Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting (Aug. 17, 2010): A light agenda – including two items that were recommended for postponement – prompted planning commissioner Jean Carlberg to quip, “I told you we should have canceled this meeting!”
The bulk of the hour-long meeting was spent reviewing and approving revisions to the commission’s bylaws, a task that’s been going on for several months. Questions that arose during the commission’s July 20 meeting prompted the group to ask for clarification from the city attorney’s office. Kevin McDonald, senior assistant city attorney, attended the Aug. 17 meeting and addressed those unresolved issues.
In other business, planning staff recommended postponement of two proposed rezonings at Arbor Hills Nature Area and Kilburn Park. The areas are currently zoned as part of a planned unit development (PUD) and were proposed to be rezoned as public land for park use. Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, said the items had been inadvertently added to the agenda, but needed additional work.
Rampson also reported that the commission would be hosting a public event featuring Pat Murphy, a nationally recognized speaker in the field of planning, climate change and sustainability, and author of the book “Plan C – Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change.” Murphy will be speaking on Tuesday, Sept. 28 at the Malletts Creek branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, 3090 E. Eisenhower Parkway, from 7-8:30 p.m. The presentation will be taped and available for viewing at a later date on Community Television Network (CTN).
Rezoning Postponed for Arbor Hills, Kilburn Park
At the planning commission’s March 16, 2010 meeting – when it recommended approval of the controversial Heritage Row project, which was later rejected by city council – commissioners also considered the rezoning of several parcels to public land, or PL. It was part of a much broader effort that’s been described as “cleaning up” the zoning of city-owned property that’s used as parkland.
That March meeting was supposed to have taken care of the final batch of rezoning or annexation of some 50 parks or portions of parks. But because of concerns raised by several residents of the Arbor Hills neighborhood who attended and spoke during a public hearing on the issue, commissioners voted to postpone action on the last two items: the rezoning of Arbor Hills Nature Area and Kilburn Park. Located in northeast Ann Arbor, north of Green Road, both parcels are currently zoned as planned unit development (PUD). Arbor Hills Nature Area is a six-acre area; Kilburn Park is two acres.
Residents were concerned that rezoning the areas to public land would allow the city to sell or use the land for purposes other than parkland. Commissioners and staff discussed various ways that the land would be protected for use as parkland, but ultimately decided to postpone action on those parcels.
At the Aug. 17 meeting, Rampson told commissioners that planning staff was still working through issues raised by residents, including questions about infrastructure for the Arbor Hills neighborhood PUD – specifically, detention ponds and sewer lines – that are in the parcels designated for rezoning. She said the staff might conclude that it’s best to leave the zoning as it is, but they’re still looking into it.
No one spoke during the public hearing for the proposed rezonings, and commissioners had no comments or questions about the issue.
Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to postpone action on the rezoning of Arbor Hills Nature Area and Kilburn Park. They did not set a specific date to reconsider these items.
Planning Commission Bylaws
At their July 20 meeting, commissioners had raised several questions about proposed revisions to the bylaws. The city attorney’s office is overseeing the process of bylaw revisions for the city’s boards and commissions, but no representative from that office attended the July 20 meeting. The commission postponed action until Kevin McDonald, senior assistant city attorney, could attend to answer questions – he attended the Aug. 17 meeting for that purpose.
Many of the issues related to communications, and how the commission interacts with the public. From Chronicle coverage of the July 20 meeting:
Bonnie Bona noted that the section on electronic communications doesn’t mention communications amongst commissioners. She was referring to Article VII: Meetings, Section 17:
Section 17. During regular or business meetings, Commission members shall not initiate or respond to electronic communications (including email, instant messages, or text messages) with or from members of the public or the petitioner regarding Commission business.
Based on the “recent history that brought this to our attention,” she said, it should also read “with or from members of the commission, members of the public, or the petitioner regarding Commission business.” Other commissioners agreed. [She was referring to email exchanges among certain city councilmembers that were brought to light last year under Freedom of Information Act requests.]
Westphal wanted to clarify a section under Article IX: Petitions and Communications (emphasis added):
Section 4. The Commission shall invite persons concerned with items the Commission is to consider to address written communications to the Commission and Planning and Development Services Unit. The Commission shall request that these communications be directed at the entire Commission and not toward individual members and that these communications be sent at an early enough date to give the Planning and Development Services Unit sufficient time for careful consideration in arriving at its recommendation to Commission. Commissioners who receive individual communications from the public regarding items under consideration shall share such communications with the entire Commission, and, where applicable, with staff, as soon as practicable. Communications from the public on particular items shall be made available to Commission members prior to Commission meetings at which those items will be considered. Members may request that the contents of certain communications be read before the Commission.
He wondered what form those communications would take. If it’s a note, it does an end-around of people coming to the microphone to speak publicly, he said. Mahler said that in this case, it would be something that’s at the discretion of the chair to decide how to handle.
Diane Giannola wondered whether the section on electronic communications – barring email and text exchanges during meetings – should also extend to handwritten notes. Mahler said that the word “electronic” serves a purpose, but he suggested adding the word “private” or “paper.” He asked Rampson to pass along that issue to the attorney’s office.
Wendy Woods brought up a related issue, in Article V: Ethics and Conflicts of Interest, Section 7:
Section 7. Members of the Commission shall make reasonable efforts to avoid individual communications with interested parties regarding specific site specific proposals or site specific petitions before the Commission. If a member receives such communications, the member shall make note of the content of the communication and report it to the Commission at a public meeting or hearing, so that every member of the Commission and other interested parties attending are made aware.
Woods said she was unclear about instances when you receive an email about commission business – should you then send that email to all commissioners? Mahler said he understood it to mean that you’d bring it up as communications during a meeting, letting other commissioners know who had contacted you and what they said. It would be a real change from what they’d done in the past, he noted, and the city attorney should clarify it.
Jean Carlberg said that certainly any communication from the public or a petitioner about a project they’d be voting on should be made available to all commissioners. She said she was a little reluctant to say that during a meeting, someone can’t hand you a communication. That information should be disclosed, she said – people shouldn’t feel they can lobby commissioners with notes in the middle of a meeting. But there might be something important to communicate. She’d rather err on the side of allowing people to communicate, rather than to say that once they enter the meeting room, there’s absolutely no communication.
At the Aug. 17 meeting, McDonald said he didn’t feel as though they needed a rule to control everything that might happen during a meeting. And he wondered: Did people really walk up to individual commissioners during meetings and talk to them? Yes, he was told – sometimes.
He said there were several sections of the bylaws that already governed interaction with the public, referring specifically to Article VII, Section 19:
Article VII, Section 19: Audience participation in the form of public comment shall be allowed at all meetings. An individual may speak for up to three (3) minutes. The Chair may extend an individual’s speaking time in his/her discretion. Commission agendas shall provide two (2) opportunities for audience participation.
McDonald also pointed to Article V, Section 7 as a relevant bylaw for dealing with interactions during meetings:
Article V, Section 7: Members of the Commission shall make reasonable efforts to avoid individual communications with interested parties regarding site specific proposals or site specific petitions before the Commission. If a member receives such communications, the member shall make note of the content of the communication and report it to the Commission at a public meeting or hearing so that every member of the Commission and other interested parties attending are made aware.
Board chair Eric Mahler added that part of another section – in Article IX, Section 4 – was relevant, too:
Article IX, Section 4: … Commissioners who receive individual communications from the public regarding items under consideration shall share such communications with the entire Commission, and, where applicable, with staff, as soon as practicable. Communications from the public on particular items shall be made available to Commission members prior to Commission meetings at which those items will be considered. Members may request that the contents of certain communications be read before the Commission.
It was up to the commission if they wanted to add a proscriptive rule saying that no other communication is allowed, McDonald said. He gave the example of a microphone not functioning – that’s a time when commissioners would want someone to communicate with them, letting them know about the problem.
Public participation and the commission’s deliberations aren’t really interactive, McDonald noted. He added that situations like someone from the public passing a note to a commissioner weren’t allowed under the current rules. He said he didn’t know it was a practice.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a practice,” Mahler responded. “It happens.”
Tony Derezinski said he’d be in favor adding specific language to address this issue. He suggested adding a clause to Article IX, Section 4:
Article IX, Section 4: … Communications from the public on particular items shall be made available to Commission members prior to Commission meetings at which those items will be considered, and not during the meeting itself nor in communications to individual commission members.
The advantage of being explicit is that it won’t leave the bylaws open to interpretation, he said.
Over the course of the discussion, several commissioners mentioned that the chair has a certain amount of discretion to prevent communications that don’t conform to the commission’s bylaws. McDonald said he’d be reluctant to be overly proscriptive by saying no other communication is allowed.
Commissioners and McDonald discussed a range of other, relatively minor revisions before taking a vote on the bylaws.
Outcome: The revised planning commission bylaws were unanimously approved.
Misc. Communications: Pat Murphy Event
Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, reported that – as they’d discussed at their July 20 meeting – the commission would be hosting a public event featuring Pat Murphy, a nationally recognized speaker in the field of planning, climate change and sustainability, and author of the book “Plan C – Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change.” Murphy will be speaking on Tuesday, Sept. 28 at the Malletts Creek branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, 3090 E. Eisenhower Parkway, from 7-8:30 p.m. The presentation will be taped and available for viewing at a later date on Community Television Network (CTN). Commissioner Bonnie Bona had proposed that the commission co-sponsor his trip to Ann Arbor, which was originally organized by her firm.
Present: Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Kirk Westphal.
Absent: Bonnie Bona, Erica Briggs, Evan Pratt, Wendy Woods.
Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Thursday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. in Washtenaw County administration building board room, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date] Editor’s note: This meeting was later canceled.