Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting (Sept. 21, 2010): In a marathon meeting that lasted past midnight, the planning commission handled two major projects: Site plan approval for Fuller Road Station, and a medical marijuana zoning ordinance.
City council chambers were packed with people wanting to address the commission on those two issues, which were the final two items on the night’s agenda.
Before getting to those, commissioners dealt with several lower-profile items. One was a request by the owners of Arbor Dog Daycare asking for permission to expand their business. A neighbor came to oppose it, saying “to expand the operation means more barking.” The commission voted on it twice – an initial vote, then a reconsideration at the end of the meeting at the request of commissioner Evan Pratt, who arrived late and missed the first vote. In both cases, the project failed to get the necessary six votes for approval.
The commission also approved the site plan for a Lake Trust Credit Union branch at the southeast corner of West Stadium and Liberty, despite some concerns about tearing down the existing building.
Later in the meeting – after three hours of staff presentations, a public hearing and commissioner deliberations – Fuller Road Station’s site plan did win approval, with two commissioners dissenting. The project will now move to city council for a vote.
And the final public hearing of the night – on zoning changes that would regulate dispensaries and “home occupations” for medical marijuana – drew 15 speakers. All of them, to varying degrees, urged commissioners not to restrict safe access to medical marijuana. The planning staff had recommended postponement, and commissioners followed that advice. They voted unanimously to postpone action on the proposal, allowing time to incorporate feedback heard during the meeting’s public hearing. The commission is expected to take up the issue again at its Oct. 5 meeting.
Fuller Road Station
The Fuller Road Station project has a history that dates back more than two years. It was first unveiled publicly as a concept at a January 2009 neighborhood meeting at Northside Grill, when city staff presented to Wall Street residents an early sketch of the possible transit station. The meeting was held in response to concerns that the University of Michigan was planning to build two parking structures on Wall Street, to accommodate demand from its nearby medical complex.
The Fuller Road Station site plan, filed in early August, calls for building a five-level, 977-space parking structure on city-owned property that’s part of Fuller Park, on the south side of Fuller Road and east of East Medical Center Drive. [The land where the proposed structure is to be built has been a surface parking lot since the mid-1990s, leased to UM.] The site would include a 44-space surface parking lot, 17 motorcycle spots and 103 spots for bicycle parking. There would be three entrances from Fuller Road, changes to the road to accommodate those entrances and traffic flow, and landscaping along the road and around the structure. Thirty trees will be planted, and five landmark trees are proposed to be removed – city planning staff has requested that the trees be relocated, rather than taken down.
This first phase of the project is expected to cost $32 million. The city hopes eventually to build a train station at that location as well, but that isn’t part of the current site plan. In addition, the parking structure could eventually be expanded to include up to 1,600 spaces.
The project has been discussed at several public meetings, with the city’s park advisory commission (PAC) in particular raising concerns about its location and financial agreement with UM. Chronicle coverage includes:
- “UM Helps Start Analysis Phase for Fuller Road Transit Station” – Aug. 17, 2009 city council meeting, at which councilmembers authorized the station’s conceptual design. The cost of $541,717 would be divided between UM and the city at a 75%/25% split.
- “City Seeks Feedback on Transit Center” – the first presentation about the project to PAC at its September 2009 meeting.
- “Fleshing Out Fuller Road Station” – Feb. 10, 2010 public forum on the project.
- “Transit Forum Critiques Fuller Road Station” – Feb. 15, 2010 forum on transit-oriented development, where experts gave feedback on projects in Howell, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, including Fuller Road Station.
- “Concerns Voiced over Fuller Road Station” – March 16, 2010 PAC meeting.
- “AATA Gets Its Fill of Fuller Road Station” – April 21, 2010 meeting of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, which is a key player in seeking funding for the project.
- “Better Deal Desired on Fuller Road Station” – May 4, 2010 meeting of PAC commissioners to develop a resolution asking council to call off the project, or to negotiate a better deal with UM. This article also includes a report of the city’s planning commission vote related to Fuller Road Station, when they amended the list of permitted principal uses of public land – specifically, changing a “municipal airports” use to “transportation facilities.”
- “Hieftje Urges Unity on Fuller Road Station” – May 18, 2010 PAC meeting, which mayor John Hieftje attended to lobby for support of the project.
- “PAC Softens Stance on Fuller Road Station” – June 1, 2010 working session to revise PAC’s draft of a resolution related to the project.
- “Park Commission Asks for Transparency” – June 15, 2010 PAC meeting, when a resolution was passed calling for city council to make available a complete plan of Fuller Road Station – including any significant proposed agreements, such as what the university will pay the city for use of the structure – allowing sufficient time for a presentation at a televised PAC meeting before council votes on the project. The resolution also asked that staff and city council ensure the project results in a net revenue gain for the parks system.
- “Park Commission Gets Update on Fuller Road Station” – July 20, 2010 PAC meeting, which included a presentation on the project.
Fuller Road Station: Staff Report
At Tuesday’s meeting, Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation programs manager, gave commissioners an overview of the project, covering much of the same ground he’s traced in other venues, including the July 20 PAC meeting. He said the project team had been working “feverishly” to bring the vision of a transit station to reality, and he reiterated the need to address the growing number of commuters coming into Ann Arbor. Progress on developing an east/west commuter rail hasn’t been as fast as they’d hoped, Cooper acknowledged, referring to a lack of federal funding for the project so far. But he said he remains hopeful that commuter rail is forthcoming, and cited as an initial step an excursion train from Ann Arbor to Detroit for the Thanksgiving Day parade.
Cooper pointed out that Jim Kosteva, UM’s director of community relations, was in attendance that night, which Cooper said reflected UM’s support for Fuller Road Station. The project doesn’t benefit one partner more than another, he said, and the relationship with UM is to be celebrated.
Cooper also took issue with frequent references to the station as a parking structure. Though it was true that levels two and above are dedicated to parking, the ground level is “absolutely intermodal,” he said. Plans call for five bus bays and a bike storage area that Cooper hopes will evolve into a more robust bike maintenance area. There’s also a bike plaza on the exterior of the structure that Cooper hopes the bicycling community will embrace as a gathering place.
Jeff Kahan of the city’s planning staff gave a report on the staff’s recommendations. He noted that from a planning perspective, the city’s land use master plan called for the site to be parks and open space. The Parks & Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan identifies the site as part of Fuller Park. The city’s transportation plan update of 2009 recommends that the site be used for a commuter rail station, while the FY2010-15 capital improvements plan gives the project – identified as the Amtrak station relocation – an “urgent” priority.
The staff report notes that the site plan identifies several non-motorized improvements – such as bike paths – but the plan calls for most of those to be added in “future phases.” Planning staff strongly recommends that at least the path to the Fuller bridge be part of this first phase, as it would provide an important link to the county’s Border-to-Border trail system, according to the report.
The staff report also mentions that pathways for bicycles and pedestrians had emerged in early discussions as a core part of the project, but are not included in the first phase. From the report:
A connection to Riverside Park, for example, would facilitate employees of the University Medical Center to access the Kellogg Eye Center safely from the parking structure. As the parking structure that was originally planned for the vicinity of the Kellogg Eye Center is not being constructed at this time, these commuters need to be accommodated in the Fuller parking structure, and should have a safe way to travel to the Eye Center. Another example is an underpass, utilizing the existing space that was planned for a pathway under the Fuller Road bridge on the east end of the site, which would facilitate a much safer crossing then the at grade crossing on Fuller Road. Elements of the approved Master Plans should be incorporated into this project.
However, the project generally complies with local, state and federal laws and regulations, and the planning staff recommended approval of Fuller Road Station, Kahan said. [Link to full set of planning documents related to Fuller Road Station's site plan, downloadable from the city's Legistar system]
Fuller Road Station: Public Hearing
Seventeen people spoke during Tuesday’s public hearing. Most of the speakers argued against the project, and were greeted with applause by audience members after their comments. Here’s a sampling:
Larry Deck of the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition told the commission that WBWC was requesting three things: 1) that the Border-to-Border trail system be completed first, so that Fuller Road Station would complement it, rather than conflict with it, 2) that the trail system be completed before the bike center is finished, because without proper bicycle access, the bike center would have little value, and 3) that UM should share in the cost of constructing and maintaining the trails, because a large number of university staff and students would use them. He estimated the cost of the trails would be about 1% of the cost of the parking structure. If it’s truly to be an intermodal facility, it’s important to address all of the modes at the outset, Deck said, rather than as an afterthought.
John Satarino, a former park advisory commissioner, started by saying he’d just heard that all excursion rail trips had been canceled, and suggested that Cooper get updated on that. He noted that the site plan being considered was for 10 acres, while all the public forums had previously focused on a roughly 3-acre site – he asked commissioners to clarify that. Satarino then described some history of the site, saying that in 1959 Detroit Edison offered to sell the city over 950 acres in that area. In August 1962 a formal resolution authorized the mayor to sign contracts acquiring the land, designated for the preservation of permanent open space – the deal was finalized in September 1963, Satarino said. The city agreed to pay $400,000 over five years, an amount that included a $120,000 federal grant which stipulated the land needed to be kept as open space, Satarino said. He said there’s a simply worded deed restriction from 1959, which states that the land is “subject to dedication as a wildlife sanctuary.”
Satarino also cited the 2008 voter referendum, when over 84% of city voters approved a charter amendment barring the sale of city parkland without voter approval. But the city has found a way to circumvent that vote by setting up long-term use agreements, he said. The public’s fears that the city was planning to secretly sell the land to UM were confirmed when it was revealed that the city had obtained an appraisal for the property in 2004, at over $4 million, Satarino said. The use of municipal immunity, allowing the city to ignore its own rules, means the sad truth is that parkland has no protection, he concluded.
Kathy Griswold raised concerns about the plan’s transportation engineering. The area is very congested, she said, and what she sees in the site plan is something much less than best practices in traffic engineering. One example is the middle entrance – instead of a “Michigan left,” which Griswold described as a safer option, the plan calls for a crossover. Without a traffic signal, there will be problems because of the congestion. She said she’s also troubled that the drop-off can only be accessed if you’re in the eastbound traffic lane. These are probably minor details given the complete scope of the project, she said, but traffic issues are serious and should be addressed prior to site plan approval.
Jim Mogensen also raised safety concerns. Among other things, he cited the potential roundabout at the intersection of Fuller, East Medical Center Drive and Maiden Lane. He said he lives near the roundabout on Nixon Road, and people are learning to cope, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. He cautioned that many people would be coming to the medical complex from outside this area, and wouldn’t be familiar with using a roundabout.
Noting that she was conflicted because she supports the idea of commuter rail, Marta Manildi said the prospect of the parking structure is frightening, in part because it could grow much larger than proposed. Her home is within 300 feet of the site, and she is concerned about light pollution, noise pollution and traffic. The public should be given more opportunity to comment, she said. [Manildi is a member of the city's housing commission.]
Several other residents who serve on various city commissions spoke against the project. Gwen Nystuen, a park advisory commissioner who’s been an outspoken opponent, said the city purchased this land specifically for use as a park. The area is zoned as “public land,” and Nystuen noted that the planning commission had recently voted to alter one of the permitted uses of public land to include “transportation facilities.” There’s really nothing that can’t be considered a public land use, she said. She wondered if alternative sites were considered, and if nothing else is suitable, she said they should at least mitigate the decision by providing an equal area of similar parkland elsewhere.
Also speaking in opposition to the site plan were Ellen Ramsburgh, chair of the city’s historic district commission, and Christopher Graham, who serves on the environmental commission and helped write the city’s natural features master plan – which calls out the Huron River valley as the city’s preeminent natural feature. Eli Gallup led the way to acquire this property along the river in the 1960s, Graham said, as the first step in creating a scenic corridor through the city. Residents have worked hard to add to that over the years, he added, until this ethical lapse on the part of city administration that will convert parkland to a non-park use, without a vote. He suspects the voters wouldn’t approve.
Graham said the agreement with the university stinks, because it brings in less income to the city compared to UM’s current lease of the surface parking lot on that site. Maybe the dream of commuter rail will happen, but until the city has a signed agreement – including operational support for rail – it’s just a dream, Graham said. He asked commissioners to permanently table this site plan.
Former city councilmember Robert Johnson spoke against the project, arguing that the site plan dramatically changes the relationship between the city and its parks, which he described as vulnerable. There’s a charter amendment that prevents the sale of parkland without voter approval, and an ordinance that says construction on parkland must be for park purposes, he said, but the city is now saying they can ignore these protections. In the past, the city worked in concert with the wishes of its citizens and tried to prevent degradations to its parks. The city can ignore its own ordinances, but should it? As planning commissioners, they need to think about the broader implications about their development decisions, he said. This project will set a precedent that will haunt the community for years to come, he concluded.
Ethel Potts stated that some of the more critical statements about the project at the last two public participation forums hadn’t been included in the staff report. She asked a series of questions: What alternative sites were considered? How can they reconcile this major encouragement of the use of cars, which is in conflict with the city’s non-motorized transportation plan? Will it ever be a train station? Why isn’t UM building parking on its own land? The plan isn’t ready for adoption, she said.
Rita Mitchell noted that the plan for Fuller Road Station had been developed without involving the true stakeholders: the public. It encourages the use of cars, and the likelihood of commuter rail seems limited. At this point, the land could be returned to open space – that won’t be possible if the parking structure is built, she said. There seems to be a strategy of re-purposing parkland, starting with a temporary use. In addition to the example of the surface parking lot being converted to a large parking structure, Mitchell cited a plan to use Allmendinger and Frisinger parks for Saturday football parking [a staff proposal that was rejected by city council] and the current request for proposals (RFP) for a possible private/public partnership at Huron Hills golf course.
This approach changes the public’s perception of the land and its sense of ownership, Mitchell said, until they eventually think of it more for parking than for parks. If the city can do this, she said, then it can do anything in any of the parks that the people of Ann Arbor love and have repeatedly supported with tax dollars. She asked commissioners not to violate the people’s trust. She cited a line from a Joni Mitchell song, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” then added, “Let’s not do that.”
Barbara Bach asked commissioners to table action on the site plan until they can address several unresolved issues. Nothing about the project encourages alternative transportation, she said – quite the opposite. There’s confusion about the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the university. Is it a long-term lease? The effect is a transfer of land to the university, she said. There’s confusion between this site plan and the intentions of the city’s master plans, zoning and building standards – this land is not zoned for development, she said. There’s confusion about process – how did officials select this particular site? What alternative sites were explored? How is it possible that the city has spent $600,000 in tax dollars, plus staff time, when they haven’t even started construction? Bach said if the city wants to explore public transportation, they should do it – but don’t be fooled by calling a parking structure a train station.
Two people – Elizabeth Donahue Colvin and Kitty Morloch – spoke in favor of the project. They represented two associations in the Maiden Lane area: Riverside Park Place Condominium Association and the Maiden Lane Neighborhood Association. [Colvin also addressed the AATA board at its Sept. 16, 2010 meeting expressing support for Fuller Road Station.] Residents were relieved that the parking pressure had been taken off of their neighborhood, they said. Fuller Road is a more appropriate location to build a large parking structure, Colvin said. [UM had previously planned to building parking facilities on Wall Street, a move that residents of that area protested.] More broadly, Colvin endorsed the transit center, and said that if commuter rail does become a reality, economic development will follow.
Fuller Road Station: Deliberations, Questions, Comments
Planning commissioners asked a wide range of questions over the course of nearly two hours of deliberations. This report organizes a summary of that discussion thematically.
Fuller Road Station Deliberations: Traffic Engineering
Bonnie Bona asked Eli Cooper to address the traffic engineering concerns that had been raised in public commentary, regarding access to the facility and access to drop-offs. Cooper said that the use of the “Michigan left” presented its own set of safety issues, with vehicles merging and weaving across lanes of traffic. The crossover allows cars to stop, wait until traffic is clear, then cross. Regarding drop-offs, it’s true that access is possible only from the eastbound lane, he said. But a planned roundabout will guide traffic from the westbound to the eastbound lanes, and will be designed to handle anticipated traffic capacity through 2035.
Bona noted that the roundabout is planned for a future phase. She wondered what Cooper’s comfort level was for the project without the roundabout, or whether it should be part of this first phase. At minimum, Cooper replied, there should be “coincidental development” – putting Fuller Road Station in a congested area would be a “death knell,” he said. The timing and funding for the roundabout aren’t yet identified, he added, but it’s important to move quickly.
[The full traffic impact report is downloadable from the Fuller Road Station website.]
Fuller Road Station Deliberations: Bike and Pedestrian Paths
Noting that she’s a regular user of the Border-to-Border trail, Bonnie Bona asked why plans for bike paths aren’t incorporated into this phase of the project. Cooper said it had been included initially, but was eliminated because of budgetary considerations. Those paths aren’t directly related to issues in the memorandum of understanding between the city and the university, he said. [.pdf file of the MOU] But the fact that the paths are in the non-motorized transportation plan and the PROS plan will keep them a priority, he added.
Erica Briggs also had concerns about the pathway connections. She noted that planning staff has strongly recommended that a shared path be incorporated into the project.
Jean Carlberg asked about the trail connections, noting that a key piece was the ability to cross Huron River. What was the time frame for completing that part of the pathway? Cooper said that if they were to do the design today, it would take two to three years to complete. That part of the path is included in the non-motorized transportation plan, he noted.
Westphal said that if this were a private development, he would make approval contingent on the completion of the trails. He wouldn’t allow the petitioner to tell them that it wasn’t financially feasible or that they’d do it in the future.
Fuller Road Station Deliberations: Alternative Transportation
Bonnie Bona asked Jim Kosteva, UM’s director of community relations, to explain how the university was addressing its parking needs, noting that this structure wouldn’t provide spaces for all its employees. Kosteva estimated that overall, 40% of UM employees are getting to work via alternative transportation – vanpools, carpools, buses and park-and-ride lots, biking or walking. The university has strong incentives designed to increase that percentage. He said the medical complex has the largest concentration of employees, and an expectation of growth there.
Tony Derezinski, a Ward 2 city councilmember who serves on the planning commission, asked what AATA’s role was in the Fuller Road Station. Eli Cooper responded, saying AATA officials had helped shape the project from the beginning. That includes design of the structure to accommodate buses, as well as grant applications for federal funding. They’re also helping with the environmental assessment. AATA will be “all in,” Cooper said.
Eric Mahler questioned the level of anticipated bus service – an estimated 460 UM buses passing through Fuller Road Station each day. How does that compare to current service in that area? Cooper replied that currently during peak periods, buses are running every two minutes, but he didn’t know how that was distributed over the day. Kosteva said that not all of those buses would be making stops at Fuller Road Station.
Fuller Road Station Deliberations: Building Design
The design of the structure received criticism from several commissioners. Erica Briggs described it as “not very inspiring,” and not incorporating progressive elements of design. There’s nothing that welcomes people to Ann Arbor, or that would make it recognizable as a gateway to the city, she said. The structure didn’t seem to incorporate public art or try to integrate more as a building rather than a parking garage, she said, adding that she assumed it was because of budgetary constraints.
Dick Mitchell of the Ann Arbor firm Mitchell and Mouat agreed that the south elevation, facing north toward the railroad tracks, is most lacking. That’s the side that won’t be used until later phases, he said.
He described some elements of the design that make it distinctive, including the 18-foot ceilings of the ground level, some decorative metalwork, and the plans for public art. [The Ann Arbor public art commission has been told they'll be involved in a task force to select public art for Fuller Road Station, and at their last meeting expressed some frustration that the process of forming the task force has been slow. They discussed the project at length during their July 13, 2010 meeting.]
Bonnie Bona said she found the design to be less than what she’d expect for a gateway. She didn’t blame the architect, noting that Mitchell and Mouat had designed the Fourth and Washington parking structure, which had also been the most expensive one in the city to build. But don’t tell the public that it’s a gateway building if it’s just going to be designed as a parking structure, she said. The challenge is to really make it a gateway.
Eric Mahler also echoed comments about wanting to make it a gateway, and said he’d encourage a design that would “wow” people. Ann Arbor has the best combination of assets to make it a leader in the state in terms of job growth along this corridor, he said.
Fuller Road Station Deliberations: Land Use, Public Process
Stating that she wasn’t sure it was the purview of the planning commission, Erica Briggs expressed dismay over concerns that residents had raised during public commentary about the re-purposing of parkland. She said she hadn’t yet heard the issue addressed in a straightforward manner. It might be more compelling if the train station were being built, she said, but it’s not part of this initial phase. Briggs said it was useful to hear some of the historical context provided by the public commentary, including Eli Gallup’s vision for this area. There was never a public process for this project, she said, and that’s a concern.
Eli Cooper responded, saying that the deeds had been inspected by the city attorney’s office, and this is the first time he’s heard about any deed restrictions or covenants on the property. The land is zoned as public land, he said, and though it’s listed as parkland in the city’s master plan, it’s been a parking lot for nearly 20 years. The question of building on parkland is one for city council and the public, he added. For his part, Cooper said he’s done the best he could to ensure minimal intrusion, maintaining as small a footprint as they can. The issue of 3 acres versus 10 acres relates to the amount of land that’s included in stormwater management – most of the 10 acres will continue to be open space. Fuller Road Station itself is on 3.5 acres of land, he said.
Wendy Woods later followed up on the issue of deed restrictions, asking if commissioners could get copy of information from the city attorney’s office related to their research. It would be helpful, she said, because there’s a lot of concern about that. Cooper said he didn’t know why that wouldn’t be possible. [As of Friday, Sept. 24, commissioners had not yet received this information.]
Woods also asked about the question of whether alternative sites were explored. Cooper said the location of a major commuter rail is not a small undertaking. They needed a site that’s contiguous to the railroad tracks. They looked at the existing Amtrak station site, but needed more space for parking – at least 3 acres, he said – in order to support commuter rail. They needed access to major roadways, which Fuller Road provides. The current proposed site also gives them access to the region’s largest employment base, he said, and there’s development potential – the Lowertown site – within walking distance.
Kirk Westphal said he didn’t see citizen comments included in the meeting packet provided to commissioners. Jeff Kahan of the city planning staff responded that commissioners received an executive report of comments, and Cooper added that all questions and comments were recorded, reduced into a “professional format” and included in a citizen participation report. [The 5.7MB report is downloadable as a .pdf file from the city's Legistar system.]
Westphal clarified that the citizen participation ordinance requires the petitioner to respond to questions, in written form. Cooper said that the Fuller Road Station website includes a FAQ (frequently asked questions) document that addresses citizen questions. Westphal noted that if this were a project submitted by a private developer, the commission would expect to see answers to those questions submitted as part of the meeting packet.
The main stumbling block for approval, Westphal said, is that the citizen participation ordinance hasn’t been followed for this project.
Fuller Road Station Deliberations: Partnerships
Eric Mahler pointed out that there were other examples of the city partnering with the university – the Forrest Avenue parking structure was the most similar, he said. Eli Cooper and Jim Kosteva agreed, with Kosteva noting that the university and the city had an ongoing operating agreement for that structure as well. But there are numerous examples of the university partnering with the city and other local entities, Kosteva said. He cited the connector study that’s being paid for by UM, AATA and the city; the partnership between AATA and UM’s MRide bus system; and the fact that the city’s detective unit is being housed in university offices at no charge, while the new municipal center is being built.
Tony Derezinski clarified that it improved the city’s chances of getting federal funding if they could show collaboration among different entities. Cooper confirmed that view, saying that in addition to the university and AATA, the city was working with Greyhound, SEMCOG (the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments), the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) – up and down the chain of transportation entities, he said, there was a buzz about the potential of this project.
Fuller Road Station Deliberations: General Comments
Kirk Westphal clarified that the planning commission’s charge was to determine whether the site plan met the city’s project development standards. And because it’s zoned public land, there are no area, height and placement requirements to meet. Westphal asked Jeff Kahan whether the city’s various planning documents – the PROS plan, master plan, etc. – should be brought to bear. Master plan elements are not standards, Kahan said, but can be used to give guidance.
Erica Briggs said she was confused by the staff recommendation for approval, given the concerns related to parks and planning issues. Phase 1 of the project is contradictory to many of the city’s planning documents, she noted, though the future phase – when a commuter rail station is planned – would fit the city’s goals. Major elements in the process have been overlooked, and she couldn’t support it.
Bonnie Bona said she appreciated everyone who came to speak, and that she’d struggled with the same issues: How to have an exciting transit center, while at the same time protecting parks. She fully supports the master plan, which calls for this type of use at that location. She also supports putting parking there, rather than on Wall Street or Maiden Lane. Bona noted that while the university needs parking, it also does more than the city to encourage alternative transportation, which is positive. She said that the issue was more about the quality of parks, and she challenged city officials to improve the park system – in part by making pathway connections – and not just focus on acreage.
Evan Pratt noted that the project involves a controversial and difficult policy decision, with financial concerns, and issues of quality-of-life, sustainability and public process, among other things. The planning commission’s role is to determine if any of the development standards are deficient, he said – it’s the role of city council to decide policy. He said he doesn’t envy the next step in the process.
As a voter, Pratt said he guessed he had more faith in the city than some people. There’s been investment in the park system, he said, so he’s not suspicious that the council wants to gut the parks. He noted that millions of dollars are being invested in places like West Park and Mary Beth Doyle Park, and he believes there will be continued investment in the city’s parks. Pratt said he wanted to bring some balance to other comments that had been made that night.
Outcome: Commissioners voted 7-2 to approve the Fuller Road Station site plan, with dissent from Kirk Westphal and Erica Briggs. The plan will next be considered by city council.
Medical Marijuana Zoning
The issue of local regulation of medical marijuana first emerged publicly at the Aug. 5, 2010 meeting of the Ann Arbor city council, when councilmembers considered a resolution originally drafted by city attorney Stephen Postema to impose a temporary moratorium on the dispensing and growing of medical marijuana. The city council ultimately passed a modified version of the moratorium, with exemptions for patients and caregivers, a grandfathering-in of existing facilities in the city and a reduction in the length of the moratorium from 180 to 120 days. The moratorium ends Dec. 3.
The resolution passed by the council also directed the city staff and planning commission to look at possible zoning ordinance changes, with the intent of regulating medical marijuana in Ann Arbor. Since then, the city’s planning staff and the ordinance revisions committee of the planning commission have been developing recommendations to change the city’s zoning code. The changes would regulate medical marijuana dispensaries as well as marijuana grown by registered caregivers as a “home occupation.”
Though the city council did not discuss it publicly, the city attorney’s office is separately pursuing the possibility of licensing medical marijuana providers. [See Chronicle coverage: "Licensing or Zoning for Medical Marijuana?"]
In addition to work by the ordinance revisions committee, the planning commission discussed the topic at its Sept. 14 working session, where about a half-dozen advocates for medical marijuana – many of whom also attended Tuesday’s regular meeting – gave input on the proposed ordinance.
In its draft version, the main points of the ordinance address three issues: 1) types of facilities allowed, 2) location of facilities, and 3) enforcement. [.pdf file of draft zoning ordinance related to medical marijuana]
From the staff report:
Types of Facilities Allowed
Medical marijuana home occupations consist of one or two caregivers growing and/or transferring medical marijuana from a single-family dwelling in which they reside.
Medical marijuana dispensaries consist of three or more caregivers transferring medical marijuana to patients.
Medical marijuana cultivation facilities consist of three or more caregivers or eleven or more patients growing marijuana on a parcel.
A patient may grow plants as allowed by the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act (MMMA) in their dwelling. If eleven or more patients wish to grow medical marijuana together on a parcel other than where they reside, they are considered to be a cultivation facility.
Location of Facilities
Medical marijuana home occupations are allowed in a single-family dwelling in any zoning district, subject to limits on the floor area devoted to the home occupation and neighborhood impacts. Caregivers must deliver medical marijuana to their patients.
Medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities may not be located in residential, office or neighborhood commercial (C1) districts. Each is allowed in certain commercial, and industrial districts, and cultivation is also allowed in research districts. Neither is allowed within 200 feet of a residential zoning district, and they must be 500 feet from another dispensary or cultivation facility and 1000 feet from a primary or secondary school.
Zoning compliance permits are required annually for dispensaries, cultivation facilities, and home occupations.
Violations of the zoning ordinance are a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $500 per instance.
Medical Marijuana: Public Hearing
Fifteen people spoke during public commentary that wrapped up around midnight – many more people attended the meeting but did not speak during the public hearing. All of the speakers supported medical marijuana, and applause from the crowd followed most of their comments. At one point, commissioner Bonnie Bona gently admonished the audience, saying that although she appreciated everyone’s passion on the topic, if someone present at the meeting had an opposing view, they’d likely find the applause intimidating.
Here’s a sampling of the comments:
Mark Curtis of Spring Arbor, Michigan, told planning commissioners they should be aware that the ordinance passed in Ann Arbor might be used as a model for other cities. In his household, there are four people who need medical marijuana – he, his wife and their two grown children. He had heard the city was thinking about limiting the number of people who can grow marijuana to two per home, as a “home occupation.” He cautioned that the four people who were growing it in his home weren’t doing it as an occupation – it was medication. There are serious side effects to most pain medication, but there aren’t side effects to medical marijuana, he said. So it’s logical to use marijuana instead of prescription drugs.
Gersh Avery of Dexter spoke at length about the liver damage caused by most opiate drugs – 1,800 people in Michigan die every year because of the side effects of pain medication. Medical marijuana is a viable alternative, he said. His remarks prompted Eric Mahler, the commission’s chair, to note that they’re not debating the benefits of medical marijuana. The comments that would be most helpful, he said, would be pertinent to the proposed ordinance or zoning related to medical marijuana.
Sam Mendez of Ann Arbor described himself as a patient and caregiver. He reviewed the proposal and said he found it very reasonable. He asked that the commission strongly consider grandfathering in existing facilities that don’t meet the ordinance requirements. The restrictions on home occupations are reasonable, he said, but it’s important to make clear the difference between 1) home occupations, where people grow medical marijuana for patients who don’t live there, and 2) patients who grow medical marijuana for themselves in their homes. Referencing the first speaker, he said that everyone who lives in the same home should be able to grow medical marijuana for themselves, assuming it’s not grown as a business.
Eric VanDussen of Traverse City, who was videotaping the proceedings, told commissioners that it was asinine for speakers to be required to state their home address. He pointed out that the meeting was being broadcast on live TV, and that many of the speakers were people who grew medical marijuana in their homes. This was information that the state didn’t even allow to be released, he noted.
Stating that he was in extraordinary pain, Chuck Ream noted that more than 79% of local voters had voted in favor of the 2008 statewide medical marijuana referendum, and that at a recent Ann Arbor city council meeting, the police chief had stated that there had been no problems related to it. He reminded the commission that the city of Ann Arbor had voted to impose only a $5 fine on marijuana possession in 1972, and had voted to allow medical marijuana under a charter amendment in 2004 – he wondered why there was no mention of that charter amendment in the staff report.
Ream said there’s no reason to keep dispensaries 200 feet from a residential area – he quipped that people who grow and sell medical marijuana don’t have cooties – they are helping people. There’s also no reason why dispensaries shouldn’t be allowed in C1 (office) zoning areas, he said, nor is there any reason to prevent dispensaries from being within 500 feet of each other. Ream also took issue with preventing caregivers from growing marijuana outdoors, saying it would save on fossil fuel. There’s no need for the section regulating home occupations at all, he said – it’s completely covered by state law. He disputed the section of the proposed ordinance that would require caregivers to get annual zoning permits – that’s fine for dispensaries, he said, but you can’t go into people’s homes.
Michael Meade said he’d been an Ann Arbor resident for 32 years, and shared the concerns of other speakers. The proposed ordinance was written too broadly, he said, and much of it was already covered by the state law. He objected to the use of the term “drug paraphernalia,” saying that it had a pejorative connotation.
Meade was one of several people who spoke about the restrictions on limiting dispensaries to 200 feet from residential areas and 500 feet from each other. He asked that the city not legislate based on fear or stereotype, and noted that tobacco and alcohol were more dangerous than cannabis, but there were no such restrictions on those businesses. Another speaker pointed out that no crime was being committed, so there was no rationale to restrict dispensaries from operating within 1,000 feet of a school.
Dennis Hayes, a local attorney, spoke on behalf of the Ann Arbor Medical Marijuana Patients Collective, which he said represents about 1,400 patients and caregivers. There are patients whose needs aren’t being met, he said. Zoning should facilitate the ability of caregivers to produce this medicine – it’s hard work, he noted – and facilitate access so that patients can have the widest variety of options to suit their medical needs. Neighborhoods aren’t being impacted, Hayes said – that’s an urban myth perpetuated by people who are neither caregivers nor patients, nor people who are interested in helping them. He urged commissioners to keep in mind the patients who have real needs and the caregivers who are working hard to meet those needs. Ann Arbor has been at the forefront of this issue in the past, he concluded, and he thinks they can develop a model ordinance for the state and the nation.
Brian Fenech identified himself as an Ann Arbor attorney and noted that the state medical marijuana law had too many gray areas – he urged commissioners to choose the ordinance language carefully. He echoed the sentiments about the negative connotation for the phrase “drug paraphernalia.” He said that while zoning restrictions were fine for pornographers or people selling tobacco and alcohol, when they’re talking about compassionate individuals who are attempting to provide medicine for those with serious debilitating conditions, perhaps some of these restrictions aren’t the best choice.
Liz Pierce pointed to the section that would require caregivers to deliver marijuana to their patients, and said that she knows a number of patients who don’t feel comfortable disclosing their address to their caregiver. They should be allowed to pick it up from the caregiver.
Mark Passerini of Ann Arbor, founder of a local dispensary, reminded commissioners that this isn’t a medical issue, it is a health issue. Thousands of patients statewide need access to medical cannabis, he said, and the state law was written and passed to protect those patients. He asked them to grandfather in existing dispensaries, and to allow for different delivery methods – he noted that not all patients want to smoke.
Identifying himself as a long-time Ann Arbor resident, John Weston invited commissioners to interview patients and caregivers to get a better feel for what’s really going on. He sensed that they were bringing old-fashioned ideas to the table, and that they needed more information in order to make an accurate decision.
Medical Marijuana: Commissioner Deliberations
Commissioners took planning staff’s recommendation and voted unanimously to postpone action on the ordinance until their Oct. 5 meeting. After their vote, they continued discussion on the issue.
Erica Briggs questioned the restriction on odors for people in the category of “home occupations.” She said it seemed a little too much to regulate. Kirk Westphal also addressed the odor issue, and asked how someone would go about complaining if there were an odor problem. Jill Thacher of the city’s planning staff said complaints would be handled just like other zoning complaints related to noise or light. The city would literally have a planning staff member or a police officer go and stand at the property line. If they didn’t smell anything, then there’d be no zoning violation, she said.
Jean Carlberg asked how the city could get a list of current dispensaries and home occupations – they’d need such a list if they decided to grandfather in existing businesses, she noted. Thacher said the city doesn’t have a comprehensive list. Not everyone wants to be identified as having a medical marijuana operation, she said.
Wendy Woods noted that home occupations are limited to single-family homes. Does that mean people can’t grow medical marijuana if they live in an apartment? she asked. Thacher said that’s true if the caregiver is operating a home occupation and selling to patients. If someone grows medical marijuana for their own use, they can do that no matter where they live.
Bonnie Bona said it would be helpful to know which components of the proposed ordinance are consistent with other ordinances, and which parts are unique to this ordinance.
Briggs mentioned the concern that had been raised during public commentary about having people state their home address. She asked that in future public hearings, people be required only to say what city they live in.
Eric Mahler asked whether there was any state-level statute being considered related to this issue. He noted that the city had been moving to act on banning cell phone use while driving, but called off action because they didn’t want to duplicate efforts underway in Lansing. Thacher said there wasn’t anything pending in the immediate future regarding medical marijuana.
Woods asked how this ordinance would apply to university housing. She said she asked because she works with students. [Woods is associate director of the Michigan Community Scholars Program.] Thacher responded that the university isn’t regulated by the city’s zoning laws, so her sense is that it wouldn’t affect residence halls.
Diane Giannola asked whether it would be possible for landlords to impose restrictions on tenants regarding medical marijuana. Thacher said she thought so, based in part on her own experience with restrictive leases.
Outcome: Commissioners will continue their discussion and are expected to take action on the proposed zoning changes related to medical marijuana at their Oct. 5 meeting.
Arbor Dog Daycare
The owners of Arbor Dog Daycare requested an amendment to their existing special exception use that would allow the expansion of their business located at 2856 S. Main St., near the corner of Eisenhower. The proposal would have increased the firm’s square footage within an existing building from 3,200 square feet to a maximum of 8,800 square feet, extended the hours of operation and allowed a maximum of 125 dogs on site, with no more than 25 dogs outside at any one time.
The request had been initially considered at the planning commission’s Dec. 5, 2009 meeting but had been postponed, with the request that the owners address questions issues related to the noise and smell created by the dogs. The commission also asked that the owners hold additional neighborhood meetings; compare the proposed dog daycare standards with the standards of other animal shelter organizations; and provide a description and location of outdoor activities for dogs.
These requests were met, and the planning staff recommended that the amendment to the special exception use be approved.
Arbor Dog Daycare: Public Hearing
Four people spoke during the public hearing, including the two owners. A neighbor who lived on Oakbrook Drive in the nearby Balmoral Park condominium complex, north of Arbor Dog Daycare, said he supported small businesses and commended the efforts of the owners. But his condo is located closest to the outside dog run, and they already hear constant barking and yapping – it’s a real aggravation, he said. “To expand the operation means more barking,” he said, noting that it was a shame they couldn’t put the dog run to the south of the building.
Linda Coon spoke in support of the expansion, saying it was a service that a lot of people used. It was also important to note that when the firm’s capacity is increased, they’ll increase the number of employees, she said. That’s especially important in these economic times, she said, and she hoped the commission would approve the expansion.
Both of the owners – Margaret Svoboda and her husband Jon Svoboda – spoke during the public hearing. Margaret Svoboda said they’d talked to the neighbors and discussed the sound issues, as the commission had previously requested. She felt they had worked out most of the issues.
Jon Svoboda talked about the sound study they had commissioned, reporting that there were 25 dogs in the dog run when the study was done. On the parcel’s north property line, the study showed a one or two decibel increase when the dogs were outside, but if other ambient noise was present – from traffic, for example – then no noise increase was detected. He said they’d agreed with the Balmoral Park condo board to limit the number of dogs outside to 25 at any given time. They want to be good neighbors, he said, and to work through any issues that might arise.
Arbor Dog Daycare: Commissioner Deliberations
Jean Carlberg said she wasn’t convinced that the sound study had addressed what the neighbors are experiencing. Saying she loves dogs, she added that one yapping dog drives her crazy – she couldn’t imagine what 25 dogs would be like. She wondered if there would be any way to soundproof the dog run. Clearly there are neighbors in Balmoral who’ve been bothered by barking, she said. “I can’t ignore that.”
Jon Svoboda responded by saying that at times, there are dogs within the Balmoral complex that are barking. “It’s not all us,” he said. Svoboda said they’ve worked with their landlord and there really isn’t any other option for relocating the dog run. He said they’ve put in a solid wood six-foot-high fence, and they can’t go any higher than that.
Kirk Westphal said he was still struggling with the noise issue. They have to take it on faith from the neighbors that there’s barking coming from the business, and if so, that violates the zoning. Increasing the number of dogs would increase the shifts in the dog run, even if the total number outside at any given time was limited to 25. He wasn’t comfortable with that.
Bonnie Bona said she had the same struggle. She wanted to encourage businesses to grow and expand, and that the indoor expansion wasn’t a problem. Even if they were able to move the dog run, she didn’t think it would matter since there were residential developments on three sides. She didn’t see how she could approve it. Diane Giannola agreed, saying the concerns of the neighbors took precedence.
Margaret Svoboda clarified that there wouldn’t be more dogs outside than they currently have. She clarified for Wendy Woods that they’d be increasing the hours of operation by one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. Svoboda also noted that although the dogs bark, they don’t bark constantly. “I wouldn’t be able to keep employees if they did,” she said.
Carlberg asked what would happen to the business if they couldn’t use the outside dog run. Jon Svoboda indicated that it was part of their firm’s draw, so it’s important to have the ability to take the dogs outside. Margaret Svoboda added that when potential customers call, they ask whether the firm takes the dogs outside and they’re impressed by the amount of outdoor play time provided.
Bona clarified that if their request wasn’t granted, they’d still be able to operate their business as it currently stands.
Mahler said he was sensitive to neighbors’ concerns, but he noted that the president of the Balmoral Park condo association supported the expansion. The project seemed to have an equal number of supporters and detractors, Mahler said. Any requirement to do more than the owners have already done would be a hardship on them, he added. He also noted that the distance between the dog run and the street that separates the property from the condo complex is almost the length of a football field. In addition to that, there are three lanes of traffic. He said he was inclined to support the request.
Outcome: The special exception use requires six votes. Only four commissioners voted in favor of it, so the request was denied. Voting against the proposal were Jean Carlberg, Kirk Westphal, Bonnie Bona and Diane Giannola. Evan Pratt was absent.
Arbor Dog Daycare: Reconsideration
Commissioner Evan Pratt arrived at the meeting after the Arbor Dog Daycare proposal had been acted on. At the end of the meeting – at nearly 12:30 a.m. – Pratt requested that the commission reconsider the item, so that he could vote on the issue. Commissioners agreed, and voted unanimously to reopen the item for consideration.
Pratt asked whether anything had emerged during the deliberations he’d missed that wasn’t mentioned in the meeting packet of materials. Kirk Westphal said his concern was that there would be more shifts of dogs in the dog run during the day. Also, the business is already operating under a special exception use – it’s located in an area zoned for office use, he noted.
Eric Mahler said that no one objected to the expansion inside the building, but the outside dog run was an issue. The owners couldn’t relocate the dog run, and felt that they needed to have one because it gave them a competitive advantage.
Outcome: The second vote also failed to achieve the necessary six votes for approval, though it gained support from Evan Pratt as well as Eric Mahler, Tony Derezinski, Wendy Woods and Erica Briggs. Voting against it were Jean Carlberg, Kirk Westphal, Bonnie Bona and Diane Giannola.
Lake Trust Credit Union
Lake Trust Credit Union plans to construct a new building at the southeast corner of West Liberty and West Stadium Boulevard, and was seeking site plan approval at the Sept. 21 meeting. The project includes demolishing the existing structure and constructing a new one-story, 3,686-square-foot building. The planning staff recommended approval of the site plan. No one spoke during a public hearing on the proposal.
Lake Trust Credit Union: Commissioner Deliberations
Jean Carlberg began by noting that nothing in the report indicates why the current building must be removed. She said she’d hate to see it become a pattern – putting up cheap buildings only to tear them down after a few years.
A representative of BEI Associates, the Detroit firm that’s handling the project, said that credit union officials didn’t feel the current building could handle the volume of business they expected at that location.
Carlberg asked why they’d want to build at an intersecton that already had two banks. [A Bank of Ann Arbor branch is located on the northeast corner, and a KeyBank branch is on the northwest corner.] Denise Gately, the credit union’s vice president of corporate assets, said they wanted to compete and get their name in front of customers, and it was a great location to do that. She also assured commissioners that they wouldn’t be putting up a “throw-away” building. They were in Ann Arbor for the long-term, she said.
Wendy Woods asked whether they knew anything about the mostly vacant strip mall that was adjacent to the bank site – a CVS pharmacy was previously located there. Neither Gately nor the BEI representative had additional information. Woods noted that if the new bank building looks good, it could improve the condition of that entire area.
Bonnie Bona said that although the petition indicated there would be no detrimental effect on the environment, in fact the materials from the demolished building will go into a landfill – something that future generations would have to deal with. She asked if they were planning to do anything to mitigate that, such as recycling or reusing materials. The BEI representative said the building would be demolished to the city’s highest standard.
Outcome: The planning commission approved the credit union’s site plan, with dissenting votes from commissioners Bonnie Bona and Erica Briggs. The site plan will be forwarded to the city council for its approval.
Present: Bonnie Bona, Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.
Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers of city hall, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]