Ann Arbor city council meeting (Oct. 15, 2012): The council’s penultimate meeting before the ceremonial swearing in of new councilmembers on Nov. 19 was dominated by transportation topics.
A study that’s required as part of Ann Arbor’s approach to building a new train station will move forward with a $550,000 funding resolution approved by the council. The same resolution also includes a clause stating that construction of a new train station would be put to a popular referendum before proceeding.
The budget amendment, which passed with exactly the eight votes it needed on the 11-member council, allocated the $550,000 to provide new matching funds for a federal grant. The grant had been awarded through the Federal Railroad Administration’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program. Dissenting on the vote were Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5). Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) was absent. Recent feedback from the FRA indicated that the city of Ann Arbor could not use previously expended funds to count as the local match – which had been the city’s original understanding.
The council also approved $30,000 for the continued study of a transportation connector between the northeast and south sides of Ann Arbor. The corridor runs from US-23 and Plymouth southward along Plymouth to State Street and farther south to I-94.
The council actually voted twice on that issue at the same meeting. On the first vote, the resolution failed. But a few minutes later, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) – who had initially voted against it – asked for reconsideration of the vote, and changed her vote to support it, as did Mike Anglin (Ward 5). The council had previously considered and rejected funding for the study at its Sept. 4, 2012 meeting. But councilmembers reconsidered that vote two weeks later on Sept. 17, 2012, which resulted in a postponement until Oct. 15. The second reconsideration by the council during the Oct. 15 meeting required a suspension of the council’s rules, which don’t permit a question to be reconsidered more than once.
Wrapping up the transportation themes of the evening was a public call for volunteers to serve on the new 15-member transit authority board, recently incorporated under Act 196 of 1986. While it had been previously assumed that the seven Ann Arbor appointments to the new authority’s board would serve simultaneously on Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s board, legal questions about simultaneous service on the two boards led to mayor John Hieftje’s announcement to recruit other volunteers.
The first two of the seven Ann Arbor nominations needed for the new transit authority board were made at the Oct. 15 meeting: Susan Baskett, who currently serves as a trustee on the Ann Arbor Public Schools board; and Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), who currently serves on the city council. Derezinski will be leaving the council in mid-November, because he did not prevail in his August Democratic primary race. His last city council meeting will be Nov. 8.
Nov. 8 would also mark the last council meeting for Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Sandi Smith (Ward 1), who did not seek re-election. However, Smith announced on Oct. 15 that she would not be able to attend the Nov. 8 meeting, which meant that the Oct. 15 meeting was her last. She bid her colleagues farewell, and kind words were offered around the table.
It was a resolution from Smith that prompted the main non-transportation topic of the evening – an attempt to establish a formal policy to use the net proceeds of city-owned land sales to support affordable housing. The council approved a version of the policy, but it was far more restricted than Smith’s original proposal, which the council had considered but postponed on Sept. 17.
Smith’s initial proposal would have directed 85% of the net proceeds from the sale of any city-owned land in the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority district to be deposited in the city’s affordable housing trust fund. During the month-long postponement, the council’s budget committee discussed the proposal and made a recommendation that for only one city property – the Fifth & William lot, where the former YMCA building previously stood – the net proceeds from any future sale would be deposited into the city’s affordable housing trust fund. The budget committee also recommended that any other properties be considered on a case-by-case basis, considering all needs of the city. And that’s essentially the recommendation that the council adopted.
In other business, councilmembers authorized an extension to a third year for the city’s coordinated approach to funding for human services. And the council took the first step toward dissolving the sign board of appeals and transferring its responsibility to the zoning board of appeals. The council also accepted a total of $1 million in grants for city parks, and added about 125 acres to the city’s greenbelt program. And a $200,000 study was authorized to prevent flooding in the southwest part of the city.
A symbolic vote – calling for the U.S. Congress to send a constitutional amendment to the states to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision – resulted in passage, over dissent from Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) and Jane Lumm (Ward 2).
Ann Arbor Rail Station
The council considered a $550,000 funding resolution for the study of a transportation connector. The same resolution also includes a clause stating that the construction of a new train station would be put to a popular referendum before proceeding.
The $550,000 provides new local matching funds for a federal grant. The grant had been awarded through the Federal Railroad Administration’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program.
The Ann Arbor city council had previously voted 9-2 to accept the federal money at its June 4, 2012 meeting. That acceptance was based on the understanding that around $701,600 in already-expended city funds could count toward a required 20% match on up to $2.8 million in federal funds.
But the FRA subsequently informed the city that none of its previously incurred expenses are eligible to count toward the match on the grant, which would fund completion of a preliminary engineering and environmental assessment for a new rail station in Ann Arbor. The lower amount of $550,000 is based on 20% of a now lower-estimated cost for the study, which had originally been estimated to cost $3.5 million.
The Oct. 15 resolution directed the city administrator to seek as much as $300,000 in contributions from “other eligible local partners” to offset the cost of the local match. If the full $300,000 could be identified – from sources like the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – that would leave the city’s eventual share at $250,000.
As part of the city’s FY 2013 budget, $307,781 had already been allocated for the rail station study – as a contingency if the University of Michigan did not pay invoices associated with some already-completed work. The contingency became a reality in August when the city and the university agreed that the money was not actually owed under a memorandum of understanding between the two bodies.
Those already-expended funds had been used in connection with work associated with the Fuller Road Station – for conceptual planning, environmental documentation efforts and some preliminary engineering. At the time, the Fuller Road Station project envisioned a 1,000-space parking structure for the university. The university withdrew from the partnership early this year. The city paid for that work from its major street fund, alternative transportation fund, and previously existing economic development funds over the past three years.
As a result of the recent FRA determination, none of that previously expended money can be counted as the local match on the federal grant. City of Ann Arbor transportation program manager Eli Cooper described the work as “stale,” because too much time has elapsed since it was done.
Fuller Road Station was a conceptual pre-cursor to what is now called the Ann Arbor Rail Passenger Station. In partnership with the University of Michigan, the proposed Fuller Road Station included a 1,000-space parking structure to be built in conjunction with a new rail station on an identified site nestled between Fuller Road and East Medical Center Drive, adjacent to the UM medical campus. The location is controversial because it’s on city parkland. However, UM withdrew from that project earlier this year, on Feb. 10. The university decided instead to revisit its earlier plans to build additional parking on Wall Street.
A resolved clause in the Oct. 15 resolution stipulates that the council will submit the construction of a new rail station as a ballot question to Ann Arbor voters: “RESOLVED, That at or before the completion of a final design for the Ann Arbor Station project, City Council will set a date by which the City will submit the question of moving forward with construction to a vote of the citizens of Ann Arbor; …”
The political strategy of offering a vote to reduce opposition to the project resulted in previously withheld support from the Ecology Center, an Ann Arbor nonprofit. In an email sent on Oct. 15 to all members of the city council, executive director Mike Garfield wrote about the possible plan for a rail station to be located at the Fuller Road site: “Before tonight … we were unable to support the plan,” he wrote, citing the change in the long-term use of city parkland. “It may be legal to build a parking structure or multimodal station on city parkland, but it was not what voters thought they were approving when they voted – overwhelmingly, each time – for parkland acquisition millages. If the City wants to build a nonpark facility, like a train station or multimodal station, no matter how great the public benefits, then the City owes it to voters to seek their approval first.”
Garfield’s email concludes: “Tonight’s resolution ensures that the City will maintain its commitment to parks, and potentially removes the conflict between two of our community’s great key values. We urge you to support the resolution.” [.pdf of Ecology Center email text]
At the council’s Oct. 15 meeting, mayor John Hieftje used Garfield’s letter as a key element in his argument for the resolution.
Ann Arbor Rail Station: Public Commentary
Several people spoke on the matching funds at public commentary, some for and some against.
Rita Mitchell began by saying she likes trains, and that she likes parks. She said she supports improved train service for Ann Arbor, and noted that train travel is an alternative that reduces the use of cars and its attendant pollution. She described the current station’s site, owned by Amtrak, as a “great location for a train station,” having served the community well for over 170 years. The Depot Street location is within a short walk of local businesses and other properties that could support development, she said. In contrast, she said, the Fuller Park location is surrounded by city parks and land held by the university. She felt that a serious look should be given to some creative use of the Depot Street location.
Mitchell opposed using parkland for a train station, contending that it puts all parkland at risk for repurposing. She described the referendum in the council’s resolution as “vague,” saying it wasn’t clear whether the vote would be about a train station or the use of a park. She asked the council not to be so shortsighted as to turn a park into a train station, describing the Fuller Road site as part of a green necklace of parks that run through Ann Arbor. She noted that the environmental assessment would need to support the Section 4(f) requirement in federal legislation – that a transportation project constructed on parkland will be approved for federal funding only if there is no prudent and feasible alternative.
Mitchell characterized the late addition of the item to the meeting agenda as a political ploy to approve the use of general fund dollars before the swearing in of newly elected councilmembers. She contended there’s no need to rush to approve the funds and maintained that a ballot referendum is not needed at this point, if the site has not been selected.
Kim Easter described herself as a lifelong Ann Arbor resident. For the last 15 years, she’s lived half a block away from the train station, she said. She’s seen firsthand the number of cars backed up along Depot Street every morning and evening – and knows that they’re on the way to good jobs at the UM hospital. “The jobs are good and the people are good, but their cars are not,” she said. It would be great if we could get those folks into town without having to deal with the fuel they’re burning and without needing to provide parking for them. She applauded the council for considering multiple options. If Ann Arbor could become a meaningful and viable transit hub, she applauded the council for considering that. She felt like the station needs to be located where people are headed, and she would welcome a train station in whatever place makes the most sense for the city. If Ann Arbor could be made the transit hub that it could be, it would be a huge gift to the people of Ann Arbor and would leave a real legacy for the community. It would be a benefit to the city and to the region, she said.
Nancy Shiffler spoke on behalf of the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club. She reminded the council that the grant requires an analysis of alternative sites for the environmental assessment and the preliminary engineering study. A decision to use parkland must demonstrate that there’s no prudent or feasible alternative to using parkland. She applauded the intent to include a thorough public participation process for the project. She felt that a start to that process should include a solicitation of comments on the work plan for the grant. She called the resolution’s description of a proposed public vote “unclear.” If the Fuller Road site is selected, then the vote should include a determination on whether to repurpose existing parkland, she said. If the Amtrak site is selected for an upgraded, renovated station, then the need for the vote is less clear, she said. She contended that the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club is not opposed to trains or train stations. But they did question the appropriateness of putting those facilities in a city park.
Gwen Nystuen observed that the resolution asks for a half million dollars of general fund money. She complained that the current expenses to date have not been provided to the public. She said the project had morphed from a combined parking garage and rail station to just a rail station with unknown specifications. She contended that there’s yet to be a single public hearing before the city council on the subject. She said she’s asked questions for three years about the project. In 2009 and 2010, the community had been assured that no general funds would be required. The newest version of the station had been presented when the FRA application was made. And without public discussion, she contended, the Fuller Road site was designated as the preferred alternative.
Nystuen noted that selection of the Fuller Road site would require that no reasonable alternative exists other than the use of that city parkland. She contended that the city had not included in its previous study what she called “the most obvious alternative,” the current Amtrak station. On Aug. 22, she had asked once again what the status was of the environmental assessment and the funding of the rail station. Councilmember Christopher Taylor had answered her query immediately on Aug. 23, she reported: “Thanks for writing. I hope all is well with you. I’m afraid I don’t have any of that information. I’m sure staff can track down to-date spending, but as for the future, proposals for design, spending and funding are all still inchoate.” So far she’s heard nothing else. If parkland is considered, it should come “way early” to a vote of the people, she concluded.
Larry Deck spoke on behalf of the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition. The WBWC supports multimodal connections that integrate biking and walking seamlessly into the transportation system.
Transportation is a core function of government, just like public safety is, he said. As an individual, he offered his perspective on the two sites: the Fuller Park site and the current Amtrak site. The current site has a couple of advantages, he said. First, it already exists, and second, it’s closer to downtown. But a disadvantage to the current site is that it’s difficult to provide access to it with public transit. An effort to make improvements to the site to accommodate future needs might have an impact on the possible future of the MichCon/DTE site across the tracks. That site has the potential for becoming a high-value park, he said.
The Fuller Road site has a number of advantages, he observed, including that there’s room for a proper station. It’s close to the hospital, which is a major employer for the city and the region. It’s located on a major transit corridor, so it’s easier to provide good public transit access to the station. It would also be easy to provide good bicycling and walking access, by improving the trail system in the area, he said. The loss of parkland could be looked at as a trade for the parkland the city might obtain, once the environmental cleanup is done. The main disadvantage is the cost, he said, but it takes investment if we want to improve things. He said that rail travel – both high-speed and commuter rail – is crucial to the future economy of the region. If we want to create a better future, we have to invest in a better future, he concluded.
Christine Green introduced herself as a resident of Washtenaw County, as well as a staff member of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters who also works with the Michigan Environmental Council. From her role with those two organizations, she said, she’d learned that improved rail transportation will create jobs and improve commuting and travel options for Michigan residents, as well as attracting tourists. Increased rail will make for cleaner cities, she said, and reduce carbon emissions. The Ann Arbor Amtrak station is already one of the busiest train stations in the state. The Detroit-to-Chicago route is of primary importance at the state and the national level, she said. The problem is that already 65,000 people are driving to work in Ann Arbor every day.
Green indicated that about $400 million is being spent to repair tracks, purchase new railroad cars and to expand service. Amtrak, she’s been told, is planning to add two more trains per day, and MDOT is planning to run a commuter service between Ann Arbor and Detroit. The Amtrak ridership could possibly double, she said, and the current station is not large enough to handle the increased capacity. The location and layout of the current station won’t accommodate commuter traffic, she contended, because it’s hard to get public transit into the location and it’s already congested. With 20,000 people – counting workers and patients – coming to the University of Michigan hospital every day, it makes sense, Green said, to locate a new station where they could walk to the hospital or take a bus to some other location in the city. Building a new rail station is good for economic development, she said. The increased service could take as many as 2,000-3,000 cars out of the commuter traffic volume every day, she said.
Vivienne Armentrout began by saying that the item before the council was not about whether they loved rail. The agenda item asked the council to make a specific financial decision, for a specific decision – to provide matching funds for a federal grant. She recalled that for months if not years, mayor John Hieftje had given assurances that no more general fund money would be spent on the Fuller Road Station.
By way of background, that kind of assurance was given at the council’s March 1, 2010 meeting:
Mayor John Hieftje used his time for communications to respond to criticism of the Fuller Road Station that the council had heard during public commentary.
He prompted city administrator Roger Fraser to speak to the issue of how the city’s portion of the project would be funded, by asking Fraser if it was the plan to use money from the general fund. Fraser’s answer: “No, sir.” Hieftje allowed, however, that the financing plan had not yet been formulated.
Armentrout continued with her remarks by adding up costs. The council had allocated over $300,000 from the general fund [as part of the FY 2013 budget adopted in May 2012] for expenses that turned out not to count as matching funds for the FRA grant, she noted. Now the council is being asked to spend $550,000 more. That brings the total to about $850,000. She noted that providing only $550,000 in matching funds [instead of $700,000] would leave $600,000 in federal money “on the table.” [The FRA grant is for up to $2.8 million, with a 20% match requirement – that is, a match of 4 federal dollars for every local dollar. The arithmetic for $600,000 is (700,000 – 550,000)* 4]
Implying that she felt the city would eventually spend the additional $150,000, she asked rhetorically: “Do you believe in your heart of hearts that money will be left lying on the table?” Adding that $150,000 to the $850,000 from her previous arithmetic, she ventured that the council will be spending a total of $1 million just this year. An investment, she said, comes with a reasonable expectation of return. If there’s not a reasonable expectation of return, then it becomes a gamble, not an investment. Because there’s currently no federal program that will grant funds for construction of the station, she concluding that spending the money on the study is a gamble.
Ann Arbor Rail Station: Council Prelims
The council’s deliberations on the issue began in effect long before the agenda item was reached.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) used the council communications time toward the beginning of the meeting in effect to begin deliberations on the local match for the rail station study. He thanked all those who’d addressed the council that night and previously. He characterized the process as like a river that has been continually changing its course. The Fuller Road Station was prompted by the University of Michigan’s need for additional parking, but that deal is now dead, he said. He characterized the process as a “labyrinth,” and said he was glad that the Sierra Club has remained strong and protective of the community. He called the Sierra Club as ultimately “good stewards” of transportation for the city. In an apparent allusion to Christine Green’s public commentary, Anglin said, “To those from outside who are urging us to build, thank you! Please come up with the money.” Lots of people are saying that the council should proceed, but Ann Arbor taxpayers are those who are paying the bill, he contended.
Responding to the public commentary from Nystuen and Armentrout, mayor John Hieftje said during communications time that he thought previously a train station would be built without general fund money. But the Fuller Road Station deal fell apart, he said. At the time he believed that to be true, and the city was counting on the University of Michigan to provide the local match.
Also during communications time, Jane Lumm (Ward 2) took the opportunity to commend a position paper written by a parks advocacy group. She described it as a helpful educational piece. [.pdf of "Fuller Park Is Not the Right Place for a Train Station"]
Hieftje responded to Lumm by saying he felt there was a lot of misinformation in the document.
Ann Arbor Rail Station: Council Deliberations
Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) began the formal deliberations by stating his belief that there was widespread agreement that expanded rail service in the city of Ann Arbor would be a “public good.” The next step to achieve that service would be improvements to the rail station – either at the existing location or at the Fuller Park location, which he made a point to describe as “a parking lot for the university since early in the first Clinton administration.” [Taylor had used a similar description at the council's June 4, 2012 meeting when the council voted to accept the FRA grant.] We can’t make progress without investment, Taylor said. And that would require a local match of the FRA grant. He stated that the city has the means to make the match and urged support of the resolution.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) was concerned about the nature of the proposed referendum specified in the resolution. She described it as vital to the community’s sense of involvement in the process. The resolution doesn’t make it clear if the popular referendum is binding or advisory, she said. She allowed that it’s not possible to put language into the resolution about the exact nature of project on which the public would vote, how much it would cost, or the date of the vote. But she felt it would be possible to add one more resolved clause: “RESOLVED, That no such construction shall proceed unless approved by a majority vote;…”
When there was no objection to that addition from the city attorney, Stephen Postema, Taylor indicated he also had no objection.
Jane Lumm (Ward 2) appreciated Briere’s amendment, which made clear that the intent of the resolution would be to have a binding referendum. But she noted that the council could change its mind. Lumm asked if the vote was proposed to be on a specific project on a specific site. Taylor indicated he thought the vote would require a high level of clarity – including a specific design, a specific site and how it would be paid for.
Briere indicated that it’s not possible to say now what would be in the ballot language. She allowed that the result of the FRA study could conclude that the current Amtrak station is the preferred local alternative, and in that case she felt that a rail station project would still warrant a vote of the people. But Briere indicated she would prefer the ballot question include a location and a funding mechanism and that everyone be aware of the schematic design. That would be her personal goal, but she allowed that she might not be on the city council at that point, so she wouldn’t guess what the council would put in the ballot question.
Sandi Smith (Ward 1) felt the resolution had addressed a number of concerns that had been heard over time. For example, she’d heard some residents say that if people want a vote, “Go ahead and put it on the ballot, and I’ll vote for it.” She said she would delightfully support the resolution.
Briere said she didn’t have a deep commitment about the location, but she did have a deep commitment that the project requires community support. If the FRA tells the city that Fuller Road is the best site, then the vote would have to deal with the repurposing of parkland.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) felt that the resolution was making an assumption that the outcome of the study would be Fuller Park as the preferred local alternative. He felt like a vote could be held now, on the basic issue of whether to proceed at all.
Briere responded to Anglin by saying she’d heard exactly the opposite message as an argument for why we should not be voting to build a new library. That argument had been made, she reported, the previous Saturday at a meeting of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party. The argument against the library bond proposal had been: There is no design or concept, and it’s “buying a pig in a poke.” If the council put a question on the ballot about a rail station, then any rational person would come back with questions like: How big and how much?
Lumm said first we need to be crystal clear about what the purpose of the resolution is – to provide a $550,000 match using general fund money. That’s in addition to $300,000, she said, which the council had allocated as a part of the FY 2013 budget. In June the council had been assured in no uncertain terms that no additional city money would be used, she said. Reading from a prepared statement, she noted that the already-expended funds the city was counting on using to provide the local match don’t qualify. She didn’t know what the hurry is, she said, noting that the resolution had been added to the agenda on Friday before the Monday meeting. At some point, the council needs to stop throwing good money after bad or at least “hit pause,” Lumm said. She felt the city was well past that point. She calculated $2.7 million that had been spent so far – including $1.4 million in water and sewer improvements at the Fuller Road site, and the rest in consultants and studies. She called it a huge amount of money on a project for which the basic need has not been established, she contended.
In subsequent deliberations, Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) took issue with Lumm’s characterization of the water and sewer improvements as part of the cost of the rail station, saying that had been communicated clearly by city staff as part of the city’s capital improvement plan (CIP), independent of any rail station.
Lumm went on to describe the costs of the construction itself, as estimated to be more than $60 million, with no indication of how that would be paid for.
By way of more specific background, the cost estimate of more than $60 million includes a bit less than $10 million for the train station building itself, $5 million for a platform north of the track, $11 million for a new set of south rails and a south platform, and $13 million for parking facilities. [For a detailed breakdown of the balance of costs: .pdf of conceptual construction costs]
We have to make choices and establish priorities, Lumm said. Proponents of the resolution have said this will go to the voters. “That’s awfully convenient … It’s interesting that in June, when the council first approved accepting this grant, no one said ‘boo’ about going to the voters.” In August, she noted the council had objected to the idea of asking voters for a city charter amendment that would have protected parks. It’s time to “hit pause” and not “sign a blank check on three days’ notice,” she said.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) noted that one of the “whereas” clauses in the resolution indicated the city was told by the FRA that the previously expended funds could not count as a local match. He asked to get a copy of any letter that the FRA sent, and wanted to know if it would be possible to delay action on the matching funds until the city has a statement from the federal government about what happened. He didn’t want to continue down a path where it wasn’t clear where the city’s money is going. He ventured that everyone at the council table supports trains. But he said it seemed to him that the study had already “launched itself.”
Eli Cooper, the city of Ann Arbor transportation program manager, responded to Anglin’s question about the notification from the FRA, which had been referred to in the resolution’s whereas clause. Cooper said the notification came in a face-to-face meeting in a conference room with officials from the FRA and from MDOT. Cooper said it was not cold and callous. FRA officials described how supportive FRA continues to be of the project. That’s the basis for bringing forward the resolution, Cooper said.
Anglin pointed to the same U.S. Department of Transportation Act (DOT Act) of 1966 Section 4(f) requirement that some of the speakers during public commentary had cited. Among other things, the section includes a requirement that development of a transportation project on publicly-owned parks show that there is no feasible and prudent alternative to using the parkland.
Anglin told Cooper that the burden of showing there’s no feasible and prudent alternative is “an abundant task.” Cooper indicated that the project team is well aware of the Section 4(f) requirements. Assuming the council acted favorably on the resolution, Cooper said, the alternatives analysis would provide rationale for the choice of the preferred alternative over any other sites. Something like 14 other potential sites had been identified in work done years ago, and all that information will be pulled together, he said. Cooper noted that the NEPA process for the environmental assessment requires public engagement, and he indicated that in the case of Ann Arbor, that would mean consideration by the park advisory commission, as well as public workshops.
Cooper stressed that federal grant funds are still available, and said he looked forward to drawing down the grant funds as the project is advanced.
Ann Arbor Rail Station: Interlude on Section 4(f)
The Section 4(f) requirement mentioned at the city council meeting refers to part of the 1966 U.S. Department of Transportation Act. That federal act became ensconced in part as Section 138 of Title 23 of the United States Code. It includes the stipulation that publicly-owned park and recreational lands – as well as wildlife and waterfowl refuges, and historic sites – cannot be used for transportation project development unless there is no feasible and prudent alternative.
However, in August 2005, Section 6009(a) of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) revised Section 138 of Title 23. It simplified the process and approval of projects that are deemed to have only de minimis impacts on Section 4(f) lands. Specifically, even if the U.S. Dept. of Transportation determines that a transportation use of Section 4(f) property results in a de minimis impact, an analysis of avoidance alternatives isn’t required.
The definition of “de minimis impact” in SAFETEA-LU is as follows [emphasis added in italics]:
With respect to parks, recreation areas, or wildlife or waterfowl refuges, the Secretary may make a finding of de minimis impact only if the Secretary has determined, after public notice and opportunity for public review and comment, that the transportation program or project will not adversely affect the activities, features, and attributes of the park, recreation area, or wildlife or waterfowl refuge eligible for protection under this section;
The Fuller Road Park site that’s been under discussion includes a 250-space surface parking lot. The previous Fuller Road Station collaboration with the University of Michigan was planned to be confined to the footprint of that currently paved surface, and not to extend farther towards the Huron River, where a soccer practice field is situated.
Given a configuration with a rail station building, platforms and an appurtenant parking facility – all of which is still confined to the footprint of the current parking lot – it’s conceivable that an argument could be made for meeting the SAFETEA-LU “de minimis” standard. The argument would depend on a claim that the two activities currently undertaken on the parkland site – parking and soccer practice – would not be adversely affected.
In subsequent back-and-forth between transportation program manager Eli Cooper and Mike Anglin, Cooper indicated that the intent is to locate the infrastructure of the rail station on the smallest footprint possible.
Ann Arbor Rail Station: Continued Deliberations
Briere ventured that her understanding of an environmental assessment is not just that it looks at grass and trees, but everything in the surroundings – including road infrastructure and the impact of proposed construction on neighboring properties. Cooper told Briere that it includes even more than that. But he said that the amount of rigor attached to an environmental assessment is less than that associated with an environmental impact statement. The Section 4(f) issue was characterized by Cooper as a separate discussion. That issue is prepared for review by the FRA, and the FRA makes the determination as to whether the Section 4(f) standard is met.
Anglin wanted data that would apply to development around that particular site. Cooper told him the analysis would extend to a quarter mile around the proposed site. As an example, he gave Lowertown, saying that for either of the sites – Fuller Park or the current Amtrak station site – rail station improvements would have a positive effect on economic development of Lowertown.
Hohnke noted he’d received many emails from people supporting the resolution, and some communication from the Ecology Center and the Clean Air Coalition supporting it. To him, it appeared the only local organization that has significant concerns with this is the Sierra Club’s Huron Valley Group. Even the national Sierra Club urges communities to invest in transportation alternatives such as high-speed rail. He felt that the significant consensus in the community is that moving forward with investments in high-speed rail is the right thing to do.
Responding to Vivienne Armentrout’s characterization – made during public commentary – of the expenditure as a “gamble,” not an investment, Hohnke said he had a different view. If you look back to 1991, the Chicago-to-Detroit route was one of the first five national rail networks identified in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act as having one of the most significant opportunities in the country for yielding benefit to the community. Over $400 million has been made through ARRA [federal stimulus] funds to build out the Chicago-to-Detroit high-speed rail network, he said.
An additional $300 million has been invested in rail stock, Hohnke said. MDOT reports a 115% increase in automobile traffic on I-94 between Detroit and Chicago since 1991 and sees significant increases going forward, he said. So MDOT is supportive of the high-speed rail initiatives. And that’s why MDOT has recently purchased the east-west tracks from Norfolk-Southern. He described all this as “a national commitment” to improving rail transportation that goes back 30 years. He added that for every dollar Ann Arbor puts in, under the terms of the grant, the city gets four dollars back from the federal government. He was supporting the resolution because it increases environmental stewardship and economic development and access to mobility, he concluded.
Mayor John Hieftje drew out from Cooper that Amtrak was talking about the possibility of doubling train frequency through Ann Arbor. Hieftje argued for the resolution by saying that we shouldn’t build for our current needs, but for “way down the road.” He asked Cooper to talk about the longer-term projections for ridership. Cooper described how ridership forecasting would be done by a consultant engaged for that purpose. He reported that a number of communities are doing station planning. He said that MDOT and Amtrak indicate the six trains a day would probably increase to 10 – which would be for intercity passenger trips.
Cooper continued by saying that MDOT is quietly developing a commuter rail program, in the guise of a demonstration, and has already refurbished passenger coaches. About a month ago, he said, MDOT had acquired a locomotive. So at this point, MDOT is “cobbling together” a set of rail cars that can run, once the track improvements are done. The intent for the demonstration is for 4-6 commuter trips a day. But from experience living in other parts of the country, he said, with trains running on 20-minute frequency from 6-9 a.m. and also in the afternoon, put together with the intercity service, that could result within 25 years in as many as 50 trains a day coming to Ann Arbor station. Later in deliberations, Lumm objected to using the other places Cooper has lived, like Philadelphia, as a benchmark.
Responding to a later question from Sandi Smith (Ward 1) Cooper indicated that the economic benefit to an area is part of the environmental assessment and the impact would be positive.
Briere recalled how she’s been listening to people talk about building a new train station since she’s been in Ann Arbor. When the current Amtrak station was built, she said, no one was excited because people wanted to stick with the Gandy Dancer, even though it had already become a restaurant. The current building is amazingly unimaginative and unattractive, she said, but it’s functional now. The question is whether it will be functional in the future. Since 2000, the community has been struggling with conflicting viewpoints, she said – one being that there will be increased rail service and the other being that it won’t ever happen.
Briere said she believes that increased rail transportation is extraordinarily desirable. But if we increase rail service, where then do people go, and how do we get them there? She characterized the current Amtrak station as in a residential neighborhood with “its feet in the water.” Parking is insufficient, she said. Parking on the opposite side of the tracks from the station and taking luggage across the Broadway bridges in January is hard, she said. There’s nothing convenient about the current station location, except that you could walk uphill and get to the center of town. But she maintained that the conversation should not currently be about where the station will be located. Rather, the question is: Is it our goal to build a new train station? Arguing about the right location is not her goal, Briere said.
If you don’t have a plan in hand, you’re not prepared when opportunity strikes, Briere said. Whether funds are currently available for construction of the project, she said, is “not in our hands.” But it’s in the city’s hands to say it has accepted a grant from the federal government. She’s committed to the idea that we need to plan, so she supported the resolution. It’s not her call to identify the location, but “it’s my call to fund the work to come up with the plan,” she concluded.
Hieftje followed Briere’s comments by reading a substantial portion of a letter of support that had been received from the Ecology Center. He contrasted the Ecology Center’s support with the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club’s position, which he contended seemed to be saying: If you don’t want to build the rail station where we say, then we don’t want it. Referring to the Fuller Road Station project, Hieftje said it didn’t work out and it was costly. Now we have a new path and a clean slate, he said.
Outcome: On an 8-2 vote, the council approved the $550,000 allocation of general fund dollars for the federal grant’s local match, over the dissent of Mike Anglin and Jane Lumm. Stephen Kunselman was absent. The resolution achieved the eight-vote majority that it needed to pass.
Transit Connector Study
On Oct. 15, the council considered a funding request for additional study of a transportation connector between the northeast and south sides of Ann Arbor. On the agenda was a request for $60,000, but that amount was reduced to $30,000 at the start of deliberations – in the context of a recent vote by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to contribute $30,000 from the public parking fund to the effort. The DDA vote came at the DDA board’s Oct. 3, 2012 meeting.
The corridor runs from US-23 and Plymouth southward along Plymouth to State Street and farther south to I-94. The funding would support an alternatives analysis phase of the study, which will result in identifying a preferred mode (e.g., bus rapid transit, light rail, etc.) and the location of stations and stops. The timeline for completion of the study would be about 18 months.
A feasibility study for the corridor costing $640,000 has already been completed. That initial study concluded that some type of improved high-capacity transit system would be feasible – which could take the form of bus rapid transit, light rail transit, or elevated automated guideway transit.
The $30,000 discussed by the council on Oct. 15 was part of $300,000 in local funding sources for a $1.5 million study: $150,000 from the University of Michigan; $90,000 from the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority; $30,000 from the Ann Arbor DDA; and $30,000 from the city of Ann Arbor. The $300,000 satisfies a 20% matching requirement for a $1.2 million federal grant the AATA has received to complete the $1.5 million project.
The AATA has already given approval of a contract with URS Corp. to start the work, contingent on lining up the remaining $60,000 in local matching funds.
The city council had initially been asked to contribute $60,000. But the council voted on Sept. 4, 2012 to reject that request. Then the council reconsidered that vote two weeks later on Sept. 17, 2012. But on reconsideration of the vote, the council decided to postpone a decision until Oct. 15.
Transit Connector Study: Deliberations – Part 1
Sandi Smith (Ward 1) led off deliberations by asking for an adjustment down to $30,000 in light of the DDA’s resolution. Mayor John Hieftje confirmed with Smith that the council’s resolution could follow the DDA’s grant by allocating $15,000 in each of two years. The council revised the amount without substantive comment.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) recalled that when the council had considered the question the first time [and she'd voted against it], she had asked transportation program manager Eli Cooper how the connector could impact the lives of Ann Arbor residents. To Briere it was clear why it impacted the University of Michigan. She wondered if Cooper had ideas that evening that he hadn’t addressed on the previous occasion.
Cooper responded by providing a map depicting forecasts for congestion in Ann Arbor. In 2005, 28% of miles vehicle miles traveled were under congested conditions. That would increase to 50% by 2030, Cooper said.
Jane Lumm (Ward 2) said she wouldn’t support the resolution. She objected to the fact that there were multiple city transportation initiatives. She wanted to establish priorities among the initiatives and then pursue them.
Responding to another question from Briere about what entity would operate the connector if it’s built – University of Michigan, AATA or AATA’s successor – Cooper indicated that can only be answered after the technology is identified and the location of routes had been settled. Then it would be possible to determine which entity is best positioned to operate the service, he said.
Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) indicated that in his view, the $30,000 is a deeply prudent use of resources. Everyone believes that Ann Arbor will grow, he said, whether with residents or businesses. The goal of the connector study is to get additional data.
Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) asked for deletion of a “whereas” clause mentioning the city’s proceeds of the sale of a six-foot wide strip of land to the AATA – $90,000. She called that inappropriate. [During the council's first consideration of the question, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) had objected to the same clause.]
Higgins drew out from Cooper that the precise starting point of the corridor could be considered to be east of US-23 and Plymouth Road, and that specific routing and alignment will be clarified in the course of the study.
The council’s subsequent discussion touched on Jackson Road and the North Main corridor before winding down to a vote.
Outcome: On its initial vote, the council rejected the $30,000 for the connector study, with the votes against it provided by Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Jane Lumm (Ward 2). Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) was absent. The 7-3 vote was one vote short of the eight votes it needed to pass.
Transit Connector Study: Deliberations – Part 2
Near the end of the meeting, just after Sandi Smith (Ward 1) noted that she would not be able to attend the Nov. 8 meeting – her last as a councilmember – Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) told her colleagues that she wanted to reconsider the connector study vote. [Because she was on the prevailing side, it was her right to do so. However, a reconsideration of the council's vote that evening would mean that the question was being reconsidered for a second time – because that night's vote itself had been a reconsideration of the question. And the council rules prohibit a second reconsideration of a question. But the council rules do allow for the suspension of council rules.]
Higgins began by asking councilmembers to suspend the council rule on reconsidering a question twice. Her colleagues indulged her. She then moved for reconsideration of the question. She said that in light of the fact that the $30,000 could be allocated across two years, $15,000 per year, she felt that she’d voted incorrectly.
Responding to an emailed query from The Chronicle, Higgins elaborated:
After the first vote, I had some time to evaluate the reduced cost of $15,000 per year to the city to leverage $1.2 M in federal grant money that may not be available in the future. This is a reasonable cost to get to the heart of the matter regarding how we move people in this city.
Outcome: On reconsideration, the council approved the $30,000 for the connector study on a 9-1 vote, with the sole vote of dissent from Jane Lumm (Ward 2).
Transit Board Membership
At the Oct. 15 meeting, mayor John Hieftje made a public call for volunteers to serve on the new 15-member transit authority board, recently incorporated under Act 196 of 1986. That call came during the council communications slot at the start of the meeting.
Also placed before the council for their consideration were two of the seven Ann Arbor nominations needed for the new Act 196 transit board: Susan Baskett, who currently serves as a trustee on the Ann Arbor Public Schools board; and Tony Derezinski, who currently serves on the city council representing Ward 2. Derezinski will be leaving the council in mid-November, because he did not prevail in his August Democratic primary race. His last city council meeting will be Nov. 8. [Hieftje also announced that it would be his intent to nominate Derezinski to take the place, as a citizen appointee, of an anticipated resignee from the city planning commission. After Nov. 8, Derezinski will no longer be able to serve on that body as the council's representative, as he currently does. The planning commission resignation has not been announced, but it's likely to be Evan Pratt, a Democrat running for the job of Washtenaw County water resources commissioner.]
While it had been previously assumed that the seven Ann Arbor appointments to the new transit authority’s 15-member board would serve simultaneously on Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s board, legal questions about simultaneous service on the two boards led to Hieftje’s announcement.
An application for all city boards and commissions is available on the city clerk’s website.
Ann Arbor’s seven representatives to the new authority’s board first need to be nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the city council – under terms of a four-party agreement ratified between the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the AATA. Under terms of that agreement, the AATA’s assets would not be transferred to the new authority, to be called The Washtenaw Ride, until voters approve a funding source for the expanded service to be offered.
The composition of the Ann Arbor contingent on the new authority’s board, as well as Ann Arbor’s eventual participation in the new Act 196 authority, could potentially be impacted by the delay in decision-making past the November election. Three new members will be joining the Ann Arbor city council. For more details and analysis, see previous Chronicle reporting: “Positions Open: New Transit Authority Board.”
Proceeds of Land Sales
Two items on the council’s agenda related to the topic of how to use the proceeds from the sale of city-owned land.
The first item was a proposal by Sandi Smith (Ward 1) to establish a formal policy that would direct 85% of the net proceeds from the sale of any city-owned land in the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority district to be deposited into the city’s affordable housing trust fund. Smith’s resolution had been considered previously on Sept. 17, 2012, but postponed until the Oct. 15 meeting with a referral to the council’s budget committee. Councilmembers Christopher Taylor, Sabra Briere, Jane Lumm, Mike Anglin and Marcia Higgins serve on that committee.
Listed a few items later on the Oct. 15 agenda was a different resolution on the same topic, which came as a recommendation from the budget committee. During the month-long postponement of Smith’s resolution, the council’s budget committee discussed the proposal and made a recommendation that for only one city property – the Fifth & William lot, where the former YMCA building previously stood – the net proceeds from any future sale would be deposited into the city’s affordable housing trust fund.
The budget committee also recommended that any other properties be considered on a case-by-case basis, considering all the needs of the city.
The wording of the budget committee’s resolution stipulated that for the Fifth & William site, the net proceeds of any sale “first be utilized to repay the various funds that expended resources on the property, including but not limited to due diligence, closing of the site and relocation and support of its previous tenants, after which any remaining proceeds be allocated and distributed to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund … ”
The relocation costs for previous Y tenants are estimated at around $1.3 million. The property’s purchase price in 2003 was $3.5 million. The council voted in 2008 to extend its five-year loan with the Bank of Ann Arbor for another five years, through the end of 2013. The interest rate is 3.89%. The interest-only payments work out to roughly $140,000 a year, of which the city has paid half. The Ann Arbor DDA has paid the other half of the interest payments. And when the YMCA building was condemned, the DDA also paid for the cost of demolishing it and abating asbestos – around $1.5 million. The total amount of local governmental costs associated with the property since 2003 is $7.7 million.
The kind of city policy considered by the council on Oct. 15 has a long history, dating back to 1996. And a previous policy of directing proceeds of city-owned land sales to the affordable housing trust fund was rescinded by the council in 2007. More detailed background is provided in previous Chronicle coverage: “City Council to Focus on Land Sale Policy.”
Resolutions urging the city council to adopt Smith’s proposed policy were approved by the board of the Ann Arbor DDA at its Sept. 5, 2012 and by the Washtenaw County board of commissioners later that same day. Leah Gunn, who chairs the DDA board, also serves on the county board of commissioners.
During initial deliberations at the council’s Sept. 17 meeting, Smith’s resolution appeared to have only mixed support on the council. Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) indicated he would only support the resolution if the proceeds from land sales were put toward the Ann Arbor Housing Commission specifically. Jane Lumm (Ward 2) said she could not support a percentage as high as 85%. Other councilmembers expressed skepticism at the value of a non-binding council resolution that future councils would not need to honor.
Another concern heard at the council’s budget committee meeting was that groups with other interests besides affordable housing – like greenway advocates – were also interested in “getting a bite at the apple” of city-owned land sale proceeds.
There are no imminent sales of city-owned land, but a current planning process could eventually result in one or more such sales. The DDA has undertaken a study at the previous direction of the city council, under the moniker of Connecting William Street. That process focuses on five city-owned parcels in the area bounded by Ashley, Liberty, Division and William streets. For Chronicle coverage of an earlier presentation on the project to the city’s planning commission, see “Planning Group Briefed on William Street Project.”
Proceeds of Land Sales: Public Commentary
During the first opportunity for public commentary, Thomas Partridge called on everyone of goodwill to join to build more affordable housing, give importance to accessibility and affordable housing, human rights and disability rights. He called on the council to direct all proceeds from the sale of city land to support of public housing.
Proceeds of Land Sales: Smith – Prelims
When the council came to Smith’s proposal on the agenda, which had been postponed from the council’s Sept. 17 meeting, Smith noted that the council’s budget committee had made a different recommendation. The committee’s recommendation had been added to the agenda as a separate item. She wanted the council to discuss her proposal and ultimately vote it up or down. She felt that she’d given a strong rationale at the previous meeting, and pointed to the documentation attached to the agenda item. It’s something we talk about a lot, she said – providing a lot of housing options and a diversity of housing. “We continue to talk about it and we continue to be unable to fund this change that we want to see.” The resolution is an attempt to find a mechanism to fund affordable housing in Ann Arbor, she concluded.
Mayor John Hieftje indicated he would save his deliberations for the budget committee’s agenda item.
Margie Teall (Ward 4) was supportive of Smith’s proposal in concept. [Teall serves as council liaison to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission.] She wants to see the city make a commitment to the affordable housing trust fund. She thought it’s a great idea to use a portion of proceeds from land sales to do that. Smith’s resolution doesn’t give the entire amount to the affordable housing trust fund, she noted, because it subtracts expenses associated with the property. She wanted to see where this would go, if the percentage could be reduced to something like 60% instead of 85%.
In light of Teall’s suggestion, Smith indicated that she had some proposed language to revise the resolved clause.
Proceeds of Land Sales: Smith – Amendment
But the amendment wound up being proposed by Teall – changing the percentage from 85% to 60% of land sale proceeds to be deposited into the affordable housing trust fund. It also restricted the focus of the resolution to the geographic area of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) contended that the change made the resolved clause dramatically different, while Smith maintained that the two resolved clauses were only slightly different.
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) thanked Smith for her work on the proposal, saying she has always been an energetic advocate for affordable housing. Hohnke was supportive of the objective, but had some concerns about the proposed means to achieve that objective. His preference was for a proposal that would not bind future city councils, and would encourage each council in the future to look at the needs of the city as a whole and where the funds need to be used. So he wouldn’t support the proposal.
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) indicated that he agreed with Hohnke. He questioned whether it was good government for the council to bind itself to a percentage. Even if the council was free to change the percentage, it would create a momentum, he contended. He felt that such decisions should be made every year in the context of the overall budget.
Jane Lumm (Ward 2) indicated she appreciated Smith’s effort. Lumm’s objection was to the prescriptive aspect of the proposal. She ventured that she might support something in the 20% range. There’s no question that the needs for affordable housing are great, she said.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) characterized a recent presentation from the Ann Arbor Housing Commission as difficult to listen to. But he felt the solution to the problem of providing affordable housing “will come from outside of us,” from a federal mandate, he said.
Smith responded to Anglin’s mention of federal funding by noting that the city has been receiving less money from the federal government. So she was not as hopeful as Anglin that something on the federal level is actually going to happen. She wanted to have something in place that has to be undone, if it’s to be made different. She wanted a mechanism that forces the discussion to take place each and every time.
Outcome on the amendment changing the percentage to 60%: The amendment failed, with support only from Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3).
Proceeds of Land Sales: Smith – Main Motion
After the council rejected the amendment lowering the percentage to 60%, Smith recognized that the resolution would fail as she quipped, “If you loved it at 60 you’re going to love it at 85!”
Lumm indicated again that she understood the motivation but would instead support the budget committee’s recommendation. [Lumm serves on the budget committee.]
Hieftje indicated that he had no confidence in future federal support for affordable housing. But he didn’t know if Smith’s approach is the right solution. The current council can’t tell a future city council what to do, he said.
Outcome: Smith’s resolution failed, with support only from Smith and Teall.
Proceeds of Land Sales: Budget Committee – Amendments
When the council arrived at the budget committee’s agenda item, Sandi Smith said she was glad to see there’s an acknowledgement in the resolution that the former YMCA property was acquired for a purpose – to preserve affordable housing units. After the costs associated with the site were deducted, however, she was not sure there’d be a significant enough investment left to make an impact.
So Smith offered an amendment to the effect that also for other properties, no less than 10% of any city-owned land sale should be distributed to the affordable housing trust fund.
Marcia Higgins ventured that land is so seldom sold by the city that such sales couldn’t be relied on. She stated that the council needs to have a conversation about how to deposit money into the affordable housing trust fund on a yearly basis.
Sabra Briere essentially supported Higgins’ perspective on the yearly, or routine, aspect of funding needs. The council really needs to identify recurring funds, Briere said. Previously, the city had made deposits into the affordable housing trust fund as the byproduct of the planned unit development (PUD) process. [Developers had the option of paying into the affordable housing trust fund instead of providing affordable housing units onsite].
Briere didn’t think that mechanism should be restored – because she’d always felt that making affordable housing dependent on bending the zoning rules put an uncomfortable incentive in place. She felt the same way about making the adequate funding of affordable housing dependent on the sale of public land. If the council did not want to sell the land, that shouldn’t mean there’s no money going into the affordable housing trust fund. Briere said she’d rather the council did something honest than doing something “to make us feel good.” She ventured that the council’s upcoming budget retreat would be a good occasion on which to discuss the topic.
Margie Teall felt that the rarity of property sales is a red herring. The idea is to take the opportunity when it’s there to shore up the affordable housing trust fund. A commitment is needed to indicate the community’s values, she said. Given that Smith was asking only for 10%, she couldn’t imagine that there’d be a higher need that would preclude allocating 10% to help people who are homeless.
Smith encouraged other councilmembers to support the amendment, saying that the city needs to find a way to get ahead of the game, instead of always being behind.
John Hieftje said, “I’m wrestling with this.” He appreciated what the budget committee had proposed – because the resolution stressed consideration of all the needs of the city. He didn’t want to mislead people into thinking the council would be bound by the 10% figure. He suggested that instead of naming a percentage, that the phrasing in the resolution about the needs of the city could be modified to say: “including affordable housing.”
Briere suggested that Hieftje’s amendment to Smith’s amendment could be strengthened to read: “especially the need for affordable housing.”
During deliberations on the amendment to the amendment, Teall said she was happy to support what Smith brought forward – because it’s more of a commitment.
Lumm indicated she could live with 10%.
Outcome on amendment to Smith’s amendment: The council voted to consider an amendment that would include the phrase “especially the need for affordable housing,” instead of Smith’s amendment, which explicitly stated allocating 10% for affordable housing. Voting for the elimination of the explicit percentage were Sabra Briere, Tony Derezinski, Margie Teall, Marcia Higgins, Carsten Hohnke and John Hieftje.
Some confusion ensued, because some councilmembers understood the vote on the amendment to Smith’s amendment to bring the discussion back to the main motion, which it did not. So Christopher Taylor pointed out the parliamentary gaffe and the council took a voice vote on the amendment. It passed unanimously, which brought the council back to the main motion.
Smith was content that the conversation has started again about this issue and that the council had spent time at two meetings to discuss the funding of affordable housing. It had fallen off the radar, she said, even though it’s a community value.
Teall added that she’d just then received an email from Nicole Adleman, executive director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, urging support of funding for affordable housing.
Outcome: The council unanimously approved the budget committee’s recommended land sale policy as amended to include the phrase, “especially the need for affordable housing.”
Human Services Coordinated Funding
The council considered a resolution that would continue a coordinated approach to human services for a third year.
The “coordination” referenced in the approach takes place among five local funders in the private and public sectors: Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, United Way of Washtenaw County, the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and the Washtenaw Urban County.
During a presentation at the city council’s Sept. 17, 2012 meeting, Mary Jo Callan – head of the city/county office of community and economic development – described the purpose of coordinated funding as creating a public/private partnership to focus on key areas and to create increased coherence in investing in nonprofits.
The process has three parts: planning/coordination, program operations, and capacity-building. The city has historically funded program operations – shelters, after-school programs, counseling programs and the like.
The six priority areas targeted by the coordinated funding process, with the lead agencies, are: (1) housing and homelessness – Washtenaw Housing Alliance; (2) aging – Blueprint for Aging; (3) school-aged youth – Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth; (4) children birth to six – Success by Six; (5) health – Washtenaw Health Plan; and (6) hunger relief – Food Gatherers.
The total process puts $4.935 million into local human services nonprofits.
The extension of the coordinated funding approach for a third year means that nonprofits receiving funding currently would not need to reapply for support. The item on the council’s Oct. 15 agenda was not a resolution on funding allocation, but rather one that commits to using the same process for distributing funds, once funding decisions are made.
The extension by one year would allow for the evaluation process for the pilot period to finish – which Callan thinks will be done by January and would be available in January and February. It would also allow a better opportunity to provide the outcome data on the program so far.
At her Sept. 17 presentation, Callan counted a number of goals that had been achieved through the coordinated approach: identification of agency capacity concerns; single program description and program budget; reduced number of contracts; no required board resolution; single reporting procedure and timeline; auto-disbursement of payments regardless of funder; grantee feedback mechanism; volunteer reviewer feedback mechanism; and enhanced communication between funders and increased understanding of needs.
At that meeting, she also revealed that a private family foundation donor had expressed interest in making a significant contribution to the program, pending the outcome of a thorough evaluation of the coordinated funding approach. So the extension of the pilot program would allow for the delivery of a report on that evaluation.
Human Services Coordinated Funding: Council Discussion
At the council’s Oct. 15 meeting, Callan reviewed the coordinated funding approach.
Jane Lumm (Ward 2) wanted to know what the funding commitments are. Callan explained that the council’s resolution that evening would not be a funding action. It would simply mean that the same process would be used to distribute funds for an additional year. It would essentially mean that no new RFP (request for proposals) will be issued, Callan said.
Outcome: The council unanimously approved the extension of the coordinated funding approach to a third year.
Acceptance of a total of $1 million in parks grant funding was considered by the council. Of that amount, $700,000 was for a skatepark, to be located in the northeast corner of Veterans Memorial Park. The other $300,000 was for renovations to the Gallup Park livery. The grant awards had been previously known.
Sources for the skatepark funding included $400,000 in matching funds from Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation and a $300,000 grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. The city council authorized the application for the MNRTF grant at its March 21, 2011 meeting.
At that same March 2011 meeting, the council authorized applying for $300,000 of MNRTF grant funding for improvements to the city’s Gallup Park livery and entry area. The improvements include: barrier-free parking and docks for kayaks and fishing, trail renovations, livery building upgrades, patio renovations, landscaping, and wayfinding signage.
Outcome: Without significant deliberations, the council approved the receipt of the grants on three separate unanimous votes.
Ann Arbor Greenbelt Acquisitions
The council considered adding two properties totaling 125 acres to Ann Arbor’s greenbelt – land protected by acquisitions through the city’s open space and parkland preservation millage.
The council considered purchase of a vacant parcel adjacent to the Kuebler Langford Nature Area with about 0.91 acres. The fair market value of the land was determined to be $110,000, with the additional $13,000 accounted for through closing costs and due diligence. An environmental site assessment will be completed before closing. [.jpg image of parcel map]
A second, much larger property totaling around 124 acres was also considered as a greenbelt acquisition through a purchase of development rights – the Donald Drake farm in Lodi Township. The requested expenditure from millage funds amounted to $483,450. Of that amount, $23,867 will go to cover costs related to closing, due diligence and a contribution to the greenbelt endowment. The total purchase price of the land is $549,478, with the city of Ann Arbor’s share supplemented by $109,895 from Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation and $1,000 from Lodi Township.
Part of the Drake property is currently being farmed. The city applied for USDA Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) grant funds in March 2012 to acquire development rights, but did not receive funds for this property. The strategy recommended by the city’s greenbelt advisory commission is to consider the farm as two parts – a northern and southern part. The GAC recommendation was to acquire development rights on the southern portion of the farm now, but to re-apply for FRPP funds in 2013 for the northern part of the farm.
The city’s 30-year 0.5 mill greenbelt tax was established by a voter referendum in 2003 for the purpose of “funding the acquisition of land for parks and the acquisition and management of land and land rights in undeveloped and developed land both within and outside the City of Ann Arbor for the purpose of preserving and protecting open space, natural habitats and the City’s Source-waters.”
Greenbelt: Public Comment
In the course of receiving a mayoral local food day proclamation, Dan Ezekiel – chair of the greenbelt advisory commission (GAC) – noted that the Drake farm is one of the few remaining operating dairies. The county had also come through, and will make a contribution on the purchase, he noted. GAC is doing its best to promote local agriculture, he said.
Greenbelt: Council Deliberations
Regarding the vacant parcel, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) observed that it’s an area adjacent to an interesting park, and Jane Lumm (Ward 2) characterized it as essentially an expansion of a park inside the city.
Outcome: The council voted unanimously to approve the acquisition of the parcel next to the Kuebler Langford Nature Area.
About the Drake farm, Lumm complained that while the guidelines for selecting land to protect are based on the leverage of taxpayer dollars, the county’s participation is only 20%. She characterized the county’s contribution as only “token.”
She didn’t think it was an effective leveraging of taxpayer dollars, contending that it’s nowhere near the target of 33%. She contended a higher standard should be applied, to ensure that taxpayer dollars are leveraged effectively.
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), who serves as the council’s representative to the greenbelt advisory commission, called the Drake farm a “particularly valuable purchase of development rights.” The parcel has unique woodlands, he said, and is one of the few remaining dairy farms. GAC pays attention to the guidelines mentioned by Lumm, he said, and he suggested that it’s useful to look at the program as a whole. Sometimes opportunities come up where there’s a greater amount of leverage, but sometimes it’s not possible.
After some back and forth between mayor John Hieftje, Sandi Smith (Ward 1) and community services area administrator Sumedh Bahl, it emerged that the property is split into two halves. The northern half will be targeted for acquisition of development rights next year. Hohnke felt that the leverage will be great on that one.
Lumm first declined Hieftje’s offer for a rollcall vote, but when Briere pointed out that the minutes would not reflect her dissent unless a rollcall were taken, she asked for the call of the roll on the vote.
Outcome: The council approved the acquisition of development rights on the Drake farm, over Lumm’s sole dissent.
The council considered a resolution that authorized an agreement with the Washtenaw County water resources commissioner’s office for infrastructure improvements to ameliorate flooding risk in the southwestern part of Ann Arbor. For the study, the resolution authorized the use of $200,000 in city funds already held by the Washtenaw County water resources commissioner’s office.
The area to be studied includes part of the Malletts Creek drainage district, bounded by Ann Arbor-Saline Road, I-94 and Scio Church Road. The area includes the Churchill Downs and Lansdowne sub-creekshed drainage areas. [.jpg of partial area map] Potential improvements include detention, pipe upsizing, and green infrastructure.
A staff memo accompanying the resolution mentions the heavy rains on March 15, 2012, which resulted in street flooding in that part of the city. The city council heard complaints from the public at its meetings after the flooding. A map of historical flooding in the city – obtained by The Chronicle through appeal of an initially denied request made under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act – shows that respondents to a survey conducted in the mid-1990s reported they’d experienced street flooding in the same areas that the flooding occurred earlier this year.
A resolution passed by the council at its Aug. 9, 2012 meeting had directed city staff to start negotiations with the Washtenaw County water resources commissioner to conduct the study.
Outcome: Without significant deliberations, the council unanimously approved the stormwater study.
Citizens United Resolution
The council took a symbolic vote on a call for the U.S. Congress to send a constitutional amendment to the states to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision. In broad terms, the court’s 2010 ruling prohibited the government from restricting political campaign spending by corporations and unions.
Citizens United Resolution: Public Comment
Stuart Dowty spoke on behalf of a group of concerned citizens who are worried about money in elections. He figured that most people were familiar with the Citizens United case. He was delighted to see that the item was on the agenda and he thanked the resolution’s sponsors. He anticipated some of the objections that some councilmembers eventually did express, namely that it’s not an issue on which a local city council needs to express a point of view. It’s a national issue and goes to the fundamental issue of democracy in our country, he said.
Is it appropriate for a local body to express a view on this? Dowty asked. Is it a local concern? The answer is a resounding yes, he contended. “It affects you,” Dowty told councilmembers. The ruling in Citizens United affects not just federal and state elections, but also local elections. This fact was made clear in a case that arose in Montana, he said. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned on a 5-4 vote a 100-year-old Montana statute that prohibited corporate contributions directly to candidates. The decision out of Montana made it clear that the Citizen United decision applies to local officers and local office holders, Dowty concluded.
Citizens United Resolution: Council Deliberations
Jane Lumm (Ward 2) said she didn’t agree with the Citizens United decision, but observed that it was a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Generally her policy is not to support messages to the U.S. Congress. She didn’t think the city council needs to articulate a position, she said. She felt that weighing in on the topic isn’t a part of her job and ventured that the resolution didn’t have any real impact. So she wouldn’t support it.
Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) said that although he would be happy to lend his name to a message of this kind, the resolution went beyond the local sphere.
Sandi Smith (Ward 1) said she didn’t feel that such a resolution was a distraction from the council’s business. The council would stay at the table no matter how long it takes. She followed up with Dowty’s point during public commentary, saying that the Supreme Court decision affects local elections. She didn’t want corporate influence affecting who sits around the table. So she was in support of it.
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) indicated he’d support it, though he said “it’s a close one.” As a “thinking community,” he said, he felt Ann Arbor could add a voice to an issue of national importance.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said she’d asked herself if there was a local angle. She allowed she’d heard about influence of corporate money on national politics, saying that seemed quite distant from her life. Then she realized that it would be possible for someone with sufficient revenue to fund a PAC (political action committee) in Ann Arbor and attempt to influence the outcome of elections. To Briere, it’s a matter of local equity and national equity. She allowed that the council should talk about things that influence our local life – and she’s convinced the resolution does affect our local lives.
Mayor John Hieftje felt that the council should consider such issues only rarely. He recalled the vote the council took against the war in Iraq, which he felt had an influence on Michigan’s congressional delegation. It behooves the council to take action on this, he said, and it’s not something that can be left to our children.
Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) agreed that it’s an important issue, but felt that councilmembers have a stronger voice as individuals. She contended that hundreds of emails and phone calls would be more effective. As an individual she does support the resolution, she said.
Margie Teall (Ward 4) assured Higgins that she could still vote for the resolution and support it individually. Teall felt it’s part of her job to take the issue to a broader audience.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) felt that if cities unite, the people will understand what’s at stake.
Outcome: The council passed the Citizens United resolution on a 7-3 vote, over the dissent of Christopher Taylor, Marcia Higgins and Jane Lumm. Stephen Kunselman was absent.
Dissolution of Sign Board of Appeals
The council considered an initial approval for the transfer of responsibilities now performed by Ann Arbor’s sign board of appeals (SBA) to the zoning board of appeals (ZBA). Changes to ordinances, like the one considered in connection with the dissolution of the SBA, require an initial council approval followed by a second approval given at a subsequent meeting.
The move would eliminate the seven-member sign board of appeals, which currently has only three members, according to the city’s online Legistar system. According to a staff memo accompanying the agenda item, during the fiscal year 2012 the SBA heard six appeals and none the previous year. Appeals previously heard by the SBA would now be heard by the ZBA.
One of the advantages cited is that staff support time for the sign board would be eliminated. The dissolution of the SBA has been under discussion since 2008. The city’s planning commission discussed the issue on March 30, 2010, and more recently at its Sept. 6, 2012 meeting, when it recommended the change.
Dissolution of SBA: Council Deliberations
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) asked for an explanation of the change. Margie Teall (Ward 4) indicated that in her experience – involving a proposed billboard on Eisenhower – the SBA meets very rarely, so it was difficult to schedule a hearing. City administrator Steve Powers added that the change would streamline the appeal process, and would incorporate signage into the city’s uniform development code as a part of the ZORO (zoning ordinance reorganization) project. It would also make for more efficient use of time by the public and the staff.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) felt like signage issues would come up more frequently in the future. The signs that are allowed at the corner of Madison and South Main, and other areas are starting to look “a bit too ostentatious, to say the least,” he said. Anglin described it as living in “some sort of place where you’re going to maybe get on a ferris wheel.” Before shifting responsibility from the SBA to the ZBA, he felt the city needed to get a clearer idea of what kinds of signs should be allowed. Some communities have very severe restrictions on signage, he said. Advertising is getting more and more ubiquitous, he continued. The values the city holds will be reflected in the signs that are allowed, he said. In his neighborhood, Anglin said, the pizza parlor surprises him with the signs that they use. He didn’t want it to be the case that the city council was approving something just because the planning commission had looked at it and in general he seemed to question the idea that boards and commissions gave matters the kind of independent review they deserved.
Mayor John Hieftje encouraged Anglin to swing back his attention on the resolution. Anglin indicated he felt he was speaking to the fact that the proposal was about transferring decision-making authority from one body to another. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) spoke from her experience having served on the ZBA several years, saying that the ZBA takes cases very seriously. Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) indicated that the planning commission’s discussion had been very thorough. The change simplifies government, he said. What Anglin was talking about was the underlying zoning ordinance, Derezinski ventured. He characterized the proposed shift from the SBA to the ZBA as more of an administrative change.
Outcome: The council voted unanimously to give the dissolution of the SBA its initial approval.
The council considered a resolution to continue a lease with Solo Aviation Inc. – through at least June 30, 2015 – for office and terminal ramp space at the Ann Arbor municipal airport for aviation business operations. The lease provides for an additional three-year extension.
The terms of the lease stipulate $18.892 per square foot. According to a staff memo accompanying the resolution, Solo Aviation is a fixed-based operator offering flight instruction, discovery flights, fueling, aircraft maintenance and service. Solo employs 30 people at the Ann Arbor municipal airport facility.
Outcome: Without discussion, the council unanimously approved the lease with Solo Aviation.
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: Sidewalk Gaps
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) recalled that there’d been no real consensus on a resolution the council had considered on Sept. 17, 2012 on the topic of filling sidewalk gaps. She’s subsequently heard a lot about people’s desire to come up with a mechanism – not necessarily the funds – to eliminate sidewalk gaps. She’s heard concerns about safety for kids walking to school, the nearest park or the store.
Comm/Comm: North Main Task Force
Sandi Smith (Ward 1) gave a brief report from the North Main corridor task force, which held a public meeting on Oct. 3. She characterized the meeting as well-attended with a nice variety of opinions aired. Another meeting public meeting will take place in November.
Mayor John Hieftje said at the meeting – in the context of Smith’s announcement that she would not be able to attend her final meeting as a councilmember on Nov. 8 – that he would be nominating her to be added to the task force as a citizen member. She currently serves as a representative of the city council.
Comm/Comm: Library Bond
Kathy Griswold, a former member of the Ann Arbor Public Schools board who serves as treasurer of a group called Protect Our Libraries, was there to talk about sustainability. The connection to the council’s agenda was a vote to distribute the city’s draft sustainability goals to surrounding municipalities. [State statute requires that when a city's master plan is revised – in this case to incorporate the sustainability goals – the changes must be distributed to adjoining jurisdictions before the master plan is changed.]
She showed the council a map of the district that the Ann Arbor District Library serves, which coincides nearly exactly with the Ann Arbor Public Schools district. She called the $65 million library bond proposal on Nov. 6 an attempt to bring lots of traffic downtown to park in the parking structure and eat on Main Street. [The 30-year bond would fund construction of a new downtown library at 343 S. Fifth, next to the city's new underground parking structure.] That’s not consistent with sustainability goals, she said. The downtown library building was built and renovated when it was part of the public school system, she said. AAPS had launched a major initiative to bring all its buildings into compliance with the Americans with Disability Act. The AADL could do the same thing without demolishing the downtown building. She questioned whether this is the right time to take on such an enormous financial debt. If AAPS still oversaw the AADL, we wouldn’t be asked to consider a bond to demolish a perfectly good building, Griswold said.
Present: Jane Lumm, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Marcia Higgins, John Hieftje, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke.
Absent: Stephen Kunselman.
Next council meeting: Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at 301 E. Huron. Council meetings are typically held on Mondays, but this meeting is pushed back due to the Nov. 6 general election. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date.]
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