Leland, MI

Residents and businesses in the Town of Leland, MI came together in 2007 to create the Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS), with the common goal of improving and enhancing the community through recommendations that were implemented into the town’s Master Plan. The main objective of FPS is to address the diminishing commercial fishing operations while retaining businesses that cater to seasonal visitors. Recommendations put forth by FPS sought to balance the needs of residents and industries that offer year-round employment with the needs of the seasonal visitors and tourism industry, on which much of the economy relies. In addition to activities directly related to fishing, historic buildings and boats have been successfully preserved, and well-defined ordinances have been adopted to insure that the design and function of new buildings fit the character of the existing structures.

Fishtown. Photo by gbozik photography via  Flickr .

Fishtown. Photo by gbozik photography via Flickr.

Project Overview

Incorporated Leland Township and the unincorporated villages of Leland and Lake Leelanau, which are under the township’s jurisdiction, are located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, 27 miles from Traverse City. The area is mostly rural, characterized by farms and forests, but has a thoroughly developed waterfront with many single-family homes and commercial businesses. Tourism is the main economic driver of Leland Township and the surrounding communities. The picturesque landscape, mild weather, and water-based recreational opportunities draw many tourists during the summer months. Winter sports are also popular in Leland, but attract fewer visitors. Many businesses only operate seasonally, but commercial fishing and farming provide employment through the year. Slightly over 2,000 people live in Leland Township and the neighboring villages year-round. From 1980 to 2000, the area’s population grew by 40.6%. Population growth has slowed significantly due to a lack of available, undeveloped waterfront land and measures taken by the local government to protect open space and natural resources.

In the 1970s, Leland began transitioning from a quiet fishing village to a popular tourism destination. Because tourism-centered developments could negatively impact aspects of Leland that draw in visitors and ensure a specific community character for Leland’s residents, the local government took a strong step towards influencing the pattern of development, with the adoption of Leland Township’s first Master Plan in 1994. A zoning ordinance based on that first master plan was adopted in 1996. Since then, the township has made updates to both documents to improve land use controls and reflect changes in the community.

In early 2007, a major change took place in the village of Leland. Ownership of the historic working waterfront area called Fishtown, which was characterized by weathered fishing shanties, smokehouses, and docks, was transferred from a private owner to the Fishtown Preservation Society, FPS. The value of the property for commercial fishing operations had been diminishing since the 1970s and several of the shanties were being leased for gift shops. FPS is a coalition of residents and businesses who wanted to preserve the commercial fishing boats and facilities, but still allow for businesses that catered to the seasonal visitors. As a response, the FPS wrote a plan for the town, which made recommendations for the future. In 2009, a Master Plan was completed, which implemented the recommendations of the Fishtown Plan.

The 2008 Leland Township Master Plan is based on Smart Growth principals to maintain the character of the community and ensure new developments accommodate the needs of residents. The plan includes provisions related to economic development, transportation planning, housing, and land use. In determining changes to zoning districts and areas to concentrate growth, the plan analyzed natural resources and agricultural needs along with existing land uses and transportation patterns. The plan seeks to balance the needs of residents and industries that offer year-round employment, and the needs of the seasonal tourism industry and the visitors on which much of the local economy relies.


Planning and Management Tools


The pressure for developing land along the waterfront for tourism purposes put a strain on the natural resources in the area.

  • Natural resources and agriculturally important areas were analyzed to determine areas for growth. Zoning ordinances were passed to protect natural resources and allow growth in other areas.


  • Continued development to sustain tourism threatened to diminish the community character of Leland, one of the main reasons tourism occurred here in the first place. The need to preserve the character and also accommodate visitors arose.
  • Overlay districts were drafted to meet the specific needs of Leland’s historic villages, harbor, and commercial centers, including design provisions unique to the character of the area.
  • Community-driven planning efforts were included into the township’s master plan and zoning ordinance.
  • Land use regulations were implemented to support preservation and conservation, without sacrificing tourism.
  • The community’s aging population is addressed by allowing senior centers, group housing facilities, and accessory dwelling units in the new zoning code.

Economic Development

  • Attracting tourists to the area was necessary for sustaining Leland’s economy. Providing activities for visitors that could also create successful, year-round employment was the approach taken in order to benefit the community in multiple ways.
  • Recreational and sports facilities, including waterfront parks and boat launches, were developed and improved.
  • A series of non-motorized pathways and routes for safe bicycle and pedestrian travel were developed.
  • To encourage the development of more permanent jobs, an area of the town was rezoned to allow for light-industrial uses where operation would not interfere with tourism.


Lessons Learned

Through the work of the FPS and the Township Planning Commission in Leland, MI, Fishtown continues to operate as a commercial fishing village as well as a tourist attraction. Historic buildings and boats have been successfully preserved, and well-defined ordinances have been adopted to ensure that the design and function of new buildings fit the character of the existing structures.

The Leland Township Master Plan led to the development and adoption of a comprehensive zoning ordinance. The ordinance includes separate districts for agriculture, industrial, residential, and commercial uses. Special districts with unique provisions were established for the main commercial districts to preserve historic buildings, support waterfront development, and enforce design standards. Planning efforts in Leland Township have been very effective in preserving the community’s rural character, providing a high quality-of-life for residents, and still allowing for a bustling tourist economy.