Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Sept. 8, 2011): At its Thursday meeting – held later in the week than usual because of the Labor Day holiday – commissioners had two main business items on the agenda, and did not recommend in favor of the petitioner for either of them. In one case the commission put off a decision, and in the other commissioners took a vote on the issue.
The commission put off a decision on a proposal from University Bank to increase the number of allowable employees from 50 to 59 at its headquarters on Washtenaw Avenue and to add 14 parking spaces to a new lot on the site. The headquarters is located in what’s known as the Hoover Mansion.
In October 2010, the commission had put off a decision on University Bank’s proposal as well, faced with a recommendation against approval from city planning staff and opposition from some neighbors. This time around, a consensus appeared to have been reached – among planning staff, neighbors and bank officials – to accommodate neighbors’ concerns. However, the commission was reluctant to make a recommendation, because the final site plan had not yet been submitted. The consensus had been achieved only a week ago, on Sept. 1. The vote to postpone, likely until the commission’s next meeting on Sept. 20, was unanimous.
The commission did make a recommendation on a proposal from Walt Hansen and Hannah Cheadle – the owners of Biercamp Artisan Sausage and Jerky – to rezone the property at 1643 and 1645 S. State St., south of Stimson and next to the Produce Station. The parcels currently house the couple’s sausage business as well as an auto repair shop and furniture manufacturer. The commission found the proposed rezoning inconsistent with the city’s master plan and recommended against it.
In connection with the property’s annexation into the city from Ann Arbor Township, the Biercamp owners had wanted to rezone the property to C3 (fringe commercial district). That zoning designation would allow their business to sell a wider variety of merchandise, in addition to the sausage and jerky products they make on site. The recommendation against approval will be forwarded to the city council.
Commissioners offered a glimmer of possibility that commercial zoning for the Biercamp parcel could result from a study of the entire State Street corridor and a revision to the city’s master plan.
At the meeting, commissioners also got an update on future planning-connected events, including a Grand Rapids planning conference that commissioners might want to attend, and visitors from Indonesia that the city is hosting through an International City/County Management Association (ICMA) sustainability fellows program.
The commission also received a heads up that on their Sept. 20 agenda would be a proposal for The Varsity at Ann Arbor, a proposed 13-story, 173-unit, 178,380-square-foot apartment building for approximately 418 students. It would include 77 parking spaces, and would replace the two-story office building and parking lot currently on the site.
University Bank Parking Reconfiguration
The commission was asked to consider a University Bank proposal to increase the number of allowable employees from 50 to 59 at its headquarters on Washtenaw Avenue, and to add 14 parking spaces to a new lot on the site. The headquarters is located in what’s known as the Hoover Mansion.
The change requires amending the supplemental regulations of the site’s planned unit development (PUD) zoning district, which was originally approved in 1978.
The commission did not accept a similar proposal at its Oct. 19, 2010 meeting. They instead tabled it and asked planning staff to work with bank officials to come up with an alternative proposal for locating new parking. At the time, planning staff had recommended denial of the request, stating that the project impacted natural features and didn’t offer an overall benefit to the city.
The current request was initially recommended for approval by staff, but that advice was changed to postponement when the final site plan was not submitted in time for the meeting.
The bank has made several changes based on feedback, according to staff. For example, the new parking lot has been shifted an additional seven feet away from the east property line to reduce the disturbance of woodland in that area. The height of a three-foot-tall masonry screening wall around the parking lot will be increased to six feet, to screen the lot from homes to the east. New bicycle parking spaces are proposed for the southeast corner of the bank building, and a new five-foot-wide walkway connecting Washtenaw Avenue to the bank is proposed for the western part of the site.
At the meeting, city planner Chris Cheng gave the staff report on the University Bank request. He reviewed how it was tabled at the Oct. 19, 2010 planning commission meeting. The staff had recommended that the request be denied back then.
Cheng described how the site plan slide he was projecting on the screen was from last year – due to technical difficulties in getting the current revised site plan, it had not been included in the commission’s packet of materials.
Cheng described how a week before, on Sept. 1, city staff had met with a neighbor and the petitioner and reached a consensus on some additional conditions for the request. Among those were shifting the access drive to be nine feet (instead of one foot) off the property line of the neighboring property at 2021 Washtenaw Ave. The access driveway width has been reduced from 22 feet to 20 feet. The height of the screening wall along the driveway and on the eastern edge of the new parking lot was increased from three feet (specified in the city’s ordinance) to six feet.
Cheng described how University Bank had agreed to put up “no parking” signs at the driveway, as also required by the fire department. Cheng also described how a new five-foot walkway from Washtenaw Avenue up to the Hoover Mansion would encourage alternative transportation as a public benefit. The stormwater detention proposed for the site meets the city’s 100-year storm requirements, he said. Cheng stated that he believed all the neighbors’ concerns had been covered. Staff is waiting for the final site plan submittal in order to do calculations on the impact to the woodland area to determine how many trees would be required as mitigation.
Cheng noted that one of the alternatives analyzed previously showed 14 parking spaces along the drive – city planning staff previously felt like that was a possible alternative. However, the need to provide an access easement prohibits parking, and the fire code requires posting signs that a fire lane must be maintained for half the drive. And in talking to neighbors, Cheng said they don’t prefer parking along the drive. He described the neighbors as willing to live with the parking lot as proposed, as long as the proposed additional screening is put in place.
The staff report had originally recommended that the commission vote for approval, Cheng noted, but now they recommended tabling the item, waiting for the final site plan submission.
University Bank Parking/Employee Expansion: Public Participation
Dan Dever, an attorney for one of neighbors of the Hoover Mansion property, told the commission he was strongly in favor of the staff’s recommendation to postpone. Physical signs are needed indicating that no parking will be allowed along the drive, and he would like to see that assurance in writing. Dever allowed that the process had taken a long time, but said it will need to take a little bit longer.
Ken Sprinkles of University Bank offered his thanks to city planner Chris Cheng for his efforts working on the project. He called Cheng’s attention to the fact that the revisions to the supplemental regulations specify 53 spaces for vehicles and 10 Class C bicycle parking spaces. Sprinkles noted that the number of bicycle spaces should be five. Cheng clarified that it’s five hoops, two bikes on each side, for a total of 10 spaces.
Sprinkles noted that the reason the plans were not submitted in time for that evening’s planning commission meeting was that the consensus had been hashed out in a meeting on Thursday just a week before.
Stephen Ranzini, president of University Bank, told the commission that he appreciated the fact that it seemed like a consensus had been reached. The bank’s conversations had included 19 neighbors, he said. The decision had been postponed a year ago because three people came forward late, he said, and prior to that time had made no attempt to communicate with the bank. Ranzini observed that yet again the project would be delayed two weeks.
By way of background, at the Oct. 19, 2010 meeting, when the project had been put off, Ranzini had warned that the bank might need to relocate elsewhere as it expanded and grew, if the proposal it sought did not gain eventual approval. From The Chronicle’s meeting report:
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.
At Thursday’s meeting, Ranzini reiterated the same theme, telling commissioners that there are consequences to delays. He said he hoped that the project could start before the construction season ends. He noted that the reason for the requested parking is because the bank is growing, and currently it cannot house all its divisions at the Hoover Mansion site. Because of the delays up to now, University Islamic Financial [a division of University Bank providing financial services to the Muslim community], had to be relocated out of the Hoover Mansion to Farmington Hills, permanently eliminating seven jobs in Ann Arbor. He told the commissioners that he would not be able to attend their meeting scheduled for Sept. 20, so if they had questions, he asked that they pose them to him that evening.
Gerald Serwer introduced himself as the owner of 2021 Washtenaw Ave., located next to the access road. He described how he’d worked with the bank to eliminate some objections. He said he was grateful for the cooperation. He simply wanted to make sure that the access road has screening of the view so that it doesn’t negatively impact enjoyment of his property – the side yard. That could have a negative impact on the property’s value. To that end, he said, details are important and need to be spelled out before approval. If the details are how he thinks they’ll be, it’ll be okay, he said, but he still wants to see it in writing first. He stressed that there should be no parking along the access road, because it would be an impediment to getting service trucks to his home.
University Bank Parking/Employee Expansion: Commissioner Deliberations
Tony Derezinski, who’s the city council’s representative to the planning commission, began deliberations by saying, “We’re so close.” He characterized the whole process as coming out pretty well. What’s causing the delay, he continued, is the failure of the site plan to be delivered. He said the approval will be accelerated as much as possible, but then cited the old saying: “Trust but verify.” [It's a phrase associated most prominently with Ronald Reagan in connection with treaty negotiations with the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons.] The agreement needs to be written and understood so there’s no ambiguity later on, Derezinski said. He allowed that Ranzini made good points – time is money, especially at the end of the construction season.
Derezinki moved to table the issue until the documents have been submitted and the city planning staff has had a chance to review them. That would be a just outcome, he concluded.
Outcome: The commission voted unanimously to postpone the issue, likely until the Sept. 20 meeting. Those who attended the meeting were encouraged to leave their contact information, so that they could be notified directly when that timing became more definite.
Biercamp Parcel Rezoning
On the agenda was a rezoning request for the property at 1643 and 1645 S. State St., south of Stimson and next to the Produce Station. The parcels, which are owned by Stefan Hofmann, currently house a new business – Biercamp Artisan Sausage and Jerky – as well as an auto repair shop and furniture manufacturer.
Biercamp owners Walt Hansen and Hannah Cheadle want to rezone the property to C3 (fringe commercial district), which would allow their business to sell a wider variety of merchandise, including products not made on site.
The commission first considered this request at its Aug. 16, 2011 meeting, along with a request to annex the land from Ann Arbor Township. The annexation request was approved. However, at that time planning staff recommended postponing the zoning request until Biercamp received a certificate of occupancy from the township, which would grandfather in the business under light industrial zoning that allows it to sell items produced on site. That certificate has been received.
City planner Chris Cheng noted that the background information material would be familiar to commissioners, because they’d considered it three weeks ago. He reminded them that the annexation from Ann Arbor Township to the city of Ann Arbor was approved.
Since that time Biercamp has coordinated with the township and received its certificate of occupancy. The township M1 zoning, under which they would be grandfathered-in, will allow selling for products manufactured on site, Cheng said. The requested C3 or C2B zoning designation would allow for the store to sell products that were not manufactured on site, Cheng said.
Cheng indicated that the city planning staff recommended M1 zoning for the parcel.
The city’s master plan was referenced by several people during the meeting. In relevant part, from the land use section of the city’s master plan, pages 111-113 [emphasis added]:
Site 5. Both sides of State Street to the south end of the U of M Golf Course, and the north end of South Industrial. As sites are annexed into the City, uses consistent with the light industrial district should be encouraged. Residential and commercial uses should be discouraged, except for the parcels adjacent to the Stimson and South Industrial commercial area. This area could serve as a location for a City garage facility since it is zoned or master planned appropriately and is centrally located. Sites on the west side of State Street should be office use. If ORL zoning is desired in this vicinity, the area zoned M1 and M2 south of the proposed deKoning Drive has large parcels and land uses that fit the intent of the district.
Biercamp Parcel Rezoning: Public Participation
David Diephuis introduced himself as a resident with a State Street address near the parcel that Biercamp wants to rezone. He stated that he was opposed to the proposed rezoning for four reasons. First, he said, rezoning to commercial use is contrary to the city’s master plan. That plan only supports commercial zoning “adjacent to” Stimson Street and South Industrial, which in the master plan’s context does not mean simply “nearby.” Second, he said, the commercial C3 or C2B zoning would allow for almost any future use of the land – auto sales, drive-through restaurants or dry cleaners. Auto-centric commercial zoning there could cause crippling congestion in the corridor, he warned. Third, the kind of ad hoc zoning being proposed, without a study, would be contrary to Ann Arbor’s efforts to achieve a sustainable future. Fourth, the light industrial zoning that the parcel would inherit from the township will allow the business to continue as it has for the six weeks since it opened. And that, Diephuis concluded, showed that commercial zoning was not necessary for the business.
Walt Hansen and Hannah Cheadle introduced themselves as the owners of Biercamp. They said the master plan should be followed. But they noted that commercial uses are encouraged adjacent to Stimson and South Industrial. They allowed they could operate their current business as it is. They suggested that the building at 1645 S. State could have its zoning left as is, and that it would be feasible to have only 1643 S. State rezoned as C2B – no drive-throughs would be possible under that zoning configuration.
They hoped their situation could be treated as a special case because of its annexation to the city from the township. They suggested that if the parcel were rezoned as a commercial designation and another business came after them, that business would need a re-occupancy permit, and the city could deny it, if the city did not think the business would be a good fit.
Responding to the criticism they’d heard that the location was good for them as owners but not for customers, they noted that it’s within biking and walking distance of offices near Eisenhower. They noted that when the neighboring Produce Station’s parcel was rezoned from M1 to C3, it was looked at as that store’s potential to serve the community as opposed to the site’s potential to be a McDonald’s. They stressed that the reason they want to be able to sell products not manufactured on site stems from a desire to sell additional products that are made in Michigan.
Biercamp Parcel Rezoning: Commissioner Deliberations
Diane Giannola said she essentially had to repeat some things she’d said at the planning commission’s last meeting about the request. She had trouble finding justification for C3 or C2B zoning in that area. The real problem is the Biercamp owners had leased a place with the wrong zoning, she said, and they hadn’t done due diligence to find that out. There are many other places they could have leased. Biercamp’s proposed rezoning, she said, just doesn’t fit into the master plan.
Giannola allowed that she would like to see the South State Street corridor studied and possibly rezoned as an outcome to that study, but said the commission is not ready to do that yet. Right now, she said, someone could point to this as a case of favoritism and base a lawsuit on that.
Kirk Westphal said he also had similar comments to those he’d made at the commission’s last meeting. If it were up to him, and the commission could attach the rezoning just to the business, that would be okay. But zoning goes with the land, not the business, he said.
Westphal echoed Giannola’s sentiments about consideration of the entire corridor. It’s good to keep in mind, he said, that it’s a high priority on the commission’s work plan to take a look at the State Street corridor. Maybe it turns out that the corridor gets recommended for up-zoning and other uses, he ventured.
Evan Pratt noted that he was not present at the commission’s previous meeting, but echoed Westphal’s thoughts. There’s a need for change in the entire corridor, he said. He said he was thinking along the lines of what the petitioner would like. But it’s not up to the planning commission to change the city’s master plan. That’s something that’s done with public process. He suggested that maybe Biercamp could wait it out a little bit.
In response to a query from Pratt about the possibility that a PUD could be a device to achieve Biercamp’s goals, city planner Chris Cheng noted the need of a PUD to demonstrate a public benefit. In addition, Cheng said, Biercamp’s owners didn’t indicate they wanted to go down that road.
Pratt concluded that he was left with M1 zoning as the best option to allow the business to continue. He ventured that maybe there won’t be labels on every product sold in the Biercamp store. [Pratt meant this apparently in a humorful way, inasmuch as Biercamp could contemplate selling products manufactured elsewhere but not labeled as such, which would be contrary to their zoning.] Pratt noted that the study of the corridor can’t be done quickly. He encouraged Biercamp’s owners to talk to their elected officials. [The site is located in Ward 4, represented by councilmembers Marcia Higgins and Margie Teall.]
Wendy Woods said she agreed with the comments from other commissioners. Responding to the talk of a PUD, she said that if there’s a public benefit, it’s important to come forward with that. She noted there are folks out there who are not crazy about PUDs in general. Regardless of the age of the master plan, Woods said, it serves a purpose. Having the master plan in place means that neighbors don’t have to guess about what’s going to happen next. She said she hoped that funding would be available to look at the State Street corridor.
Tony Derezinski said it boiled down to the source of things being sold. Once a decision is made to rezone, he cautioned, you can’t “un-ring the bell.” The staff recommendation is to deny the rezoning request, but be open to change as the city studies the corridor, he noted. Derezinski allowed that he’s eaten some Biercamp product, and it’s a great business. He suggested that if the State Street corridor study is delayed, the planning commission should think about revisiting the rezoning request. He said that he would encourage his city council colleagues to study the State Street corridor.
Planning commission chair Eric Mahler said he had the same concerns with the “spot zoning” that others had voiced. He noted that the commission has been talking about the State Street corridor for a while. He said that his own vision would be to up-zone the entire corridor.
Outcome: The commission voted unanimously not to recommend the requested commercial zoning for the parcel. On a separate vote, the commission agreed unanimously to waive the requirement that Biercamp submit an area plan, because they are using the property “as is” with no additional improvements. Those recommendations will be forwarded to city council.
Planning commission meetings typically include a variety of updates from staff and planning commissioners.
Comm/Comm: Near North, Washtenaw Non-Motorized Path
As part of his summary of city council activity, Tony Derezinski, the council’s representative to the planning commission, noted that Avalon Housing‘s Near North project appeared to be moving ahead. [The previous day, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority renewed a $500,000 grant to the nonprofit for that affordable housing project, to be located on North Main Street.]
Derezinski also noted that the Washtenaw Avenue non-motorized path had enjoyed its grand opening on a day when it had been raining cats and dogs. He noted the old expression that people can “vote with their feet,” which people had been doing by using the path already – it’s been substantively complete for a month and a half.
Comm/Comm: Medical Marijuana
Also as a part of Derezinski’s update to the planning commission from the city council, he noted that the city’s medical marijuana ordinance had been discussed at that week’s meeting, on Sept. 6. He said that dispensaries in the city are now all closed in the wake of a court of appeals ruling. The council’s specific issue at the Sept. 6 meeting was whether to go ahead with appointing members to the city’s medical marijuana licensing board – the council had decided to go ahead with that.
Wendy Rampson, head of planning for the city, noted that from a staff standpoint, they continue to get questions about whether people should go ahead and apply for one of the medical marijuana licenses specified in the recently enacted city ordinance. Rampson said that staff are not currently going to continue making any determinations about compliance with zoning or not. However, they’ll accept information if people want to bring it in. Right now, however, the city staff are not acting on any medical marijuana licensing requirements.
Comm/Comm: Public Art
Derezinski also told his fellow commissioners that an issue discussed at the last meeting was the city’s public art program, which sets aside one percent of all capital project budgets for public art. Derezinski indicated that the city attorney’s office “initial review” of the public art ordinance [enacted in 2007] showed that from a legal point of view it was fine. Derezinski said that one of the councilmembers at the last meeting had given his own opinion that the public art program was illegal. [That councilmember was Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), though Derezinski did not name him.] Derezinski reported that he himself had been appointed to replace Jeff Meyers on the Ann Arbor public art commission and had attended just one meeting so far. [The commission has met just once since Derezinski's appointment.]
Present: Bonnie Bona, Eleanore Adenekan, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.
Absent: Erica Briggs.
Next regular meeting: Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011 at 7 p.m. in the city hall second-floor council chambers, 301 N. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]