In Brian Etzel’s Perfect World …

... hodgepodge city planning just wouldn't exist  

Published in 2008 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2008

Ask Brian E. Etzel how to make metropolitan Detroit a better place and he can churn out a slew of ideas. At the top of his list is setting up regional councils to make the big decisions about which projects should get the nod.

Otherwise, he says, planning gets done in piecemeal fashion by local governments, which are easily pressured by developers with deep pockets.

"Our state constitution provides for strong home-rule cities, and until that part of our state constitution changes, sprawl will continue unabated," warns Etzel.

A commercial litigator with The Miller Law Firm in Rochester, Etzel knows what he's talking about. He has served six years on Berkley's zoning board of appeals and has seen up close how land-use decisions can improve or detract from the quality of life. He is also active in organizations committed to smart growth policies.

"We basically make terrible land-use decisions here, and it's been proven again and again that that makes the state less attractive," says Etzel, who lives in Bloomfield Township with his wife, Carolyn, and their 1-year-old daughter, Margaux.

He frequently represents cities and other governments in commercial litigation, and is particularly concerned about the power of eminent domain being used to promote private interests instead of public good. Too often, he says, developers have the financial resources to get their way with local governments, which, as a result, approve public projects that open the door to private development, even when residents vehemently oppose it.

Etzel, who earned his law degree from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in 1995, recently managed to get an easement for a sewer project downsized in a rural area and obtained twice as much compensation for the easements as the rural residents—his clients—had originally been offered. The developer's plans, he says, did not warrant the scope of the project.

Last year, Etzel made the switch from a big Detroit firm to the small boutique where he now works. He handles a wide variety of commercial cases, with land use still a strong area of interest.

"I like the idea of being paid to advocate in something you believe in," he says. "I've been fortunate in my career to have clients and cases I felt strongly about, so it's been pretty easy. It's been a real positive thing." Last year he was awarded a 10-month fellowship, the Michigan Political Leadership Program through Michigan State University, which he describes as a crash course in public-policy issues critical to the state.

"I'm a policy wonk, so I really enjoyed it," says Etzel, who has been involved in fund-raising for Republican candidates. "It's a good primer on both policy and how to put together a winning campaign for office." But when it comes to politics, he's content to be on the sidelines. "I will always be somewhat involved in the political process, whether it's campaigning, fund-raising or as part of my practice," he says, "but I enjoy what I am doing right now."

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