Ann Arbor planning commissioner meeting (Oct. 19, 2010): Three projects were considered at the Oct. 19 planning commission meeting, and commissioners voted to postpone two of them.
One of those projects – related to an expansion of Arbor Dog Daycare – has already appeared before the commission multiple times. Most recently, the proposal was rejected by commissioners in September, primarily due to concerns about noise generated by dogs using the outdoor dog run. Owners Jon and Margaret Svoboda had asked that their request be reconsidered, and commissioners agreed to the reconsideration. But after an hour of discussion on Tuesday evening, commissioners voted to postpone again, asking staff to explore possible conditions – such as an annual review or written policy requirement – that could be added to the special exception use to address the problem of continuously barking dogs.
Also postponed was a request to add more parking to the site of the University Bank headquarters in the building known as the Hoover Mansion on Washtenaw Avenue, and to allow up to 10 additional employees to work at that location. The planning staff had recommended denial of the request, stating that the project impacts natural features and doesn’t offer an overall benefit to the city. However, commissioners asked planning staff to work with bank officials to come up with an alternative proposal for locating new parking.
During a public hearing on the project, bank president Stephen Ranzini told commissioners that if the bank can’t get the additional parking, it could trigger a decision to leave that location and expand elsewhere. He noted that the building, which he said sat vacant for nearly three years before being acquired by the bank, is extremely expensive to maintain, and described himself as a good steward for the property.
A third proposal considered by the planning commission on Oct. 19 – adding parking spots to the Briar Cove Apartments complex on the city’s southwest side – was approved unanimously.
University Bank Request Postponed
University Bank requested approval to revise a planned unit development (PUD), allowing an increase in the total number of employees and parking spaces permitted at the bank’s headquarters at 2015 Washtenaw Ave. – the site known as the Hoover Mansion. The proposal included a request to build 14 new parking spaces on the east side – behind the main building – for a total of 53 spaces on the site.
Planning staff recommended denial, stating that the project impacts natural features and doesn’t offer an overall benefit to the city, as required by a PUD.
University Bank: Public Hearing
Seven people spoke during the public hearing – four residents of the neighborhood, and three people affiliated with the bank project.
Stephen Ranzini, president of University Bank, began by describing various awards and recognitions that the bank has received. He said they’re trying to be as good a custodian for this landmark building as they possibly can. The major asset of the site is its beautiful front lawn, he said, and putting cars on the driveway in front would destroy the aesthetics. The small woods behind the building that they’ve proposed to remove hasn’t been there very long, he said. They have photos of when the mansion was built in 1917, and it shows a field there with sheep grazing. Most of the proposed parking would be put in what’s now a grassy area.
In working with planning staff over the past 20 months, they’ve made three major revisions to the plan, he said, and have held three meetings with neighbors, plus phone conversations and email exchanges. They compromised on the number of spaces they wanted, and had expected to get staff approval, he said. As far as he knows, the only remaining issue is about a few trees located in the area of a proposed driveway, leading to the parking in back.
Ranzini said that if the site weren’t zoned as a PUD, they’d be entitled to more parking than they’re asking for. Parking is critical to the long-term sustainability of that building. He noted that the building had sat vacant for almost three years, and that the cost of maintaining it is extremely high. By expanding the amount of parking, they would increase the size and type of businesses that could ultimately operate there in the future, he said. But if they don’t get approval, it might trigger a decision to leave the site and expand the bank elsewhere. They are currently at capacity, with 50 employees and 35 parking spaces. Ranzini concluded by saying that it would be hard to find a better steward for the building than the bank and himself, but “everyone’s mortal.”
Gerald and Sheryl Serwer, a couple who live next to the bank on Washtenaw Avenue, both spoke during the public hearing. Gerald Serwer discussed two primary concerns: aesthetics and drainage. The property line of their house would abut the access drive to the new parking lot, and several trees and shrubs would be removed, eliminating a natural screen for their home. He also reported that the sump pump in their home’s basement recently broke, and they had standing water in their basement within 12 hours. A proposed drainage basin on the bank property that’s part of the project would be at a higher elevation than their house, he said, potentially adding to their drainage problems.
Sheryl Serwer also raised concerns about eliminating the natural buffer of trees in her side yard, noting that it would eliminate screening to an area that’s used by employees to take smoking breaks and to talk on their cell phones. She said she works at home and notices that existing parking spots are rarely all filled.
Michael Sarosi said he lives on Tuomy Road, directly behind the Hoover Mansion. The bank’s parking lot would essentially be in his back yard, he said. He reported that he recently walked around to houses that are adjacent to the bank property, and asked people who were home whether they wanted a parking lot in their back yard. Everyone he talked to signed a petition against it. He said he was no zoning expert, but he looked at the city’s zoning codes recently for the first time in his life. He said that the parking lot – which comes within 15 feet of their back yards – doesn’t seem to fit with the goals of the zoning in that area. A parking lot isn’t in keeping with anyone’s neighborhood, he said.
Tom Johengen, who also lives on Tuomy, told commissioners that the proposal would essentially put a parking lot in his back yard. He’s concerned about the change to aesthetics of the neighborhood. He was also concerned about drainage issues, noting that the soil in that area is 100% clay, and they’ve already had problems with it.
Matt Kuehn of KEM-TEC Engineering, the contract engineering firm that’s handling the project, briefly described some of the work they’d do, such as installing a European paver system and an underground drainage system, which would bring the entire site up to stormwater compliance, he said. It will actually improve drainage in the surrounding area, he said.
Ken Sprinkles told commissioners that he takes care of the building and facilities for the bank, and that they’ve held numerous public meetings with neighbors about the project. He said the bank is opened limited hours, and headlights from cars wouldn’t be a problem. Their new drainage system would better contain the water on the site, he said, improving drainage in the area. They’ve also offered neighbors to the south some monetary assistance and help with landscaping.
University Bank: Commission Deliberations
Jean Carlberg began by saying she wanted to decrease the impact of parking on the back yard. She asked Chris Cheng of the city’s planning staff whether the extra parking is necessary for the additional employees that the bank wants to bring onto the site.
Cheng said he’d been out to the site twice, and that both times he saw parking spaces that weren’t being used. He said they’ve been having a debate with the bank about whether the current use is more of a bank branch or an office. If it were more like a traditional bank, with a drive-thru and ATM, then it would definitely need more parking, he said – there are only four customer spaces. But planning staff believes it’s more like an office use, and that additional parking spaces can be added without building a new lot in the back of the building, he said. For example, Cheng said they could add at least 10 new spots along the existing 30-foot-wide driveway. The staff thinks it’s possible to create the parking without taking out the woodland area, he said.
However, the bank contends that putting parking spaces along the driveway, which winds around to the front of the property, would impact the aesthetics of the historic building, Cheng said. Bank officials believe that not having parking in front is a public benefit, he said.
Carlberg said she could live with having cars parked along the front during the day. She said she doesn’t feel strongly about the “urban woodland,” noting that much of it is buckthorn, an invasive species. It’s the bank’s responsibility to screen the business from the neighboring residences, she said, and it’s not clear that they’ve adequately addressed that issue. They do appear to have addressed the drainage issue, she added.
Carlberg noted that this particular building is a challenge – it’s difficult for businesses to operate in, and the city needs to plan carefully for its future. She said it’s important for businesses to expand, and in particular she’d love the local bank to stay in this community.
Erica Briggs said she was concerned that the discussion had become focused on the bank not being able to expand without additional parking. She noted that it was located along a strong transit corridor, and if the bank – in this economic climate – couldn’t find employees who’d be willing to take a short bus ride to get to their job, that’s surprising, she said. Briggs also said she shared the kind of concerns that the neighbors had expressed during public commentary.
Tony Derezinski noted that the property is located in his ward – he serves on the city council representing Ward 2, and is the council’s representative to the planning commission. He said he has walked the property with Ranzini, and also talked with neighbors. He had two questions for staff: 1) Had other alternatives been explored to locate parking? and 2) Could additional public meetings be held? The most recent neighborhood meeting held by the bank was in May of 2009, he noted, citing concern about the extent of public involvement.
Cheng said he had strongly encouraged bank officials to hold another neighborhood meeting about the project. He also had suggested alternative places to put the parking, but said he believed the bank was only interested in putting the parking behind the building.
Bonnie Bona echoed Carlberg’s comments, saying the site historically has been difficult to occupy and own, and that she appreciates the struggle. Regarding parking on the curving driveway, she said she’d be more comfortable putting parking there if the drive were straight – it’s hard to park on a curve. She also agreed with Carlberg about the trees, saying that the city’s mitigation requirements are strong when trees are removed.
However, Bona didn’t see any public benefits in the project – the benefits listed by the bank are actually things that are required, she said. The building, which she characterized as underutilized, does need more parking, but the project needed to include benefits. Bona suggested adding a sidewalk and additional landscaping.
Evan Pratt began his comments by saying that the good news is that PUD zoning is discretionary. He also wants the business to grow, but doesn’t want the neighbors to be upset. Referring to the width of the driveway, he noted that 30 feet is a tremendous amount of space. To demonstrate, Pratt got out of his seat and strode across the front of the council chambers, noting that it was roughly 30 feet between the two brick columns there. If you parked a car on one side, there was still plenty of room to pass.
Pratt agreed with his colleagues that having cars parked in front of the property wouldn’t affect the aesthetics, and he said he felt that Carlberg had proposed some reasonable alternatives for parking that didn’t require putting spaces behind the building.
Kirk Westphal clarified the type of business that the bank does at that location – staff considers it to be more like an office use than a retail operation, though it does function as a bank branch. He was concerned that it would become more retail-oriented – “more branchy than officey,” he quipped. He added that the “viewshed” of the mansion is important, but that cars won’t block that view. It’s worth exploring the option of putting parking in front.
Wendy Woods agreed with her colleagues, with the exception that she wanted to say something positive about urban forests. She said she’d be in favor of putting parking somewhere so that natural features aren’t removed.
Derezinski said it seemed like more work needed to be done on the project. “There’s still room for some compromise here,” he said. He loved that the historic building was being used, and noted that “you really worry about something that beautiful going to hell.” Moving to postpone, he urged staff and the bank to come up with some creative alternatives.
Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously to postpone the proposal from University Bank, and asked planning staff to work with bank officials to come up with an alternative proposal for locating new parking spaces.
Arbor Dog Daycare Expansion Postponed Again
The owners of Arbor Dog Daycare, Jon and Margaret Svoboda, have come before the planning commission several times, hoping to get approval for an amendment to their existing special exception use that would allow the business to expand. The business – located at 2856 S. Main St., near the corner of Eisenhower – is surrounded by residential areas. The request was initial considered by the commission at their Dec. 5, 2009 meeting, when they postponed action to allow the owners to address several concerns, including noise issues associated with barking dogs.
The project came before the commission most recently at its Sept. 21 meeting, when commissioners ultimately rejected the request by a 5-4 vote due to concerns about noise generated by dogs using the outdoor dog run. Then at the commission’s Oct. 5 meeting, the Svobodas returned to ask that their request be reconsidered, and commissioners voted unanimously to take up the proposal again at the Oct. 19 meeting.
The major change between the original request and the reconsideration is that the Svobodas offered to keep only 15 dogs outside at any one time, a decrease from the 25 dogs that are allowed currently. They also offered to cut the number of hours that dogs would be permitted outside – on weekdays, for example, it would be limited to 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Arbor Dog Daycare: Public Hearing
Jon Svoboda said he wanted to address some misconceptions about their project. They’ve been in business at that location for four years. They aren’t a kennel, he said. They have staff on site 24/7, and it’s a cage-free environment, which eliminates the vast majority of separation issues that dogs experience, he said. Their staff is trained in canine CPR, and they’ve been recognized by the American Red Cross, the Humane Society of Huron Valley, and Michigan Tails magazine. He said his wife has gone door-to-door at the neighboring Balmoral Park condo complex, handing out her business card with her cell phone number and trying to address residents’ concerns. He noted that the latest issue raised by one neighbor was a concern that the business might lower property values – he said he didn’t know how to address that issue.
He reported that following the Sept. 21 commission meeting – when commissioner Jean Carlberg had stated that she went out to the area and heard continuous barking over an extended period – the dog daycare had held an emergency staff meeting to review their policies. The policy for a dog that’s barking outside is to bring the dog back indoors, he said. They’ve received a lot of support from the community, Svoboda said, and they’re in this business because they love dogs. They adopted their daughter three months ago, he said, but that hasn’t reduced the importance of dogs in their lives. He urged commissioners to approve their request.
Greg Urda spoke briefly, saying he supported Arbor Dog Daycare’s petition. Linda Coon, who has spoken at previous meetings in support of the project, read aloud a letter from the president of the Balmoral Park condo association, who also supported the business.
Margaret Svoboda told commissioners that on three different occasions, she’s gone door-to-door at Balmoral Park, talking to residents and giving out her personal cell phone number. “We don’t want to be bad neighbors,” she said, and leaving barking dogs outside is unacceptable. Svoboda also read a letter from another supporter of the project, who wasn’t able to attend the Oct. 19 meeting.
The final speaker during the public hearing was Tim Thieme, who lives in the Balmoral Park condo complex at the edge of the property nearest to the outdoor dog run. It bothered him to talk against a good business, Thieme said, especially in this economy. But he had two major concerns: 1) the effect of the business on property values, and 2) the noise factor of barking dogs. He said he applauds the business for trying to come up with a solution – lowering the number of dogs that would be outside at any given time – but noise will still be a factor. He wondered if they could move the dog run, or add some more sound barriers. He also wondered why the business had been granted a special exception use in the first place, given that it is located so near a residential area. Thieme said he’d love to see the business expand and be successful, but it would be more appropriate to do that in a rural area.
Arbor Dog Daycare: Commission Deliberations
Diane Giannola began by saying she had been willing to reconsider the proposal because she thought that there’d be new information presented – the owners had said they’d made a video showing that the noise from the dogs wasn’t a problem. [link to video on YouTube] But on the video, she noted, you could only see six dogs outside, not the 20 dogs that are currently allowed. In addition, in the video you could hear dogs barking inside the building – if that’s the case, why would they stop barking when brought outside, she wondered. The third issue for Giannola is that the video made it clear that the dog run is closer to the condos than it seemed on the map. And since there’s really no recourse for residents if the noise ordinance is violated, Giannola said she would still vote against the project.
Kirk Westphal said he had similar concerns. Though he went over to Balmoral Park during his lunch hour and couldn’t hear dogs barking, he noted that commissioner Jean Carlberg had a different experience, when she heard incessant barking. The owners have tried to address this, but his charge is to look at the standards for special exception uses. One of the standards, he said, is that it “will not be detrimental to the use, peaceful enjoyment, economic value or development of neighboring property, or the neighborhood area in general.” [link to full description of special exceptions in Chapter 5 of the Ann Arbor city code] This request doesn’t satisfy that standard, he said.
Evan Pratt asked what would happen if the business changed ownership – would the special exception use still apply? Chris Cheng of the city’s planning staff explained that unless the type of business changes, it would still be valid for new owners. Wendy Rampson, head of the planning staff, said that the commission could put conditions on the special exception use – for example, they would state that a change in ownership would require the new owners to reapply.
Erica Briggs expressed her support for the request. The owners are working hard to address all the concerns, she said, adding that many of the concerns seemed to be fear-based, anticipating things that might happen, but that weren’t necessarily a problem now.
Tony Derezinski agreed with Briggs, and said the only other business that had worked so hard to accommodate its neighbors was Zingerman’s Deli. [See Chronicle coverage: "Zingerman's Expansion Moves Ahead"] It’s also a question of who you decide to listen to, he said – the many supporters, or the few people who have complaints.
Bonnie Bona agreed with Giannola and Westphal. The neighbor at Balmoral Park could hear the dogs now, she said – it wasn’t a speculative concern. She said it was a wonderful business and the owners are clearly doing everything they can, but what if the ownership changes? If there were fewer than 125 dogs, she might feel differently about it, Bona said.
Carlberg said it is indisputable that if there are dogs barking, the people at Balmoral Park will be able to hear them. It’s a nuisance, and it doesn’t matter if it’s one person or five who are bothered. It’s not a situation in which the majority rules, she said. Regarding the policy to remove dogs from the outside dog run if they are barking, Carlberg said it was impossible for employees on the inside – where dogs are also barking – to hear what’s happening outside. It’s an unenforceable policy, she said. She proposed tabling action for another month, to see if the business could operate without complaints from neighbors.
Briggs asked the owners to clarify that there would be two employees outside with the dogs at all times, and that there’d been a change in policy to give any employee the authority to remove a dog from the outside if it were barking.
In response to additional questions from Briggs, Jon Svoboda said he could try to add additional soundproofing to the fence surrounding the dog run, but he was somewhat reluctant to invest because he wasn’t sure it would solve the problem. He said he’d be willing to limit the number of dogs that would go outside at any one time to 11. If he went lower than that, there wouldn’t be enough time for all of the dogs to go outside to use the bathroom, he said. Svoboda also volunteered to lower the total number of dogs in the business from 125 to 100, if that would help gain approval.
Wendy Woods said she appreciated the efforts of the owners, and certainly understood the importance of taking the rights of the minority into consideration. But in this case, as long as there’s one person who says they can hear barking, the business can’t move forward. She was concerned that whatever profit they hoped to gain by expanding was slowly evaporating, because of this delay. And after a while, applying additional conditions becomes onerous. She was in favor of allowing them to proceed.
Several commissioners discussed the difference between the decibel level and the continuous nature of the barking. Woods wondered whether they’d have the same concerns if they were talking about kids crying at a daycare center. The noise ordinance addresses decibel level, but not the continuous nature of the barking – that’s considered a nuisance. Carlberg noted that a nuisance isn’t well-defined, but contended that a dog barking continuously for an hour would fit anyone’s definition.
Tony Derezinski said the discussion was beginning to sound like Heritage Row, referring to the much-discussed residential project proposed by developer Alex de Parry that was ultimately rejected by city council. You can conjure up a lot of reasons to vote against something, he said, if you don’t want to approve it.
The planning staff has recommended approval of the Arbor Dog Daycare request, Derezinski noted. They probably had discussed it 10 times longer than the commission, he said – at some point, that means something. The owners have shown great goodwill, he said, and the fact that one person complaining is enough to bring the project down gives him pause.
Eric Mahler said he’d been in favor of the project before, and he was in favor of it now. The commission is not in the business of property valuation, he said, and they can’t ignore the fact that the vast number of people who’ve responded to the project have supported it. He said he thought they’d talked themselves into an impossible standard for the Svobodas to meet.
Westhphal wondered whether the planning staff would know if neighbors had registered complaints in the past – would community standards officers relay that information? Not necessarily, Cheng said. Westphal then asked whether they could require that the owners renew this request every year. That way, the situation could be monitored – if people complained, they’d have recourse. Cheng wondered what the trigger would be to indicate that the business was out of compliance. Westphal said that was his point – there’s no mechanism for tracking complaints. And for every person who shows up to complain, Westphal said he could guarantee there were others that they just didn’t know about.
Regarding the question of an annual renewal, Rampson said she’d need to check with the city attorney’s office to see if that were appropriate.
Bona said she was more concerned with the issue of a change in ownership. She moved to postpone, to allow planning staff to see how to address that. Carlberg seconded the motion.
Woods said she wasn’t in favor of postponing, but Bona countered that she wouldn’t support the proposal if they voted that night. She asked the Svobodas if they preferred for the commission to vote now, or to wait a month while the city’s planning staff looks at these other issues. Jon Svoboda said they’d waited 13 months already – one more month wouldn’t matter. Margaret Svoboda pointed out that their hands appeared to be tied. If they said they wanted a vote that night, then their proposal would be rejected.
Outcome: The commission voted unanimously to postpone again, asking staff to explore possible conditions – such as an annual review or written policy requirement – that could be added to the special exception use to address the problem of continuously barking dogs.
Parking at Briar Cove Apartments Approved
The commission approved a request by Briar Cove Apartments to add 23 parking spaces throughout the existing apartment complex, to address resident demand for more parking. The complex of 272 apartments in 18 buildings is located on 20 acres at 650 Waymarket Drive, near the Colonade Shopping Center off of Eisenhower Parkway.
The parking would be added in phases, as needed – though the site plan approval covers all phases. The first phase would add on-street parking on Waymarket Drive, and would add another 14 new spaces in a parking area in the northeastern part of the site, including 10 spots that will be covered by a carport. In addition, 28 bike lockers will be installed throughout the complex. The owner will also make landscape improvements, adding 29 oak and maple trees and 33 shrubs.
If later phases are completed, the complex eventually would have a total of 436 parking spaces, including 243 in carports. Planning staff recommended approval of the project.
Briar Cove: Public Hearing
Only one person spoke during the project’s public hearing. Mark Highlen said he represented the apartment complex’s owner, Bella Costa Associates of Farmington Hills. Because of the economy, he said, a lot of people are being pushed into apartment living. The complex is at 96% occupancy, he said. In addition to more units being rented, more people are living in each apartment, he said. The staff gets four to five calls each day related to parking issues – that’s the impetus behind the petition. He said they realized they might not always have such high occupancy, but they needed to address the issue.
Briar Cove: Commission Deliberations
Bonnie Bona said that the request seemed reasonable. She asked where the nearest AATA bus stop was located. Highlen told her that there’s not a bus stop on Waymarket, but there’s one nearby on Eisenhower.
Kirk Westphal clarified that the only assigned parking spots are those under carports. Highlen said that license plate numbers are on file for all tenants, but they don’t check cars unless there’s a problem.
Eric Mahler asked if there wouldn’t be economies of scale to do all the phases at once. Highlen acknowledged that there would be, but noted that they’re trying to balance issues of stormwater management, and also hoping not to disrupt the complex with more construction than is necessary. He said he wouldn’t want to be the one fielding calls from angry tenants, if there was too much disruption.
Outcome: The commission voted unanimously to approve the site plan, subject to additional approval by the Washtenaw County water resources commissioner. The plan does not require approval by the city council.
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 Wednesday, Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]