Ann Arbor Council: Land, Water, Buildings

Initial OK for flood maps; zoning issues split; tear-down fund created

Ann Arbor city council meeting (Feb. 21, 2012): Land use was one common theme that trickled through the city council’s relatively short meeting.

Amtrak Station

The Ann Arbor city council gave initial approval to new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps at its Feb. 21 meeting. The council briefly touched on the topic of the current location of the Amtrak train station, which is in the floodplain (green area). The dark red is a building (Gandy Dancer) that was previously not analyzed as within the floodplain, but now is analyzed as such – similarly for parcels colored bright red. (Image links to higher resolution file with legend.)

The council denied a rezoning request from the owners of Biercamp Artisan Sausage and Jerky, located on South State Street near the Produce Station, that would have allowed them to use the property for a retail operation larger than what currently exists. But the council did give initial approval to a rezoning request from the Society of Les Voyageurs that will allow the group to make an addition to their house, which is located near the Argo Dam.

At the other end of the spectrum from development, the council also took action that will allow the city to move quickly to demolish buildings that are derelict, posing a safety risk to the community. The council authorized the allocation of $250,000 from the general fund to pay upfront costs for the demolition of such structures. The city expects to be able to replenish the money out of a lawsuit settlement it won previously against the owner of the former Michigan Inn. The city will also eventually be able to recover its costs from property owners whose buildings require demolition.

Also related to possible future construction on land throughout the city, as well as the insurance for existing buildings, was the council’s initial approval of new federal flood maps. The most recent maps date from 1992. The new maps being considered for approval by the city were created out of a process begun by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Throughout the city, 452 structures are no longer analyzed as lying within a floodplain, while 88 buildings are newly analyzed as in a floodplain, according to the new maps.

Floods are one of the natural disasters that the city’s new emergency management director, Rick Norman, will be responsible for preparing the city to handle. The council formally authorized Norman’s appointment at their meeting.

In resolutions that required expenditures of funds, the council authorized additional outside accounting and legal expenses, as well as the painting and repair of equipment at the city’s water treatment plant.

In other business, the council passed a resolution in support of a clean air campaign, and authorized the closing of city streets for eight different upcoming events.

Two significant appointments were discussed at the meeting. The first was a mayoral nomination on which the council will be asked to take action at its next meeting – appointing Sue Gott, planner for the University of Michigan, to the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. The other was an appointment that has already been made by Gov. Rick Snyder – Joe Burke as judge to the 15th District Court. Burke was on hand to be introduced to the council.

Biercamp Rezoning

The council considered a request from the owners of Biercamp to rezone the South State parcel where the artisan sausage store is located – from TWP (township district) to C3 (fringe commercial district).

Biercamp Rezoning: Background

At its Sept. 8, 2011 meeting, the city planning commission had unanimously recommended denial of the rezoning request.

The property is located at 1643 and 1645 S. State St., south of Stimson and next to the Produce Station. The parcels currently house a relatively new business – Biercamp Artisan Sausage and Jerky – as well as an auto repair shop and furniture manufacturer. Biercamp owners Walt Hansen and Hannah Cheadle wanted to rezone the property to C3 (fringe commercial district), so their business could sell a wider variety of merchandise, including products not made on site. The annexation of the property, from Ann Arbor Township, was approved by the council at its Oct. 17, 2011 meeting.

At the council’s Oct. 3, 2011 meeting, councilmembers had finally voted on a rezoning request in the same vicinity, from Treecity Health Collective. The medical marijuana dispensary was denied its rezoning request, which it had sought in order to qualify for a medical marijuana license issued by the city. The council had postponed their Treecity vote from their Sept. 19, 2011 meeting. Councilmembers had wanted the extra time to ensure that they would be handling Biercamp and Treecity in a parallel fashion.

At that time councilmembers also cited the study of the South State Street corridor, which is now in progress, as possibly affecting changes in zoning in the area in a more comprehensive way.

Biercamp Rezoning: Council Deliberations

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) led off deliberations by saying she was willing to move the rezoning request forward to a second reading before the council. [Zoning requests are ordinance changes, which require two approvals by the council at separate meetings, and must include a public hearing.] But she cautioned that the council needs to keep in mind the context of the broader corridor study. Previously, the council was advised it was premature to rezone a single parcel, because it would be “spot zoning.” She concluded that she’d be willing to give the request an initial approval, though she was not certain how she’d vote at the second reading.

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), who serves as the city council’s representative to the planning commission, said the planning commission had unanimously recommended a denial. It would be nice to rezone the parcel, but the fact is, he said, that you’d be destroying the idea of predictability in the city’s decision-making on zoning issues. That would risk a lawsuit, he said.

Derezinski said the corridor study is moving along. He noted that South State Street will get very busy when the new Costco store opens [at Ellsworth and State, in Pittsfield Township] and “pumps” thousands of people onto that road. His own sense was that given the unanimous denial by the planning commission, the council should not move it to a second reading so that the council doesn’t “clutter up our docket.”

Margie Teall (Ward 4) asked Wendy Rampson, head of city planning, what the future of the owners would be if the council denies the rezoning request. Rampson explained that Biercamp had made sure they got the blessing of the township for the store’s current use. If the city continues with the process of establishing a staff-initiated zoning of M1, Biercamp could continue as a “non-conforming use,” but couldn’t expand their retail operations. Currently, Rampson said, the business is subject to the zoning it inherited from the township. Teall said she saw Biercamp as becoming a much beloved business, if it was not already. She said she’d like very much not to infringe on their business.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) noted that the proposed zoning by the owners was denied, because it’s not consistent with the city’s master plan. He asked about “conditional zoning” – is that an opportunity for Biercamp? Rampson explained that when the city planning staff were approached by Biercamp, they went through a number of options, and one of them was conditional zoning. The owners had opted not to pursue that.

Kunselman confirmed that Biercamp would get to operate their existing business. Based on Rampson’s assurance that they could continue to operate their existing business, Kunselman said he would support denial of the rezoning request and he saw no reason to take it to a second reading. It was a case where the council needs to follow the planning staff’s recommendation, he concluded.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) asked when the corridor study would be complete. Rampson described how planning staff is currently doing interviews with property owners. Meetings have been held with a half dozen property owners on the northern end of the corridor. Rampson indicated she was not sure what the public engagement process would be like – the area has very few residents, and mostly businesses are located there. Lumm clarified that the corridor that’s the subject of the study goes from Produce Station near Stimson all the way south to Ellsworth.

Currently, Rampson said, they’re looking at the corridor as composed of three to four different subsections with distinct character, including the Briarwood Mall area. The city has had some discussions with Pittsfield Township, Rampson said. Lumm said that her sense was – based on the planning commission minutes – that everybody felt sorry for the petitioner, but felt it’s not a good thing to approve zoning inconsistent with the master plan. She said she was comfortable with denying the request for rezoning.

Derezinski agreed with Teall that Biercamp is a good business and they have expansion plans, which he said is always healthy. He described the planning staff as having bent over backwards. Eventually, he felt, it’ll be worked out – it’s a matter of waiting. He said he had patronized the business a half dozen times. It’s the kind of business the city wants, he said, but things have to be done in an orderly fashion. So he would ask for a denial at this point.

Briere said she was also inclined to deny the rezoning request, but was inclined to allow a public hearing to proceed, which would result if the council gave it initial approval. You never know what we’ll learn from a public hearing, she ventured.

Teall asked when Costco’s construction would be completed. Rampson reported it’s under construction, but she did not know when it would be completed – within the current year, she thought. Teall said she was looking forward to having the issue come back, but would support the denial.

Marcia Higgins Jane Lumm

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) and Jane Lumm (Ward 2) before the Feb. 21 city council meeting started.

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) noted that the Costco site is in Pittsfield Township and the township will have full authority to determine zoning in the township. So she asked Rampson how that was being handled for the portion of State Street south of I-94 – the western side of State Street that’s in Pittsfield Township. Rampson characterized that as a conversation that’s a year away. Pittsfield officials are talking about making that area more active and mixing in residential uses. The exchange between Higgins and Rampson clarified that the city of Ann Arbor has jurisdiction over the full width of State Street.

At mayor John Hieftje’s request, Rampson explained the next steps for the Biercamp owners if they wanted to expand. Rampson said that if the council did not approve the rezoning, she’d ask council to direct the planning staff to initiate the process of putting appropriate zoning in place. If two years pass after the annexation from the township and no zoning is applied by the city, the parcel becomes “unzoned” and anything could happen, Rampson said.

So the staff would want to put an M1 placeholder zoning on the parcel. In the meantime, the State Street corridor discussion would be going on, Rampson said, and clearly Biercamp is a stakeholder in the corridor now and would be able to advocate for itself in the context of that discussion. At the conclusion of the corridor study, the staff would likely come up with a “package” that Rampson felt would probably include a rezoning of that parcel, among other recommendations.

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) noted that immediately to the north is a property zoned C3, where the Produce Station is located. Rampson explained that the property was originally zoned M1 – it was a warehouse. The entire area was developed on an industrial-type footprint, she said. Smith ventured that context might eliminate the possibility that rezoning the Biercamp parcel would constitute a “spot zoning.”

Rampson indicated that the objection to the rezoning is not that it would amount to spot zoning. Instead, the objection is based on the fact that the city’s master plan talks about putting a boundary on the commercial district. The Produce Station is the edge, she said. Without having a further understanding of how retail would work beyond that boundary, the planning staff weren’t comfortable letting it go farther south.

Outcome: The council unanimously denied the Biercamp rezoning request.

Les Voyageurs Addition

The council considered an initial approval to a rezoning request and a site plan for an addition to the Habe Mills Pine Lodge – owned by the Society of Les Voyageurs. The rezoning was unanimously recommended for approval by the Ann Arbor planning commission at its Jan. 19, 2012 meeting. The property owned by the society, at 411 Long Shore Drive near Argo Pond, is zoned public land, even though it’s owned by a private entity. The society is asking that the land be rezoned as a planned unit development (PUD), which would allow the group to build a 220-square-foot, one-story addition to the rear of the existing lodge, on its east side.

Rezoning changes the city’s ordinances, thus requires an initial approval by city council (first reading) followed by a final vote at a subsequent meeting.

The nonprofit society is a University of Michigan student and alumni club, focused on nature and the outdoors. Named for French-Canadian voyageurs of the Great Lakes fur trade, it was founded in 1907 and is one of the university’s oldest fraternal student groups. The lodge was built in 1925 – about the same time as the city’s first zoning ordinance and zoning map. Five student members live at the lodge, and society alumni gather there for potluck Sunday dinners from September to April.

Mark Doman, an alum of the society, attended the city council meeting. Responding to an invitation from mayor John Hieftje, he gave a history of the organization. He described the mission of the society so much in keeping with the setting is that it’s zoned as public land.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) ventured that it’s zoned public land (PL), because it belongs to UM. Doman clarified that the land is not owned by UM, but rather by the society. Briere noted that in any case, the resulting public land designation is an effort to not have the parcel zoned residential. Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) praised the work of planning staff to find the least intrusive way to accomplish the task, saying it was an agreeable process. The request, he said, was a “no-brainer.”

Outcome: The council gave unanimous initial approval to the PUD rezoning of the Les Voyageurs property.

Fund to Demolish Unsafe Buildings

The council considered a $250,000 allocation for the demolition of buildings that the city deems dangerous under Chapter 101 of the city code. The city would like to target buildings that are diminishing the quality of neighborhoods, dragging down property values and attracting nuisances. The appropriation is from the city’s general fund, changing the budget, and thus required an 8-vote majority. The city expects to be able to reimburse the general fund from the proceeds of a lawsuit settlement related to the old Michigan Inn property on Jackson Avenue.

Sabra Briere Stephen Kunselman

Councilmembers Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3).

Mayor John Hieftje described the possibility of establishing such a fund at the city council’s Dec. 19, 2011 meeting. He portrayed the idea as arising out of a conversation he’d had with Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3).

During the council’s deliberations on Feb. 21, Hieftje noted that Kunselman as well as Sandi Smith (Ward 1) and Sabra Briere (Ward 1) have been looking into the issue. The proposal before the council is a plan to pre-fund the demolition work. Hieftje said there’s a surprising number of buildings in town that need to come down.

The city’s chief development official, Ralph Welton, was asked to explain the mechanics of how condemnation and demolition would work. Welton told the council that the city has an ordinance in the code for specifically for this kind of situation. [.pdf of Chapter 101] Welton described how first a property owner would be notified, and if there’s no compliance, the property owner would be invited to a show-cause hearing at the city’s building board of appeals. There’s a 20-day period to appeal a vote of the building board of appeals to the district court, he said. After that, the city would tear down the building. Welton said that the fund would perpetuate and possibly grow.

Hieftje got clarification from Welton that the city would pay the initial cost of demolition, but that the property owner would be invoiced and assessed. Welton explained that it’s not a lien that would be placed on the property, but rather a direct assessment.

Hieftje explained that conversations with the city attorney and with Ward 1 residents had led to a likely initial focus on properties on North Main Street, including the houses on the site of the future Near North affordable housing development.

Briere asked if it’s possible to get a list of properties that would be considered for demolition. Welton noted there’s criteria for condemning properties, so those lists will be fluid.

Kunselman said he’s really excited about this – he’d worked previously in a community where such a program had worked well. He noted that most property owners don’t know how to deal with their own property when it reaches this condition, so the program solves that problem. However, he questioned the initial targeting of the Near North properties – weren’t neighborhood stabilization monies appropriated for that? [Kunselman was correctly recalling the council's May 16, 2011 vote.] What would happen to those neighborhood stabilization funds? asked Kunselman. Hieftje indicated that the attorneys will take a look at that. The city wants to put the Near North project property owner on notice that the houses need to come down, whether the project goes forward or not. Kunselman wanted to make sure that out-buildings like garages are also included for consideration under the program.

In terms of properties where development is ongoing but delayed – like Near North – Margie Teall (Ward 4) asked at what point the city should “pull the trigger.” Teall indicated she was thinking about the Georgetown Mall site on Packard.

Smith asked what the typical cost is for bringing down a building – like one of the Near North houses. Welton estimated that for one of the houses, it would cost $15,000-$25,000. Responding to a question from Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), Welton indicated that with older houses there could be issues of lead and asbestos abatement.

Outcome: The council unanimously voted to allocate $250,000 for the demolition of dangerous buildings.

Flood Maps

The city council was asked to give initial approval to an ordinance change that will adopt a new Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM).

Jerry Hancock, Eli Cooper

From left: Jerry Hancock, the city's stormwater and floodplain programs coordinator, and Eli Cooper, the city's transportation program manager.

By way of background on those maps, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) makes flood insurance available for properties in participating communities – Ann Arbor is a participant. If a building has a federally-backed mortgage and it’s located within the “1% annual change floodplain” (previously called the “100-year floodplain”), then flood insurance is required.

Ann Arbor’s most recent FIRM dates from Jan. 2, 1992. In 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began a map revision process for Washtenaw County. Various drains in the city were re-analyzed, using updated data, and on July 27, 2007, FEMA issued preliminary maps. After required public review, appeal and revisions, on Oct. 3, 2011, FEMA issued a letter with a final determination, indicating that the new maps would become effective on April 3, 2012. [.pdf of Oct. 3, 2011 letter] [.pdf of Dec. 20, 2011 reminder letter]

Compared to the previous 1992 maps, 321 parcels are no longer analyzed as lying within a floodplain. However, 116 parcels that were previously not analyzed as in a floodplain are now in a floodplain, according to the new maps. Building-wise, 452 structures are no longer analyzed as lying within a floodplain, while 88 buildings are now in a floodplain, according to the new maps. [See also Chronicle coverage: "Column: Digital Information Flood"]

As an ordinance change, the council will need to give the approval of the maps a second and final approval at a subsequent meeting.

During the relatively short deliberations on the map, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) asked the city’s stormwater and floodplain programs coordinator, Jerry Hancock, to explain the program.

Hancock explained that it was a FEMA project, not a city project, which began in 2004. Consultants were hired by FEMA and the state of Michigan. Some of the floodplains were completely re-studied while others were simply re-mapped, he explained. There was a preliminary report drafted in 2007, and from that point, input was received all over the county, he said. It took until six months ago to finalize the map, and now FEMA has put the final maps out. He said the city and county staff had put together an online map. Properties that have changed status are all color-coded, so hopefully people can get a sense of how these changes will affect their properties, Hancock said. He also reported that letters had been sent to affected property owners.

Kunselman asked if the recipient of such a letter would be able to take that letter to the bank without an additional letter of map amendment in order to justify changes to their insurance requirements. Hancock explained that yes, the city’s letter should satisfy the requirements of their lending agency.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) offered an “atta-boy,” saying the letters sent to property owners are well crafted with good instructions. Lumm said the good news is that the number of parcels formerly in the floodplain decreased significantly.

Watershed-by-watershed, here’s the breakdown:

Parcels Into Floodplain        Parcels Out of Floodplain                     

Allen Creek      45            Allen Creek      199
Huron River       5            Huron River        9
Mallets Creek    24            Mallets Creek     10
Millers Creek    16            Millers Creek      0
Swift Run        11            Swift Run         84
Traver Creek     15            Traver Creek      19
Total           116            Total            321

Buildings Into Floodplain      Buildings Out of Floodplain      

Allen Creek      46            Allen Creek      204
Huron River       5            Huron River        6
Mallets Creek    23            Mallets Creek     48
Millers Creek     3            Millers Creek      0
Swift Run         2            Swift Run        171
Traver Creek      9            Traver Creek      23
Total            88            Total            452


Outcome: The council gave unanimous initial approval to the new flood maps.


Transportation arose as a topic at the council’s Feb. 21 meeting in at least three ways: (1) a request for additional required information from the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority; (2) the nomination of Sue Gott to the AATA board; and (3) the location of a possible new transit station.

Transportation: AATA Info Request

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) used a council communications time slot to press for additional information about the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority in the context of the current proposal pending before the council to sign an agreement that would set a framework for the transition of the AATA’s governance structure from an Act 55 authority to an Act 196 Authority.

Kunselman told mayor John Hieftje that he had some comments about “your proposal” to dissolve the Act 55 authority. [By way of background, as a political tactic, Kunselman has consistently labeled the proposal to transition to an Act 196 authority as "the mayor's proposal." Hieftje has responded to this tactic the same way he did at the council's Feb. 21 meeting – by insisting that he cannot accept credit for the plan.]

Kunselman said that the council keeps being told the AATA needs a new governance framework, even though the existing framework will work, he contended. He said that in doing his homework on the issue, he’d come across an agreement between AATA and the city. [.pdf of Sept. 30, 1974 agreement] By way of background, the agreement was signed in the context of litigation that was pending at the time between the city and the AATA. It was a lawsuit over the handling of $221,000 in funds dating from 1970. The AATA contended it was entitled to the money, while the city of Ann Arbor administration had claimed the money had been loaned to the AATA and needed to be repaid. So the city had subtracted that sum from the millage money collected by Ann Arbor for the AATA before the money was passed through to the AATA.

Kunselman quoted from the agreement:

11. REPORTING To ensure that council is kept apprised of the AATA’s activities, the AATA will submit to Council at least quarterly a written report indicating its activities to include such key elements as levels of ridership, budget variances and other service level information.

Kunselman noted that the council had not received the specified quarterly reports. According to the agreement, Kunselman said, the council is also supposed to receive the AATA’s proposed budget for review by April each year. ["The proposed budget should be submitted to the City council by April 1 each year unless a change in dates is necessitated by federal or state requirements."]

Kunselman also said that the last audit he was able to find posted on the AATA website dated from 2009. Kunselman said he was particularly interested in ridership information on the express buses from Canton and Chelsea. He wondered how many Ann Arbor residents ride those buses from Ann Arbor out to Canton and Chelsea – even though $100,000 of millage money is used to support the service. He noted there’s no purchase of service agreement (POSA) with Canton or Chelsea. He wondered if the AATA is running empty buses out to bring back commuters? Kunselman asked that city administrator Steve Powers contact the AATA and get the required information.

Transportation: AATA Board Appointment – Gott

Added to the agenda on the afternoon of the Feb. 21 meeting was a nomination of Sue Gott to replace Rich Robben on the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. Gott has served as the University of Michigan’s university planner since September 2002. She has also served as an adjunct professor with UM’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. In the private sector, she was a senior planner at the consulting firm JJR Inc.

Gott is described in her standard bio as a “third generation Ann Arborite.” She is a 1982 graduate of UM.

Robben, whom Gott would replace if her nomination by mayor John Hieftje is confirmed by the Ann Arbor city council, is also a high-level UM administrator, serving the university as executive director of plant operations. Robben resigned from the AATA board late last year, a bit less than a year into his second term, but served on the board through last month’s Jan. 19, 2012 board meeting.

Robben’s departure from the board was the second in two months – the city’s former public services area administrator, Sue McCormick, attended her last AATA board meeting on Dec. 15, 2011. Her replacement on the board is Eli Cooper, the city of Ann Arbor transportation program manager. Cooper’s replacement was controversial for some city councilmembers, because he is an employee of the city of Ann Arbor, as was McCormick.

Kunselman asked for clarification regarding the dates for Gott’s term. He felt that Gott should be serving out the remainder of Robben’s term, not starting a new term. AATA board terms are stipulated in the AATA articles of incorporation as five years, with resignations replaced with an appointment to fill out the remainder of a term. The end of Gott’s term, accordingly, should be May 2, 2016.

Transportation: Train Station Location

During council communications, Mike Anglin (Ward 5) noted that a group of councilmembers received an email from a resident reacting to the changes in status for the proposed Fuller Road Station. Given that the MichCon site (on the west bank of the Huron River, across from the new dam bypass that the city has constructed alongside Argo Dam) is about to be cleaned up, Anglin said that the existing train station location should be examined more attentively. The existing station location, he said, could be offered as an alternate location to the proposed Fuller Road Station site.

Anglin said there’s an opportunity for more discussion, and that as a member of the city’s park advisory commission he would bring this up. If the MichCon site were used, there would be no parkland involved – as there was with the Fuller Road Station site, which was proposed on land that’s part of Fuller Park.

Stephen Kunselman Mike Anglin

Councilmembers Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5).

Mayor John Hieftje indicated that the council would have another conversation about the Fuller Road Station as they accept the $2.8 million in federal grant funding to undertake a study related to the project. The Wolfpack has been working on the cleanup, Hieftje said. [The Wolfpack is a conservancy group associated with the National Wildlife Federation, co-founded by local attorney and former Clinton advisor Paul Dimond and retired Ford executive Ray Pittman.]

The MichCon property being cleaned up is right next to the river, Hieftje said. It’ll be a new park and will have a view of the new whitewater feature. One of the problems is that the current Amtrak station site is in the floodplain, and is not considered a good place to make an investment. As far as using that location for commuter rail, Hieftje said, the current location is not the final destination for anyone.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) invited Anglin to join her on a walkthrough of the general area of the train station and MichCon site. There would need to be infrastructure improvements in order for the site to be serviceable as a commuter rail center. She allowed that the landscape is not terrifically hospitable, but pleasant enough if you pick a decent way.

In her most recent update to constituents, Briere has solicited feedback on the location of a train station and has suggested the following constraints:

  • The land should already belong to the City. Land acquisition is expensive, and I’d prefer to talk about alternatives that are feasible.
  • The land ought to be really close to the railroad tracks, and in order for the train to stop at the station, the tracks should be straight and not curved at your preferred location. The rule of thumb is 800 feet of straight tracks.
  • The site should allow for sufficient on-site parking as well as the construction of a building.
  • The surrounding infrastructure should be able to bear additional traffic, including bus traffic. The existing train station sits on the flood plain; Depot Street gets as much as a foot of water across it during heavy rains. Flood issues, traffic patterns, stop lights, and surrounding (close) residential areas should also affect your choices.
  • The cost of construction should require (in your mind) an acceptable investment.

Introduction of New Judge: Joe Burke

On Feb. 15, 2012 Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Joe Burke to fill the judgeship on Ann Arbor’s 15th District Court, filling the vacancy left by Julie Creal, who resigned last year for health reasons.

Joe Burke

Joe Burke, newly appointed judge on Ann Arbor's 15th District Court.

In Michigan, district courts handle civil cases where the disputed amount is $25,000 or less, small claims cases where the disputed amount is $3,000 or less, landlord/tenant disputes, criminal and traffic misdemeanors punishable by less than a year in jail, issuance of arrest or search warrants, Ann Arbor city ordinance violations, traffic and state civil infractions, and University of Michigan regents violations. The 15th District Court also handles the preliminary examinations for the 22nd Circuit Court.

At the city council’s Feb. 21 meeting, Burke was introduced to the council by chief judge of the court, Libby Hines. She told the council that judge Chris Easthope, a former councilmember, was unable to attend the meeting to make the introduction.

Hines told the council that she’s known Burke for many years. He’s practiced law in Ann Arbor for 30 years, she said, first in the county prosecutor’s office, then in civil practice for six years, then back to the prosecutor’s office when Washtenaw County prosecutor Brian Mackie invited him to serve as his chief assistant. Hines said she knew that Burke was already very honorable, but would officially gain that title at his investiture on March 16.

Joe Burke

Joe Burke (third from front or back) at a rehearsal for the Ypsilanti Community Band in November 2008.

In his brief remarks to councilmembers, Burke told them that he was really excited about serving as judge. He said that during the interview process, when he was asked why he wants to be a judge, he’d answered that he did not just want to be a judge – he wanted to be a 15th District Court judge. He said that Hines, Creal and Easthope have together put together a wonderful set of programs – the street outreach program, the sobriety court, the designated domestic violence docket – things that other courts aren’t doing. Those programs make it a nationally recognized court, he said.

Burke told the council it’s like being traded to the Yankees – unless you’re a Red Sox fan, in which case it’s like being traded to the Red Sox. He said he was very humbled and honored to be able to serve the city that he loves, where he’s lived – in Ward 5 – for the last 23 years.

Chronicle readers may also be familiar with Burke as a trumpet player in the Ypsilanti community band – now known as the Washtenaw community concert band. At the April 20, 2011 meeting of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Burke delivered remarks to the board when the long-time conductor of that group, Jerry Robbins, was honored.

Emergency Management Director

The council was asked to consider the appointment of Rick Norman as the city’s emergency management director and to approve the line of succession to that position. Norman has previously held positions with the American Red Cross and with Ionia County in a similar capacity. [To be clear, this is a position with responsibilities for developing plans and implementing contingencies for manmade and natural disasters; it's not an emergency financial manager position.]

Rick Norman

Rick Norman, Ann Arbor's new emergency management director.

The line of succession to the position is: Sgt. Edward Dreslinski, Mary Joan Fales (assistant city attorney), Lt. Myron Blackwell, Matthew Schroeder (Ann Arbor firefighter), Andrew Box (Ann Arbor firefighter) and Matt Naud (environmental coordinator).

Fales introduced Norman to the council, mentioning that in addition to his experience, he’s attained certification as a licensed instructor. He’ll be working on the city’s new emergency preparedness plan. Norman described himself in the “assimilation phase” – he’s meeting people and starting to attend meetings.

From what he’s seen so far, he said, the city has a good solid emergency preparedness program. The people he’d met so far are well-trained and well-equipped, he said, and also dedicated to what they’re doing.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the appointment of Rick Norman as emergency management director.

Ann Arbor OKs Accounting Help

The council considered an amendment to an existing employee contract for extra help in the financial services area as the city heads into peak season for preparations to finalize the fiscal year 2013 budget. FY 2013 begins on July 1, 2012.

The existing contract with Diane Koski started May 2, 2011 for $23,400. The amendment extends the contract for an additional $15,600 for a total of $39,000. She is paid for actual hours worked at a rate of $15 per hour. The staff memo accompanying the resolution indicates that the financial services unit needs the extra assistance due to a resignation in accounting services.

Outcome: Without discussion, the council unanimously approved the amendment to the contract with Diane Koski.

Legal Services Contract

The council considered a $50,000 contract for legal services with Stevenson Keppelman Associates, an Ann Arbor firm. The contract will cover work related to pension and retiree health care issues. It will be paid out of the city’s risk fund.

During the brief deliberations, Jane Lumm (Ward 2) said that Stevenson Keppelman specializes in these services and it’s being paid from the risk fund, which is an appropriate source. She wondered why this was not included in the original budget request for the city attorney’s office.

City attorney Stephen Postema replied that it was not a part of the attorney’s budget, but that chief financial officer Tom Crawford could explain. Crawford explained that the city has legal expenses through the attorney’s office but also associated with the risk fund. Money was budgeted for the work, but the scope has evolved to include changes that the city is making to its retiree and health care ordinances, he said.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the legal services contract with Stevenson Keppelman.

Water Treatment Equipment

The council considered a $139,000 amendment to an existing contract with E & L Construction Group Inc. to repair and paint key facilities at the city’s water treatment plant. The specific items needing their structural steel components repainted are clarifiers. A clarifier settles particles out of fluid.

During the brief deliberations, Jane Lumm (Ward 2) asked water treatment services manager Molly Wade why the amendment was for so much – 40% of the original contract. Wade explained that conditions turned out to be worse than expected. Also, she said, the amount of mill scale was not known. The project had also been delayed due to the weather – during 2010 it had rained a lot.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the contract amendment with E & L Construction Group.

Chelsea IT Agreement

Pulled out of the consent agenda by Jane Lumm (Ward 2) for separate consideration was an item authorizing the extension of a $32,000 annual agreement with the city of Chelsea for Ann Arbor to provide information technology (IT) services. The agreement covers basic IT services – helpdesk, management of Chelsea’s website, server hosting, backup and recovery, overseeing IT contractors, and project management.

Lumm said she certainly supports the collaboration between Chelsea and Ann Arbor, but just wanted to confirm that the $32,000 reflects full cost recovery for the city. Dan Rainey, head of IT for Ann Arbor, confirmed that the city is recovering its full costs.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) asked if there’d been requests from other municipalities for IT services to be provided by the city of Ann Arbor. Rainey indicated that the city certainly worked closely with Washtenaw County. Sometimes the county isn’t the best fit for another community, and the city can provide some value for them. Anglin said that the IT agreement shows regional cooperation and that’s important.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the IT contract with Chelsea.

Clean Air Promise Campaign

The council considered a resolution expressing its support for the educational efforts of the Clean Air Promise Campaign and to support clean air policies and “other protections that scientists and public health experts have recommended to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to safeguard our air quality.”

Sandi Smith

Ward 1 city councilmember Sandi Smith (standing) talks with Shirley Axon and Nancy Schewe of the Ann Arbor League of Women voters before the Feb. 21 council meeting.

The Clean Air Promise Campaign is a nationwide effort to protect the health of children and families from dangerous air pollution.

One of the co-sponsors of the resolution, Sandi Smith (Ward 1), told The Chronicle in a phone interview the week before the meeting that the resolution is not intended to supplant the possibility of enacting an ordinance that would regulate the unnecessary idling of vehicles in the city.

The Feb. 21 resolution was co-sponsored by Margie Teall (Ward 4) and mayor John Hieftje.

Shirley Axon and Nancy Schewe of the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area attended the meeting, and thanked the council for their support.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the resolution in support of the Clean Air Promise.

Street Closings

At its Feb. 21 meeting, the council considered street closings for several upcoming events. The street closings each had separate resolutions, but they were combined at the request of Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) at the start of the meeting.

Of the events, only the marathon is new this year. In chronological order:

On the Ann Arbor Marathon, Mike Highfield addressed the council. He’s the president and CEO of Champions for Charity, the LLC that is organizing the event. Highfield noted the council had approved road closings for another Champions for Charity event a few weeks earlier – the Big Heart Big House run. [By way of additional background, Champions for Charity is also now providing the race direction for the Ann Arbor Track Club's Dexter-Ann Arbor Run. The Dexter-Ann Arbor Run, on June 3 this year, comes two weeks before the June 17 Ann Arbor Marathon date. The invitation on the website for the marathon – "Be part of a new running tradition in Ann Arbor!" – works as an implicit acknowledgement of the history of the Dexter-Ann Arbor half-marathon event, which has been run since 1974.]


Mike Highfield, president and CEO of Champions for Charity, which is organizing the Ann Arbor marathon.

Highfield told the council that the Ann Arbor police department and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority had been very helpful in coordinating the logistics of the route. He noted that $6 of every entry fee goes to the support the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation. As of 5:30 p.m. that day, 715 people from 26 states had signed up so far. [The marathon event is limited to 2,500 entrants.]

Wendy Correll, executive director of the AAPSEF, and Christy Perros, AAPSEF board member, also briefly addressed the council. Correll sketched out the mission of the AAPSEF, which in part provides support for the public schools that goes beyond the mandated curriculum. She also highlighted the fact that it’s not only a marathon that will be contested – the event includes a half-marathon, a 5K and a 1.2 mile run for young kids. Perros described how she’d thought her first marathon would be in Chicago – but now it will be in her hometown of Ann Arbor.

Communications and Comment

Every city council agenda contains multiple slots for city councilmembers and the city administrator to give updates or make announcements about important issues that are coming before the city council. And every meeting typically includes public commentary on subjects not necessarily on the agenda.

Comm/Comm: Homelessness

Mary Kate Bachler introduced herself as an undergrad student in the University of Michigan school of architecture and a resident of Ann Arbor. She said she was grateful to have the opportunity to speak in the interest of her community and in support of the efforts of Imagine Warming Centers. She was prompted to come address the council, she said, because of some remarks that mayor John Hieftje had said, on the topic of the 100 units of affordable housing that previously existed at the old YMCA at the corner of Fifth and William. Bachler responded to Hieftje’s contention that having affordable housing units dispersed around town – as opposed to concentrated in one place –would be better. Better for whom? she asked. How would a lack of a sense of community among those who are directly affected by poverty and addiction to help them make the difficult transition from homelessness to a home?

Bachler said Hieftje had reported meeting with representatives of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, PORT, Dawn Farm and others to discuss the need for a warming center. How many homeless people have you met with thus far? she asked. Bachler said she’d come to realize there’s already a thriving, beautiful and talented community out there fighting for their lives this winter. If there are people who would prefer to be left out in the cold, as Hieftje had implied, she wondered why that might be the case? She said that it was careless to dismiss that reaction as a problem of those who need shelter, instead of acknowledging that it indicates a problem with institutions.

Bachler urged councilmembers to look past the stigmas of homelessness, and realize that we’re all residents of Ann Arbor and the council is supposed to represent everyone. She said she felt that city councilmembers have the means to make a positive change in Ann Arbor but did not do it. She asked them if they would continue to provide scapegoats on the issue of homelessness or take a risk to effect social change.

Mary Conway thanked the council for letting her come back to speak about the homeless in Ann Arbor. They’re unseen and for the most part unheard, she said. As a resident at the Delonis shelter, she said, she could attest that there are engineers, broadcast technicians, cosmetologists – employable people who are not all drug addicts and alcoholics. She said she was sorry that the newly-appointed judge, Joe Burke, and the executive director of the getDowntown program, Nancy Shore, had not stayed at the council meeting to hear a representative of the homeless community speak. [Shore had given a presentation earlier in the meeting about the getDowntown program.]

The homeless are a part of Ann Arbor and a big part of the ridership of the AATA, Conway said. They should be included in transportation use surveys – they influence others who ride the bus. She said we’ve been lucky to have a mild winter so far. But the summers will also be important. The homeless never seem to go away. She said she hoped homeless people could be helped off the street and back into a home.

T.J. Rice told councilmembers that he’d met most of them over the past couple of years – in connection with other issues. That evening, he was there to talk about the homelessness issue. For the last couple of months, he said, he’s been involved in Imagine Warming Centers from the outside looking in. Progress has been made, he said – a meeting had been held with the city administrator and they’d toured the city-owned property at 721 N. Main.

Rice said he had an interest in the issue because he’s been homeless too. He would like to give back something to the same community that has helped him get back on his feet. That morning he went to St. Andrews and on the way out he heard about the possibility that Camp Take Notice was being shut down. [Camp Take Notice is an enclave set up by people who are homeless, located on state-owned property off of Wagner Road.] Where are these people going to go to keep warm? he asked. Ann Arbor is better than that – the very least we can offer is a place to keep warm out of the cold, Rice concluded.

Comm/Comm: Incremental Approach

Bill Hanna introduced himself as a Ward 2 resident. His main motivation in speaking was to guarantee that his daughter, who was attending the meeting to fulfill a requirement for a government class, would have some public input to observe. He took pains to assure the council that he didn’t want to disrespect the other speakers who’d addressed the topic of homelessness, as his remarks were more lighthearted. He addressed the general issue of how the council brings new ideas forward, citing the example of the new crosswalk ordinance or the discussion about the possibility of enacting an ordinance to regulate unnecessary idling.

Hanna advised councilmembers that smaller incremental steps are better than the council’s current approach, which he characterized as “one shot,” attempting to achieve all-encompassing solutions that would never be changed or modified. No new system is built in one step, he said – a good design that’s been implemented has the flexibility for change after it’s been put in place. By proceeding incrementally, he said, the council would still get feedback. That way they could see what people are thinking. Currently, he said, the council risks the perception that what they’re doing is another crazy idea from the mayor and council that the city has to follow. It would work better, he said, if people felt like they were part of the process, and their suggestions were taken into account.

Comm/Comm: Crosswalks

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) said that, because Hanna had brought it up during his public commentary, she wanted to alert the council to her desire to look incrementally at some of the crosswalk locations in the city. She reported that there have been a couple of accidents at crosswalks in Ward 2 – one involving three cars and another one involving a pedestrian and a car. She told the other councilmembers that she’d be sending them more information.

Comm/Comm: Graffiti

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said that many residents have noticed the city has an issue with graffiti that it is “not able to conquer.” She allowed that it’s frustrating. What she’d learned is that the city does clean properties, but the cleaner only works above 40F. And while it’s been a mild winter, it’s not been that mild. For residents who are impatient, she said, she joined them in their impatience. The city will be working on cleaning graffiti in March or April, depending on the weather.

Comm/Comm: Republican Primary, Council Races

Thomas Partridge addressed the topic of the presidential primary election to be held on Tuesday, Feb. 28. He called on the public to turn out and vote Democratic, because the eyes of the media are watching. We need state Democrats to stand up for progress, he said, including the fundamental civil right of having a place to live.

Later, at the second public commentary time at the conclusion of the meeting, Partridge indicated that he had been a candidate for city council in the past and may be a candidate for a city council seat or for mayor. He complained that the council rushed through its meeting as though it was being held on the night of something important like the Super Bowl. [The council's meeting on Feb. 21 concluded in just over two hours – about half as long as a typical meeting.] The council would be better advised to promote an open democratic process and to sever all conflict-of-interest ties, he said. No councilmembers should serve on related boards like the Downtown Development Authority, he said.

Mayor John Hieftje later responded to Partridge’s comment by noting that the mayor and councilmembers are required to serve on certain boards and commissions.

Present: Jane Lumm, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Kunselman, Marcia Higgins, John Hieftje.

Absent: Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke.

Next council meeting: Monday, March 5, 2012 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron. [confirm date]

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  1. February 26, 2012 at 7:54 pm | permalink

    Regarding the AATA audits, the 2010 audit is available on the State of Michigan website (Treasury Department) [link]

    As I recall, it was mentioned that the AATA changed its auditor this year. But their audit from 2011 (ending September 30, 2011) is not yet available from the state, though most other local authorities have completed theirs.

    It would be a fine confidence-builder to have this last year’s audit in hand, given all the transitions that they have been making.

  2. By Jack Eaton
    February 27, 2012 at 10:08 am | permalink

    I am surprised that the planning staff has taken on another broad planning project – the South State Street Corridor study. The City still has not issued a final report for either the R4C & R2A Zoning District Study or the Zoning Ordinance Reorganization Project. Both of those studies have been pending for quite some time.

  3. By Jack Eaton
    February 27, 2012 at 11:53 am | permalink

    An always helpful Council Member has informed me that the City has scheduled working sessions for both the R4C & R2A Zoning District Study and the Zoning Ordinance Reorganization Project.

    The R4C Study will be discussed at a June 11 work session. That study started in early 2009, when the Council asked the Planning Commission to work with the public and make recommendations to Council.

    Council has scheduled discussion of the Zoning Ordinance Reorganization Project at work sessions on May 14 and October 8. The first public meeting on the reorganization project was held in December 2009.

    If the South State Street corridor study proceeds with a similar time line, the Biercamp Rezoning request will have to wait two or three years for a final decision.

  4. By Tom Whitaker
    February 27, 2012 at 3:54 pm | permalink

    Time is definitely not of the essence in Ann Arbor city planning. For example, the City has not yet brought its zoning into compliance with the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act of 2006 or the Michigan Planning Enabling Act of 2008. In fact, the R4C study may only partially address the zoning’s lack of consistency with the Central Area Plan which was implemented way back in 1991!

    Consistency between master plans and zoning is a long-standing principle of zoning law that was reinforced by the updated enabling acts mentioned above, yet Ann Arbor has done little to address its deficiencies in this area. This has been the cause of considerable stress in the community when projects are proposed that don’t even come close to aligning with the master plan, yet are clumsily approved based on litigation-averse, and overly flexible interpretations of a poorly-worded zoning ordinance.

    Ironically, however, the City did move very fast to restrict public access to project drawings under consideration, and to remove any time limits on the City’s consideration of projects when staff’s ability to manage these rather simple requirements was called into question a couple of years ago.