Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Feb. 20, 2014): Wrapping up a process that began last year, planning commissioners voted to revise their bylaws related to two issues: how city councilmembers interact with the commission; and public hearings.
Commissioners had debated the proposed revisions at a Feb. 4, 2014 working session. Some of the same issues were raised during the Feb. 20 discussion, which was relatively brief.
One revision clarifies the limitations on a city councilmember’s interaction with the commission. The revised section states: “A member of the City Council shall not be heard before the Commission during the Councilmember’s term in office.” The intent is to prevent undue influence on the commission, and to avoid the possibility of legal action against the city.
Other revisions affect speaking turns at public hearings. The intent is to clarify how many turns the same person can speak at a public hearing, and how public hearings are continued if an item is postponed.
In other action, commissioners recommended rezoning a parcel on the city’s north side to public land (PL). The 2.2-acre site at 3301 Traverwood Drive, donated to the city by developer Bill Martin, is being added to the adjacent Stapp Nature Area, near the Leslie Park golf course. It was originally zoned R4D (multi-family dwelling) and had been part of a larger site that’s being developed with an apartment complex.
During communications, Kirk Westphal reported on a project that the environmental commission is working on: a neighborhood mini-grant program. Volunteers would coordinate a competitive grant program for community groups, who could apply to fund projects that address one of the city’s goals in its sustainability framework. That’s in the planning stages, he said.
Westphal also distributed a copy of a resolution recently passed by the city’s energy commission. It supports a recommendation to hire a full-time employee to focus on projects that help achieve goals in the city’s climate action plan. Westphal indicated that the planning commission’s executive committee would be discussing it. The energy commission would like a supporting resolution from the planning commission.
Commissioners also heard from two Skyline High School students, who spoke during public commentary as part of a class assignment. They talked about the importance of the Huron River and of the Huron River Watershed Council‘s River Up project. The planning commission’s work plan includes looking at how to implement recommendations from city’s North Main Huron River corridor task force.
Revisions to Bylaws
Revisions to the bylaws of the planning commission were on the Feb. 20 agenda. The changes related to two issues: how city councilmembers interact with the commission, and public hearings. [.pdf of staff memo and proposed revisions at start of Feb. 20 meeting]
In giving the staff report, planning manager Wendy Rampson recalled that the issue of public hearings had emerged last fall, when a public hearing for revisions to downtown zoning had continued over several meetings. The issue about whether the same person could speak multiple times during the same public hearing – even if that hearing was held during different meetings – had been debated by commissioners on Oct. 15, 2013, during the middle of a public hearing on the downtown zoning changes.
Subsequently, a proposed revision related to this issue in the bylaws was brought forward by commissioner Jeremy Peters on Nov. 6, 2013, but no vote was taken.
On Feb. 20, Rampson reviewed the sections that were affected by the proposed revisions. She noted that the bylaws, if approved, would allow the commission to waive the limitation on speaking turns and allow the public hearing to carry over to the next meeting.
Here’s the draft proposed at the beginning of the Feb. 20 discussion [added text in italics, deletions in strike-through]:
Article VIII Public Hearings
Section 3. An individual wishing to address the Planning Commission during a public hearings may speak for up to three (3) minutes in total. The first person identifying him/herself as the petitioner, or as a person representing the petitioner, or representing an organized neighborhood group registered with the City of Ann Arbor, may speak for five (5) minutes in total. Subsequent speakers identifying themselves as the petitioner, or as a person representing the petitioner or representing an organized neighborhood group, may speak for three (3) minutes in total. The commission may, by majority vote, modify or waive the limitations made within this section. The Chair may extend the speaking time further at his/her discretion.
Section 5. At the discretion of the Chair, or by vote of a majority of the members present, public hearings may be continued to another date meeting, but will not be deemed to be a new hearing but a continuation of the original.
Regarding the other bylaws change related to interactions with councilmembers, Rampson reminded commissioners that this proposed revision had been suggested following a discussion at the commission’s Feb. 4, 2014 working session.
The revised section states:
Section 9. A member of the City Council shall not be heard before the Commission as a petitioner, representative of a petitioner or as a party interested in a petition during the Councilmember’s term in office.
No one spoke during the Feb. 20 public hearing on these proposed revisions.
Revisions to Bylaws: Commission Discussion – Public Hearings
Bonnie Bona said she struggled with the proposed revisions to both sections, but particularly with the section related to public hearings, “mostly because I didn’t want to give any perception of tightening or restricting public input.” But based on the commission’s previous discussions, she agreed with the need to create consistency with the city council’s practice.
She also liked the fact that the revisions put in writing that the commission can waive the restriction and allow people to speak more than once during the same public hearing. That’s been the practice of the commission, she noted, but it hasn’t been written down. She thought the changes were clarifying and would offer guidance for future commissions.
Jeremy Peters told commissioners that the whole idea behind these revisions was to provide clarity and to match what happens at city council meetings, though he thought that the planning commission bylaws would now be clearer than the council rules. He said he wasn’t trying to force through these changes, and he didn’t have a strong opinion about them. He was just hoping to add clarity.
Sabra Briere read aloud from a portion of the staff memo accompanying the proposed revisions: ”The proposed changes clarify that public hearing speaking time is limited to a total of 3 minutes (or 5 minutes for registered organizations) for an item, with the opportunity for the commission to waive the limitation via a majority vote. This would allow for the commission to maximize discussion time on certain postponed items, but still allow for public commentary in situations where a petition or proposal has changed from the time of the original public hearing.”
Briere said she took that as a goal statement, to allow people to speak again if a petition has significantly changed. But she noted that when she read the proposed revisions for Section 5, she was having a hard time reconciling that with the goal statement – because Section 5 states that a person can’t speak again at the same public hearing.
Peters thought the last sentence in Section 3, which allows the commission to waive its rules, would address Briere’s concerns. He had proposed Section 5 to clarify when a public hearing begins and when it ends – because that hadn’t been clear in either the planning commission’s bylaws or the city council rules.
Kirk Westphal said the fact that Section 5 comes after Section 3 seems to undo the waiving of rules.
So Peters then proposed an amendment, to remove the last sentence of Section 3 and move it into a new, separate Section 6. He originally proposed that the new Section 6 would apply to the entire Article VIII of the bylaws, but accepted a friendly amendment offered by Briere to limit its application to Sections 3 and 5.
Section 6: The commission may, by majority vote, modify or waive the limitations made within Sections 3 and 5.
Outcome on amendment: Commissioners unanimously approved the amendment creating a new Section 6.
Westphal noted that during public hearings, the commission will need to be mindful that if an agenda item is postponed and the public hearing is carried over, the commission will need to provide the public with notice that they’ll have the option of speaking again at a future meeting.
Commissioners then voted on these revised bylaws, as amended:
Section 3. An individual wishing to address the Planning Commission during a public hearings may speak for up to three (3) minutes in total. The first person identifying him/herself as the petitioner, or as a person representing the petitioner, or representing an organized neighborhood group registered with the City of Ann Arbor, may speak for five (5) minutes in total. Subsequent speakers identifying themselves as the petitioner, or as a person representing the petitioner or representing an organized neighborhood group, may speak for three (3) minutes in total.
Section 5. At the discretion of the Chair, or by vote of a majority of the members present, public hearings may be continued to another meeting, but will not be deemed to be a new hearing but a continuation of the original.
Section 6. The commission may, by majority vote, modify or waive the limitations made within Sections 3 and 5.
Outcome on public hearing revisions: Commissioners unanimously approved these revisions.
Revisions to Bylaws: Commission Discussion – Councilmember Interactions
Commissioners had debated at some length the proposed bylaws revisions at a Feb. 4, 2014 working session, discussing the issue of council interactions. The Feb. 20 discussion was relatively brief.
Jeremy Peters thought it was best for city councilmembers to manage their own conflicts of interest, and to avoid the legal issues that might arise from jumping in front of the city’s due process. The change prevents the city from the possibility of being sued, he said, so he supported the proposed revisions.
Sabra Briere said she had tried to come up with a situation in which the proposed Section 9 would be a problem, but she couldn’t come up with one. She could imagine that a situation might occur at the city’s historic district commission, where someone might want to come and present their case. But HDC operates much more independently of council than some other boards or commissions, she said, even though HDC members are also appointed by the council.
She couldn’t recall a time when a single-family homeowner came to the planning commission with a petition. It had occurred at the zoning board of appeals, but not the planning commission. Typically, items that come before the planning commission are brought forward by developers of large parcels, she said.
“I’m looking for the unintended consequences of this [bylaws] change,” she said. Briere asked whether any other commissioners or staff could recall the kind of situation that she had described. No one offered any examples.
Kirk Westphal cited a hypothetical situation in which a councilmember might request a rezoning, and would have to be recused from voting on the issue at council. So should they be given the opportunity to speak to the planning commission? He could imagine such a scenario, and wondered if the bylaws should include some kind of “release valve” to allow commissioners to waive the rule.
Diane Giannola recalled the HDC bylaws, saying that if you serve on the HDC, you can’t be a petitioner in front of that body. She drew a comparison to city councilmembers, saying they wouldn’t be able to bring a petition to the planning commission as long as they serve on the council.
Giannola was referring to Section 8 of the HDC bylaws [.pdf of HDC bylaws] :
Section 8. A Commissioner shall not be heard before the Commission as an applicant, representative of an applicant, or as a party interested in an application during the Commissioner’s term of office.
Regarding petitions to the planning commission, Briere responded that there were other options – for example, your spouse or lawyer could bring forward a petition. “It’s just that you the councilmember may not appear in front of the planning commission representing yourself on an issue that’s to be determined by the planning commission.” She could imagine a situation in which someone who is a developer is elected to the council. In that case, any petitions from the person would require representation by an architect, attorney, or someone else on the development team.
Planning manager Wendy Rampson recalled that many years ago, the mayor of Ann Arbor at that time was a developer – it was so long ago that “I think there were Republicans on the council at that time,” she quipped. [She was referring to Lou Belcher, a Republican who served as mayor from 1978 to 1985.] His projects came before the planning commission, but Rampson couldn’t recall whether he addressed the commission in those instances.
Peters agreed that the option exists for a councilmember to be represented by someone else, if an item that involves them comes before the planning commission. He hoped that councilmembers would choose not to come before the commission anyway, even if the bylaws didn’t explicitly ban it. But this change would make the rules straightforward and clear, he said.
The vote was then taken on this revised section:
Section 9. A member of the City Council shall not be heard before the Commission during the Councilmember’s term in office.
Outcome: The revisions to planning commission bylaws on council interactions were unanimously approved. Any changes to the bylaws are also subject to review by the city attorney’s office and approval by the Ann Arbor city council.
Rezoning Donated Land
The Feb. 20 agenda included a resolution recommending that the city council rezone land that’s been donated to the city by developer Bill Martin, founder of First Martin Corp. The 2.2-acre parcel at 3301 Traverwood Drive is being added to the adjacent Stapp Nature Area, near the Leslie Park golf course. The recommendation is to rezone it as public land.
Katy Ryan, an intern with the planning unit, gave the staff report. She noted that city staff have recommended that the donated parcel be rezoned from R4D (multi-family dwelling) to PL (public land). The land spans from Traverwood Drive and to the Leslie Park golf course, south of Huron Parkway. The land expands a corridor of natural areas and parkland. Stapp Nature Area, a 8.11-acre property with a mature native forest and small vernal pool, is adjacent to Tuebingen Park and has a connection to Leslie Woods.
The site is on the northern edge of a larger property that’s being developed by First Martin Corp. as Traverwood Apartments. That project received its final necessary approvals from the city council on Jan. 6, 2014.
First Martin has committed to creating a pedestrian access from the apartment complex to the nature area, which will be formalized with an access easement, Ryan said. Staff is working to determine the exact route.
The city has a policy of rezoning city-owned land to PL (public land), Ryan noted. This parcel will be differentiated as parkland by its inclusion in the city’s parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan, she said, because it will become part of the Stapp Nature Area, which is already in the PROS plan.
No one spoke during a public hearing on this item.
Rezoning Donated Land: Commission Discussion
Jeremy Peters applauded Bill Martin for donating the land, saying that he hoped others would be receptive to doing this kind of thing in the future.
Bonnie Bona asked when the PROS plan will be updated. Planning manager Wendy Rampson replied that Amy Kuras, the city’s park planner, is close to starting the next review and update. The state requires that the plan be updated every five years, in order for the city to be eligible for state funds.
Bona noted that people are sensitive to the fact that PL does not mean that it’s definitely parkland. Rampson replied that it’s very clear the land is being donated as parkland.
Outcome: Planning commissioners recommended rezoning the parcel to public land. The item will be forwarded to city council for consideration.
Communications & Commentary
Every meeting includes several opportunities for communications from planning staff and commissioners, as well as two opportunities for public commentary. Here are some highlights.
Communications & Commentary: Public Commentary
Two students from Skyline High School, who are part of the school’s communication, media and public policy magnet, spoke during the first opportunity for public commentary, as part of a class assignment.
Sahr Yazdani said she wanted to give a speech about the Huron River Watershed Council. She recalled kayaking on the Huron River as a child, and noted that many others have similar experiences. Ann Arbor is fortunate to have an organization like the HRWC, which works hard to protect the river, she said. The organization has established programs to combat the devastating effects of harmful elements in the river, like phosphorus and e coli.
Yazdani highlighted the River Up program, which includes clean-up as well as recreational activities, and encourages communities along the river to make it a destination. It’s important to support River Up, she said.
Daniel Schorin continued speaking on this topic, calling the Huron River a tremendous resource. But we need to ask if we’re using the river to its full potential, he said. That’s where the “build up” component of the River Up program comes into play. In order to transform the river corridor into the center of the Ann Arbor community, the city needs to build development facing the river, not away from it. This means constructing trails, playgrounds, offices, hotels and other infrastructure facing the banks of the river, he said.
Other communities like Milford, Dexter and Flat Rock have already stated their commitment to making the Huron River a highlight of their downtown plans, with parks, buildings and festivals along the river, he said. And projects like the Huron River Art Trail will help attract tourists and stimulate the local economy.
As the city plans for new infrastructure, Schorin asked that they consider facing it toward the river, “so we can make the Huron River the forefront of the community once again.”
Communications & Commentary: North Main/Huron River Corridor
Sabra Briere reported that she’s recently had several conversations with people concerned about North Main Street and the Huron River. She noted that the high school students during public commentary had talked about River Up, including the view that new construction should be turned toward the river.
The concerns that she’s heard are about the report by the North Main Huron River corridor task force, and questions about when the planning commission is going to look at whether the parcels in that area are properly zoned. She’s heard from three different people who are interested in new developments along that corridor, and they’re interested in what kind of zoning might be put in place.
Briere said she knew the commission had a lot on its plate, but she wanted to bring up the topic as a reminder.
Planning manager Wendy Rampson noted that the project is on the commission’s work plan. She said commissioners have given higher priority to zoning revisions for the downtown and R4C districts, as well as a review of the citizens participation ordinance. [Planning commissioners had most recently discussed their work plan at a Jan. 7, 2014 working session.]
Rampson said the commission’s master planning committee could start taking a look at the North Main Huron River task force recommendations. The first step would be to take a detailed inventory of the parcels along that corridor, including the size and characteristics of each parcel. That information would be helpful in determining appropriate zoning, she said.
Communications & Commentary: Manager’s Report
Planning manager Wendy Rampson told commissioners that the Burton Commons project will hold a citizen participation meeting for the proposed apartment project on Wednesday, March 5 from 6-8 p.m. in the Pittsfield Elementary School library, 2543 Pittsfield Blvd. The proposal – 80 apartments in five buildings, plus a clubhouse – would be located at 2559-2825 Burton Road, on the east side of Burton north of Packard. A previously approved site plan is in effect, but the developer now is proposing an addition to the plan – a sound wall that runs the entire length of the east property line, between US-23 and the apartment buildings. Because the sound wall will impact natural features, it will come forward to the planning commission for review.
Rampson also reminded commissioners that they’d met with a property owner at a September 2013 working session, regarding a proposal to build an indoor/outdoor tennis facility. That project is now moving forward, and the owner will hold a citizen participation meeting in the next few weeks.
Communications & Commentary: Environmental & Energy Commissions
As the planning commission’s representative on the city’s environmental commission, Kirk Westphal reported on a project from that group: a neighborhood mini-grant program. Volunteers would coordinate a competitive grant program for community groups, who could apply to fund projects that address one of the city’s goals in its sustainability framework. That’s in the planning stages, he said.
Responding to a follow-up query from The Chronicle, Matt Naud – the city’s environmental coordinator – said that environmental commissioner Susan Hutton is taking the lead on this project. She is trying to raise $10,000 in order to give out grants of $2,000 – one grant in each of the city’s five wards. The likely fiduciary is the nonprofit Ann Arbor Awesome. Naud said the effort is modeled on some small neighborhood grant programs in Seattle.
On Feb. 20, Westphal also gave commissioners copies of a resolution that the energy commission recently passed, and which the environmental commission will be taking a look at too. He said the planning commission’s executive committee will be discussing it. He did not mention the topic.
A copy of the handout was obtained by The Chronicle after the meeting. It supports a recommendation to hire a full-time employee to focus on projects that help achieve goals in the city’s climate action plan. [.pdf of resolution]
The one resolved clause states:
Resolved, City of Ann Arbor Energy Commission recommends that the Ann Arbor City Council direct the City Administrator to restore the second position as an FTE (full time equivalent) to create and implement additional community energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy programs that further the Climate Action Plan’s adopted targets, reduce our community GHG emissions, provide economic benefit to our community and help to preserve our quality of life.
Communications & Commentary: Minutes
The Feb. 20 agenda included approval of planning commission minutes from last year – for the Nov. 19 and Dec. 3 meetings – as well as for the special meeting on Jan. 14, 2014.
Sabra Briere, who serves on both the planning commission and city council, reported that she’s heard concerns during public commentary time at city council that minutes of many city boards and commissions are very late getting to the council. [Minutes from the city's various boards, commissions and committees are attached to city council agendas.]
Briere encouraged that minutes of the planning commission be done in a timely fashion.
Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Bonnie Bona, Sabra Briere, Diane Giannola, Jeremy Peters, Kirk Westphal. Also: City planning manager Wendy Rampson.
Absent: Ken Clein, Paras Parekh, Wendy Woods.
Next meeting: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 7 p.m. in the second floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]
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