps for smaller
units, but cities or townships with large populations may have the resources to
take over the job. The only way to know is to first call the local unit of government,
then the county, then the regional planning commission to see if any have been
made. Parcel maps generally are not
labeled with landowner names, but are useful to the unit of government for planning
purposes. For maps labeled with landowner names, the only commonly available product,
outside local government offices, is a plat book.
County Plat books
County plat books have long been friends to genealogists because they make
note of the owners of parcels of farmland. The first major era of plat book production
in Michigan was in the latter half of the nineteenth century when private firms
sent salesmen to county governments offering to create county plat book atlases.
These older products are usually oversized and are often hand-painted. Each parcel
of land over a certain size, 10 acres for example, is delineated and labeled with
the owner's name. The focus is on rural land, so owners of incorporated land and
small parcels are not identified. Some atlases contain additional historical information,
such as paid advertisements by area businesses and photographs of residents. The
atlas publishers would frequently canvass the town searching for subscribers.
The Kalamazoo County 1910 plat book, for instance, includes 237 photographs of
county landowners, their children, their farm, and their livestock. After about
1915 the practice died out, and plat books were few until the W. W. Hixson &
Co. of Rockford, Illinois began publishing small inexpensive plat books. Hixson
products were 8.5" x 11" and printed on newsprint type paper. Plat book
coverage during the first half of the twentieth century is spotty and inconsistent
across the state. Also hailing Rockford, Illinois is the Rockford Map Company.
Since 1944 this firm has published
plat books for most counties of Michigan. Other plat book publishers that share
the Michigan market are Farm and Home of Belmond, Iowa; Cloud Cartographics of
St. Cloud, Minnesota; and Athentic, Inc. of LaPorte, Indiana. In recent years
some Michigan counties have developed staff and expertise to self-publish plat
books. Currently these include Allegan, Ontonagon, and Schoolcraft counties. The
best way to discover the publisher of a county's plat book is to call the county
clerk's office and ask. The county will sell copies of the plat book or will at
least refer one to the proper vendor. These groups rarely retain extra copies
of old editions for sale. Therefore plat books must be acquired as they are published.
Historical plat books are hard to come by and are usually expensive when found.
A typical 19th century county plat book generally sells for between $500 and $1,000;
individual township pages removed from atlases may also be found for sale around
Land Use & Zoning
Local governments, with the approval of their voting constituents, have the
choice of creating a zoning system to control development. The township or municipal
government is responsible for maintaining a map showing the zoning classifications
for the jurisdiction. The creation of such maps may be completed by the appropriate
regional planning commission.
Local units of government vary greatly in their ability to reproduce and share
zoning maps for the community.
When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1970, the Michigan state government
soon began to negotiate taking over many U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
in order to consolidate state activities. Delineating wetlands within the state
of Michigan is now primarily the function of the Michigan Department of Environmental
Quality (DEQ). Michigan's DEQ has been delegated responsible for making decisions
as long as they use the same definitions and standards as set down by the appropriate
state and federal agencies (Cwikiel, 1996). Communities most likely to have large-scale
wetland maps are those who have incorporated wetland development rules into their
zoning ordinances. While in many states, citizens would need to contact a federal
agency for water-related information, in Michigan, water related reference questions
often need not go higher than the state government for answers (Gaddie, 2000).
The Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Services has created a National
Wetland Inventory (NWI) map series. These maps can be purchased two ways: as clear
overlays to topographic maps or as paper sheets that contain wetland information
combined with topographic map features. The sheets are at a scale of 1:24,000
and possess the same sheet naming system as the more familiar 1:24,000 U.S.G.S.
topographic maps series. The Michigan maps were not available for purchase for
some time, but have recently become available again for purchase. They are also
available in digital format at the NWI web site, http://wetlands.fws.gov/
[Opens a new window]. Geographic information system (GIS) software such as ArcExplorer
is necessary to view the files. Wetlands are now viewable in an online tool developed
by the Michigan State University Institute for Water Research, available at http://www.iwr.msu.edu/gis/gisfp.html
[Opens a new window]. 3
The data is derived from the printed NWI maps. The National Wetland Inventory
maps are not legally enforceable. Only the local and state governments can legally
define and delineate the precise legal wetland boundaries on or around a property.
Prevention of, and recovery from, disastrous flooding has been the responsibility
of citizens and local governments throughout much of our nation's history. The
federal government's role began in the early 19th century as projects intended
to improve the navigability of rivers at times provided coincidental protection
against flooding. Today the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) share flood prevention and reaction activities. Communities
are strongly encouraged to limit building in flood-prone areas, but the federal
government does not mandate this. Michigan state law holds that no building may
be built within a 100-year floodplain without
a permit (§31 of Act 451, 2001). Many structures exist within floodplains,
as they were built before such legislation was passed.
FEMA's Flood Insurance Rate Map Program publishes very large-scale maps and
reports depicting flood hazard areas for participating communities. As not all
communities participate, the absence of a community's map in the series does not
necessarily indicate the absence of flood zones. These maps are large scale (1:12,000,
or 1 inch = 1,000 feet).
Finding land use information requires many of the same steps used to address
other reference questions. When on the trail of land use information, four questions
must be addressed: who creates this information; who stores this information;
who will make this information available to the patron; and has the library acquired
this information? Some land use information is collected by and can be found within
libraries. Some is archived as public record and is accessible through government
agencies. There is always the possibility that the information was never gathered
in a manner that is desirable to the patron. Librarians should not jump too quickly
to this conclusion, but it does loom as a possibility in the background of every
Understanding the creation and distribution of local land information is of
great help to reference librarians. This background, however, does not excuse
librarians from conducting reference interviews. It is not necessary to always
hand the patron off to a local government office, but it also is not feasible
to collect all this information in the library. The library should collect what
it can in accordance with the institutional collection development policies. A
well-prepared librarian should also have on hand contact information for the myriad
of relevant departments from the three levels of government.
Directory of Michigan municipal officials, with selected listing of state &
federal offices. (2002). Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Municipal League.
Michigan township officials' directory. (1999). Lansing, MI: Michigan
Miles, W. (1975). Michigan atlases and plat books: A checklist 1872-1973.
Lansing, MI: Michigan Dept. of Education, State Library Services.
Sankey, M. L., & Ernst, C. R. (Eds.). (1998). The Librarian's guide
to public records : The complete state, county, and courthouse locator. Tempe,
AZ: BRB Publications.
Brunvand, A. (1991). Mental maps and collection development: A view from Colorado.
Western Association of Map Librarians Information Bulletin, 23(1), 35-41.
Cwikiel, W. (1996). Living with Michigan's wetlands: A landowner's guide.
Conway, MI: Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.
Decker, T. S., Horn, W. A., Longworth, G. N., & Powsner, E. M. (1999).
Land use law update in Michigan. Eau Claire, WI: National Business Institute.
Fluharty, M. (1996). Toward integrated land use planning : Report to the
Michigan Natural Resources Commission. Lansing, MI: Environmental Administration
Division, Michigan Dept. of Management and Budget.
Gaddie, R. & Regens, J. (2000). Regulating wetlands protection: Environmental
federalism and the states. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Johnson, A.T. (1989). Intergovernmental influences on local land use decision
making. Washington, D.C.: National League of Cities.
Larsgaard, M. (1998). Map librarianship: An introduction (3rd ed.).
Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Lathrop, A. (1980). The provenance and preservation of architectural records.
The American Archivist, 43(3), 325-338.
Leeuwenburg, J. (1982). Map reference work in an academic library. Globe,
McGlamery, T. P. (2000). The impermanence of maps in the digital age [Presented
at the 1999 International Federation of Library Associations Conference]. INSPEL,
Michigan Compiled Laws. §324.3108 (2001).
Moore, J. & Moore, D. (1989). The Army Corps of Engineers and the evolution
of federal flood plain management policy. Boulder CO: Institute of Behavioral
Science, University of Colorado.
New York Document Conservation Advisory Council. (1988). Our memory at risk:
Preserving New York's unique research resources. Albany, NY: New York State
Thompson, M. M. (1988). Maps for America (3rd ed.). Reston, VA: U.S.
Department of the Interior, Geological Survey.
VerBurg, K. (Ed.). (1998). Michigan laws relating to planning. East
Lansing, MI: Department of Resource Development, College of Agricultural and Natural
Resources, Michigan State University.
Yegyazarian, A. (2001). Fight photo fade-out. PC World Magazine, 19(7),
1 30% of Michigan's lands are estimated
to be wetlands (Gaddie & Regens, 2000, p. 58). Back
2 For shocking descriptions and photographs
of information storage methods at some local governments, see New York Document
Conservation Advisory Council's Our Memory at Risk, 1988. Back
3 With support from the MSU Agriculture Experiment
Station, MSU Extension, and MSU Libraries, Computing and Technology. Back