Ann Arbor City Council Sunday caucus (May 31, 2009): At its caucus held last night, the topic of the City Place site plan dominated discussion, with indications that the “by right” proposal will be approved on Monday.
However, Scott Munzel, the attorney for Alex de Parry’s 24-unit proposal for Fifth Avenue, expressed disappointment that the project had become a “battle to the death.” He was alluding in part to a letter that council had received asking it to return the project to planning commission to be re-heard and re-voted on by that body, because of a technical violation of rules concerning the public accessibility of drawings in advance of public hearings.
The Chronicle used the occasion of Sunday caucus to pose questions to councilmembers on a range of other topics besides City Place, including the availability of the analyses regarding alternatives to the police early-retirement incentives, the openness of the budget and labor committee’s meetings, the possible re-appointment of Rene Greff to the board of the Downtown Development Authority, and a recent arrest of a citizen for carrying a handgun openly.
City Place Site Plan
The Chronicle: Are you going to be voting on the City Place site plan tomorrow night?
[Previous Chronicle coverage of the City Place project.] Mayor Hieftje indicated that it was on the agenda and that he had no information suggesting that they would not be voting. Following up, The Chronicle asked if the letter they had received from an attorney representing a member of the Germantown Neighborhood Association would have any impact. [The letter calls attention to a technical omission in connection with requirements about the availability of site plans in advance of public hearings.]
Hieftje said they had not heard from the city attorney’s office that anything required revisiting, but that they did hear that the city would respond appropriately. Asked if city council would undertake to send the site plan back to planning commission on its own, independently of advice from the city attorney’s office, Hieftje indicated that they would not.
Planning commissioner Ethel Potts weighed in at caucus on the question of the City Place site plan and asked councilmembers who were present to consider the meeting minutes of the planning commission session when the “by right” proposal was voted on. She said the minutes reflected that the planning commission had struggled with many aspects of the project.
Potts focused on the fact that the dwelling units in the proposed project had six bedrooms and that each bedroom could be leased to a different individual. On that basis, she said she was troubled about whether it met the relevant code. Questioned by Sabra Briere (Ward 1) about the fact that this was not the first project that had bedrooms set up in this fashion, Potts allowed that “we’re learning as we go.” Potts alluded to a project that had no windows for some of its bedrooms [Zaragon Place].
Briere asked how many previously approved projects there were that had six bedrooms that locked. Potts said she hadn’t counted. Mike Anglin (Ward 5) cited one project that had been built on Greene Street with such a configuration. Briere said that if council had approved things like that in the past she was conflicted about how they could not approve such configurations now.
When Scott Munzel, attorney for Alex de Parry and the City Place project, took the podium, he said, “I’m really sorry it’s turning into a battle to the death!” Briere responded, “You could withdraw the project!”
Munzel assured council that the project did in fact comply with all the relevant codes. He explained that the units had six bedrooms and that the bedrooms were not efficiency apartments unto themselves. The second point he made was that the setback requirements are met. And finally, Munzel explained, the height requirements were met. This, in response to some bulletins that have been sent to council recently by Tom Whitaker on behalf of the Germantown Neighborhood Association. The bulletins examine the clarity of language in Ann Arbor’s zoning ordinances and question whether the City Place project meets those particular code requirements.
On the procedural issue about which The Chronicle had asked, Munzel said that he did not know if, in fact, the procedural error had been made, because it’s the city of Ann Arbor, not the developer, which is in control of that. But if an error had been made, he stressed that planning commission is a recommending body only. If an error had been made, Munzel said, there had been no prejudice, as evidenced by the fact that the Germantown Neighborhood Association had participated fully in the process.
Any delay associated with sending the site plan back to the planning commission in order to rectify the technical error would raise issues of timing and financing, Munzel said. Munzel described how de Parry had met with the Germantown Neighborhood Association, and generated additional designs based on those meetings. De Parry had made substantial efforts to address their concerns, and in fact had developed conceptual drawings that met all of their concerns except for the basic fact that something would change, Munzel concluded.
Munzel asked council members to reflect on “the fundamental fairness of how you’re treating this applicant.”
Briere had some questions for him, prefacing them by saying, “These aren’t hostile questions, honest. They may be joking and sarcastic, but they’re not hostile!” Briere wanted to know why de Parry had not brought forward the alternate plans that had been developed with input from the neighbors. Munzel described how the interactions had gone around and around, and ultimately de Parry felt that he had met every issue about which neighbors were concerned – except the fact that things were going to change in the neighborhood.
Briere asked Munzel why de Parry did not want to bring that revised plan forward. Munzel explained that it would mean starting over. At some point, Munzel said, people don’t want to feel like they are banging their head against a wall. Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) reported that he was a part of some of the discussions between de Parry and the neighbors. He said that the drawings were available and could be shared.
Hohnke continued by saying that the Germantown Neighborhood Association had decided their issues weren’t being resolved and had thus decided not to continue with the discussions. For her part, Briere said: “At some point the neighborhood doesn’t get to decide,” stressing that she was completely committed to the idea of neighborhood participation. [Briere sponsored an ordinance change that now requires early neighborhood participation in development processes.]
An interaction between Hohnke and Munzel brought out the fact that one difficulty with an alternate design at this point was that it would have to be a completely new and different project from the previous PUD that had been proposed. [A planned unit development allows council to exercise more judgment in weighing the public benefit of a project.] Munzel described the option of revising that PUD with a different design as “having lapsed.” [It would have required a motion to reconsider the PUD that council denied, which would have needed to come at the following council meeting.]
Briere then related the assessment of some other developers she’d talked to of the design being proposed for the City Place “by right” development. She said they had described it as the “worst of all possible designs,” meant to show how bad it can be in an R4C zoning district. Munzel replied: “That’s just not true.” Munzel said that with any property you look at the property, and you look at the zoning and you want to maximize the buildable area. He continued by saying he could not disagree more with the statement that they were deliberately intending to bring a poor design to council.
Munzel described how de Parry’s initial interest had been in a brownstone-style design but that it could not be implemented, because it was not possible to use a parapet wall under the 30-foot height requirement. The hip-roof style had been selected as an alternative, because it was felt that it would reflect the more residential character of the neighborhood than a flat roof. “Believe me, Brad Moore [the architect on the project] is not trying to build something that’s a poster child for sticking it in the face of the city,” Munzel said.
Resident Alice Ralph also spoke to the issue of City Place in general terms, suggesting that “matter of right” is not a “singular notion.” There is still an area that is subject to interpretation, namely the public safety and welfare, she suggested. She asked council to reflect on the possibility of turning down the project on that basis.
Police: Early Retirement Incentive
The Chronicle: [Council recently authorized an early-retirement incentive program for police officers that includes two years of service credit with an option to purchase a third year of credit.] At the last city council meeting during public comment time, John Floyd asked for an analysis of a scenario in which early retirement incentives would be offered to police officers in two years (instead of now), after the impact of the force reduction through attrition could be assessed. Leigh Greden (Ward 3) responded only by saying that there were no guarantees associated with an attrition strategy. Can we get a look at any analysis that might have been done on that scenario, as well as any others – for example, a scenario where only one year of service credit would be given with an option to purchase two years of credit?
Hieftje said that other analyses were presented to the budget and labor committee of the city council and that it was “wrapped up with union things.” Hieftje said that there were “other calculations besides just numbers.” Asked by The Chronicle if a regular report could be solicited from the budget and labor committee during the “communications from council section” at council meetings, Hieftje allowed that it would be possible, but that he would “not expect a lot of verbiage.”
Asked to clarify what the status of budget and labor committee meetings was with respect to accessibility to the public, Hieftje said that they were open to the public – although council members who were not members of the committee could not attend. He explained that if other council members attended that would constitute a quorum – the budget and labor committee consists of five members – and that because sometimes decisions are made by the committee, that would constitute a decision made by the entire council.
Police: Arrest of Citizen for Open Carry
The Chronicle: On Friday afternoon [May 29, 2009] a member of the community was arrested in connection with the exercise of the right under Michigan law to openly carry a handgun. During your regular Wednesday meeting with police chief Barnett Jones, can you get some clarification as to the details of that incident, and clarify for us whether Ann Arbor Police Department officers are clear about the provisions of the law?
Hieftje indicated that he was aware of the incident and that he was not sure if a charge would be brought. Asked if he could provide clarification to the public about the incident and Ann Arbor Police Department policy when that information was available, Hieftje said that The Chronicle should send him an e-mail.
Downtown Development Authority
The Chronicle: Have you decided whether to reappoint Rene Greff to the board of the Downtown Development Authority?
Hiefte said that he was under the impression – because others had told him – that Greff was not interested in continuing to serve on the board. So he said it was news to him to hear that she was interested in continuing her service. He referenced the DDA retreat when he had said the same thing. Asked again if he had made a decision, Hiefje said that he had not made a decision about whether to reappoint Greff. Responding to a follow-up question from The Chronicle about how someone might go about applying for the position, Hieftje said that there was an application form that could be downloaded on the web. He said that he would like to find somebody affiliated with the Main Street Area Association. Hieftje also indicated that he intended to meet with Greff within the next two weeks.
Resident Sarah Rampton reported that the Pioneer High School girls rowing team that won a gold medal in a recent competition. She also wanted to clarify some issues surrounding the current discussion about the removal of the Argo Dam. First, she characterized the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) deadline as negotiable. She also listed out various options for spending the $300,000 that has been allocated for the repair of the dam’s toe drains. One of those options, she said, is to take the $300,000 to build a portage for canoeists.
She also emphasized that one of the issues surrounding the generation of hydroelectricity at the dam has to do with carbon credits. In discussion on the question with Hieftje and Hohnke, they indicated that they understood how carbon credits within a cap-and-trade system were related to the issue. They gave assurance that such credits were a part of the analysis that the various commissions in the city were considering.
Rampton told the council members in attendance at the caucus that it would mean a lot to the rowing community if it had definite information that they were in fact going to be moved to a different location. Councilmember Marcia Higgins asked when the dam issue was going to come before council. Hieftje indicated that would be in mid-July. Rampton also wanted to know how the pond as a body of water counted versus the river as a body of water. She asked how council could quantify the beauty of the pond. Hieftje indicated that he had considerable personal experience walking and kayaking along that stretch of the Huron River.