Meeting Watch Section

Push to Program Liberty Plaza, Library Lane

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Aug. 19, 2014): Liberty Plaza was the focus of two items that appeared on PAC’s Aug. 19 agenda: (1) extension of a fee waiver for events held at Liberty Plaza; and (2) feedback in response to city council action, which addressed Liberty Plaza and the potential park atop the Library Lane underground parking structure.

Paige Morrison, Colin Smith, Bob Galardi, Graydon Krapohl, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Paige Morrison, Colin Smith, Bob Galardi and Graydon Krapohl before the start of the Aug. 19, 2014 Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Regarding feedback on Liberty Plaza and Library Lane, PAC unanimously passed a resolution to form a subcommittee to study issues related to those urban parks, and to allocate or obtain resources to oversee programming there for up to a year.

Based on that effort, the subcommittee would analyze the outcome and deliver recommendations to council next year – no later than October 2015. This resolution, drafted by PAC chair Ingrid Ault and vice chair Graydon Krapohl, had been emailed to commissioners earlier in the day but was not available to the public prior to the meeting. [.pdf of Aug. 19, 2014 Liberty Plaza resolution]

The Aug. 19 discussion also included comments from Matthew Altruda, who programs the Bank of Ann Arbor’s Sonic Lunch weekly summer concert series at Liberty Plaza. Ault had invited Altruda to the meeting to describe that effort, which is widely cited as a successful use of Liberty Plaza.

Regarding the fee waiver, PAC voted unanimously to extend the waiver through October 2015 – coordinating with the subcommittee work on Liberty Plaza and Library Lane.

Both Aug. 19 items – the feedback to city council (but with no accompanying resolution) and fee waiver – had originally appeared on PAC’s July 15, 2014 agenda, but were postponed because three commissioners were absent at that meeting.

In other action, PAC recommended approval of three three-year professional services agreements (PSAs) for engineering services in the parks and recreation unit – with SmithGroupJJR, Stantec Consulting Michigan Inc, and Tetra Tech Inc. The amount was not to exceed $150,000 annually per agreement.

The commission also elected David Santacroce as chair for the coming year, replacing Ingrid Ault in that position. Paige Morrison was elected as vice chair. Each vote was conducted by “secret ballot” as stipulated in PAC’s bylaws. The one-year terms begin Sept. 1.

One topic that did not appear on PAC’s Aug. 19 agenda was a review of the proposed four-year extension on a University of Michigan lease of three parking lots at Fuller Park. The city council – at its meeting the previous night, on Aug. 18 – had indicated an interest in having PAC take another look at the lease renewal, but parks and recreation manager Colin Smith told commissioners that he didn’t have additional details on the request.

During deliberations on Aug. 18, mayor John Hieftje had recommended postponing council action until early October, in order to give PAC two meetings during which they could reevaluate the lease agreement. PAC had already recommended approval of the lease, after discussing it at their July 15, 2014 meeting. The parliamentary option chosen by the council was to postpone, not to refer to PAC.

The two council representatives on PAC – Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) –  chose somewhat different points of emphasis in their characterizations of the council’s Aug. 18 action on the Fuller Park lease. When Anglin told commissioners that the council wanted PAC to review the lease again, Taylor stressed that the council action was “a straight postponement” – not a vote to refer the item back to PAC. He added that the council was interested in hearing if PAC has any further thoughts on the use of the site. [Full Story]

County Explores Offering New ID Card

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (Aug. 7, 2014): A proposal to establish a county-issued ID card program is being reviewed by the board of commissioners, who were briefed on the recommendations of a task force at their August working session.

Washtenaw County, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Front side of a sample Washtenaw County ID card.

A county identification card would allow residents who don’t have a driver’s license or other government-issued photo ID to access services that require that kind of identification, like renting an apartment or opening a bank account.

The proposal indicates that cards would cost $20 or $25 each, although a waiver might be available for people who can’t afford it. An estimated 1,000 cards would be issued in the first year through the voluntary program. Those revenues would help offset the operating costs, estimated at about $35,000 for the first year. The expenses would include funding for part-time staff at the county clerk’s office, which would administer the program.

Keta Cowan of the nonprofit Synod Community Services led the Aug. 7 presentation, outlining the work of the task force in comparing similar programs in other communities nationwide – although this would be the first ID card program offered by a Michigan municipality. The task force also conducted outreach to law enforcement agencies in the county, and Cowan indicated that they were supportive of the program. Sheriff Jerry Clayton is a task force member, along with several other county officials and nonprofit leaders.

Of the five commissioners who attended the working session, all but one indicated support for the program. Dan Smith (R-District 2) had concerns, and wondered why the county should spend money to duplicate a service that the Michigan Secretary of State already provides.

Task force members described the state’s ID program as being too stringent for residents who can’t meet the requirements, but who are living in this community and need access to services.

Conan Smith (D-District 9) described it as a basic human right. It didn’t matter to him whether someone is a legal resident or an undocumented resident – “if you need to live a decent quality of life and we can facilitate that with a simple ID card, great. We can and we should.” Smith also thought it would with access to voting, which he described as a citizen’s most fundamental right – the opportunity to shape their government.

Commissioners Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5), Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) and Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) also indicated support for the program. Rabhi served on the task force that is bringing forward the ID card recommendations.

The board is expected to consider a formal resolution to establish an ID card program, likely at a meeting later this year.

The Aug. 7 working session also included a presentation on the public health department’s strategic plan. This report focuses only on the ID card program. [Full Story]

County Takes Action on Budget, Tax Levies

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Aug. 6, 2014): County commissioners took initial votes to levy two taxes that would generate revenues for economic development, agricultural projects, and support of indigent veterans.

Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Chris Haslinger (second from right), director of training for the United Association (UA) of plumbers and pipefitters, received a proclamation from the county board of commissioners at the board’s Aug. 6 meeting. They were gathering for a photo to mark the event. From left: Conan Smith, Andy LaBarre, Alicia Ping, Yousef Rabhi, Chris Haslinger, and Verna McDaniel, the county administrator. (Photos by the writer.)

The county has determined that it’s authorized to collect up to 1/10th of a mill for support of indigent veterans, without seeking voter approval. That’s because the state legislation that enables the county to levy this type of tax – the Veterans Relief Fund Act, Public Act 214 of 1899 – predates the state’s Headlee Amendment. The county first began levying this millage in 2008, and collects the tax in December. The current proposal is to levy 1/27th of a mill in December 2014, which is expected to raise about $540,887 in revenues for use in 2015.

The county’s position is that Act 88 can also be levied without voter approval to fund economic development and agricultural activities. This year, the proposal is to levy 0.07 mills in December 2014 – the same rate that was levied in 2013. It’s expected to raise an estimated $1,022,276 in property tax revenues.

Final action on these tax levies is expected at the board’s Sept. 3 meeting.

Also related to Act 88, the board approved allocations of $87,760 in Act 88 revenues that were collected in 2013, to support six projects. Four of the projects are administrated by Ypsilanti-based Growing Hope, with the remaining two projects initiated by the Michigan State University Product Center.

During the Aug. 6 meeting, commissioners approved amendments to both the Act 88 projects resolution and the resolution to levy the tax this year. The amendments directed the county’s corporation counsel to provide a written opinion about how Act 88 revenues can lawfully be used, and how the tax can be lawfully levied without a vote of the people. The amendments were brought forward by Dan Smith (R-District 2).

In other action, the board received a second-quarter budget update, with projections showing a general fund surplus of $211,920 for the year. The board also made mid-year budget adjustments, which included allocating a $3.9 million surplus from 2013 into unearmarked reserves.

Commissioners approved a new policy to guide decisions on tax increment finance (TIF) proposals, and supported revised rules and guidelines from the water resources commissioner. Those revisions relate to procedures and design criteria for stormwater management systems.

A proclamation made during the Aug. 6 meeting honored Herb Ellis Sr., the first black man to be elected to the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. Ellis was elected in 1968 and served until 1982, representing Ann Arbor. During that time he also was the first black chair of the county board. He passed away on July 10, 2014 at the age of 98.

Another resolution recognized the contributions of United Association (UA), a union of plumbers, pipefitters, sprinkler fitters, welders, and heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVACR) technicians. They’re in this area from Aug. 9-15 for their 61st annual training program, and have announced a new 15-year agreement to continue the program at the Washtenaw Community College.

The Aug. 6 meeting was held one day after the Aug. 5 primary elections. At the start of the meeting, board chair Yousef Rabhi congratulated all primary candidates, and said he looked forward to working with Ruth Ann Jamnick, the winner of the District 5 Democratic primary. He quickly added “pending the general election, but I think…” – a comment that drew laughs. District 5 – which covers August Township and parts of Ypsilanti Township – is heavily Democratic. Jamnick, who prevailed in the four-way Democratic primary, will face Republican Timothy King in the Nov. 4 general election. District 5 was the only race that was contested for the county board, with incumbent Rolland Sizemore Jr. not seeking re-election. Incumbents in all other districts of the nine-member board were unchallenged in the primary.

At the end of the meeting, the board voted to enter into a closed executive session for the purpose of reviewing attorney-client privileged communication. It is one of the exemptions allowed under the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

After about 30 minutes, three commissioners returned to the boardroom – Dan Smith (R-District 2), Alicia Ping (R-District 3) and Conan Smith (D-District 9). They indicated to The Chronicle that they thought the discussion in the closed session had strayed away from the limits imposed by the OMA, and they had left the session because of that. They did not state what the nature of the discussion had been, nor the topic of the session.

Soon after, the remainder of the board emerged from the closed session, and the meeting was adjourned. [Full Story]

Platt Road Housing Project Partially Delayed

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Aug. 6, 2014): Ann Arbor city planning commissioners took mixed action on a proposed Ann Arbor housing commission (AAHC) property.

From left: Scott Betzold of Midwestern Consulting, Ann Arbor Housing Commission executive director Jennifer Hall, and project architect for AAHC's proposed development at 3451 Platt Road.

From left: Scott Betzold of Midwestern Consulting, Ann Arbor housing commission executive director Jennifer Hall, and John Mouat, project architect for AAHC’s proposed development at 3451 Platt Road.

They sent the rezoning request for the 3451 Platt Road property – R1C (single-family dwelling district) and R2A (two-family dwelling district) to R4B (multi-family dwelling district) – to the city council with a recommendation of approval. However, commissioners postponed consideration of the site plan for the five-building, 32-unit project, amid concerns about the site’s location in the floodplain and stormwater management.

Zoning and site plan approval must ultimately be given by the city council. However, the zoning approval will require two votes by the council at two separate meetings – because changes to the zoning code are actually changes to a city ordinance. So the delay on the approval of the site plan would not necessarily delay the project, as long at the site plan is put in front of the council for consideration by the time the council takes a second vote on the rezoning.

AAHC is hoping that the zoning and site plan approval can be obtained from the city council by sometime in mid-October, because that will help support a grant application.

Several residents who live near the proposed site spoke against the project during the public hearing on Aug. 6, while advocates for more affordable housing spoke in support of it. That public hearing will be continued when the site plan is next taken up by the commission.

The question of whether those speakers will be allowed to speak again at that same public hearing is the type of issue that was addressed in a different item handled by the commission at its Aug. 6 meeting. The commission approved revisions to its bylaws, including one stipulating that people who have already spoken at a public hearing can speak at a continuation of that public hearing only at the discretion of the planning commission chair – or if a proposal has changed in a material way between the initial portion of the hearing and the continued portion.

Revisions to the planning commission bylaws will be forwarded to the city council for approval. [Full Story]

Parks Group Weighs Fuller Parking Lease

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (July 15, 2014): The main action item at the July Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting related to renewal of a lease for parking at a Fuller Park surface lot.

Gwen Nystuen, Eric Lipson, Ann Arbor park advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Former park advisory commissioner Gwen Nystuen and former planning commissioner Eric Lipson of the Library Green Conservancy spoke during public commentary. They advocated for integrated planning of public space in the Library Block, which includes Liberty Plaza and the Library Lane site. (Photos by the writer.)

An existing lease to the University of Michigan expires on Aug. 31, 2014. PAC recommended that the city renew the lease for two years, with an additional two-year option for renewal beyond that. Annual revenue will be $78,665, and will be included as part of the parks and recreation general fund budget.

The three lots are: (1) the parking lot south of Fuller Road, next to the railroad tracks (Lot A); (2) the paved parking lot north of Fuller Road at Fuller Park (Lot B); and (3) the unpaved parking lot north of Fuller Road at Fuller Park (Lot C). The lots are used by UM during restricted hours.

Three people spoke during public commentary regarding Fuller Park, though most of their focus was on the possibility of locating a train station at that site, which they opposed.

Responding to concerns raised during public commentary, commissioners discussed and ultimately amended the recommendation, adding a whereas clause that stated the “resolution does not commit PAC to support or oppose the use of Lot A as a rail station.”

The July 15 agenda also included two items related to Liberty Plaza: (1) extension of a fee waiver for events held at Liberty Plaza; and (2) feedback in response to city council action, which addressed Liberty Plaza and the potential park atop the Library Lane underground parking structure.

The existing fee waiver, which had been in place for a year, expired on July 1. The feedback to the city council related to action at the council’s June 16, 2014 meeting, which took place after a contentious debate over a resolution co-sponsored by Christopher Taylor, who also serves as an ex officio member of PAC.

On July 15, the commission also heard public commentary related to this area, as Library Green Conservancy members advocated for PAC to consider the entire block – both Liberty Plaza and Library Lane – when making recommendations to the council.

But because three PAC members were absent, chair Ingrid Ault suggested that the two items be put off until more commissioners could participate in a discussion. Absent on July 15 were PAC vice chair Graydon Krapohl, Alan Jackson, and Bob Galardi, who also serves as chair of the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy board.

There was no formal vote to postpone, but it’s likely that the items will appear on PAC’s Aug. 19 agenda. That date falls after the Aug. 5 primary elections. Krapohl, a Democrat, is the only candidate running for Ward 4 city council. Christopher Taylor – a councilmember who serves as an ex officio member of PAC – is one of four Democrats running for mayor.

During the July 15 meeting, PAC also received a briefing on activities at Mack Pool, the city’s only indoor pool. Although the city had considered closing it just a few years ago, new programming has resulted in increased revenues for that facility. [Full Story]

AAATA Gears Up for More Accessible Service

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (July 24, 2014): The board’s meeting this month was the next-to-last one before the initial expansion of services that the transit authority will be implementing. The expansion results from the new millage that was approved in a voter referendum held on May 6, 2014. The rollout of additional service is scheduled for Aug. 24, while the board’s next meeting is three days before that.

From left: AAATA strategic planner Michael Benham, Ed Vielmetti (background) and CEO  Michael Ford, talked after he meeting.

From left: AAATA strategic planner Michael Benham, Ed Vielmetti (background) and CEO Michael Ford, talked after the meeting.

The board barely achieved a quorum – with six of 10 board members attending. Anya Dale presided over the meeting in the absence of board chair Charles Griffith.

The board received some updates on the preparations for implementing that expanded service plan. And three of the board’s July 24 voting items were related at least indirectly to the additional services: a plan for acquiring 20 new buses; adjustments to the current fiscal year’s operating budget; and a tweak to the AAATA’s mission statement.

The mission statement was modified to highlight “accessible” as the kind of transit services that the AAATA aspires to provide. The change to the mission statement also reflected the addition last year of the word “area” to the name of the organization. That name change came as the result of adding the city of Ypsilanti as well as Ypsilanti Township as members of the authority. Previously, the city of Ann Arbor had been the sole member. The additional services will be paid for with a millage levied on property owners from all the member jurisdictions.

The fiscal 2014 budget ends Sept. 30. Revenues were adjusted to reflect the millage revenue. Of the additional $4,543,695 in local millage revenues, $3,850,000 is being put toward next year’s FY 2015 budget. Adjustments to this year’s budget include changes to reflect the hiring and training of 11 new bus drivers, bringing the total to 138 drivers. An operations supervisor, two new vehicle mechanics, an additional service crew member, and a human resources administrative assistant will also be added.

The additional 20 buses the AAATA is acquiring for the service expansion are spread over the next three years, with two to be acquired this year, 11 in FY 2015 and 7 in FY 2016. The buses for FY 2015 and 2016 will be paid for with the additional local millage funds, while the buses this year will tap a federal grant with matching state funds. A public hearing was held on the federal grant application that will include those two buses.

Potential future expansion of services – in addition to those to be implemented starting Aug. 24 – was also reflected in a voting item on the board’s July 24 agenda. The board approved an increase in the contract with SmithGroupJJR from $105,200 to $800,000 – to continue study of north-south commuter rail options between Howell and Ann Arbor. An earlier phase of the study for the WALLY (Washtenaw and Livingston Railway) project identified a segment of the Ann Arbor Railroad right-of-way, between Liberty and Washington streets, as a preferred location for a downtown Ann Arbor station. A portion of the work is being paid for with a $640,000 federal Transportation, Community and System Preservation (TCSP) program grant.

The final voting item on the board’s agenda was a $234,360 contract with GZA GeoEnvironmental to perform environmental cleanup work at the AAATA headquarters building at 2700 S. Industrial Highway. The cleanup, which involves contamination from a gasoline leak that was identified in 2010, is covered by insurance.

At its July 24 meeting, the board also heard its usual range of updates, reports and public commentary, much of which highlighted the idea of accessibility. [Full Story]

AADL Makes Infrastructure Investments

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (July 21, 2014): Action at the July board meeting allocated in total nearly $570,000 toward three infrastructure projects, mostly related to the downtown library. A special meeting on July 29 added $75,000 to that amount.

Rachel Coffman, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Rachel Coffman spoke during public commentary to earn points in the AADL summer game. (Photos by the writer.)

Most of the funding was for renovations of the downtown library’s front entrance. The board authorized a $425,523 construction budget for that project at 343 S. Fifth Ave., which has been in the works for several months. The budget covers new doors, a redesigned facade, and heated sidewalks, among other changes. The construction manager is O’Neal Construction of Ann Arbor.

Also related to the downtown library, trustees authorized a $93,598 contract with Schindler Elevator Corp. to repair the public elevator, which has been out of commission since this spring.

A week after the July 21 meeting, the board called a special meeting for July 29 to address additional issues related to the elevator. The four board members present at that meeting voted to authorize an additional $75,000 for elevator work.

Because of the elevator repair work, the Friends of the AADL bookshop is now located in the main first-floor lobby of the downtown building, rather than its normal location in the lower level, which is closed. It’s been in the lobby since June 30, and is open all of the hours that the building is open. Books are sold at the circulation desk.

The third infrastructure project approved on July 21 was $50,000 for carpet replacement in parts of the downtown library, as well as at the branch located at the Westgate Shopping Center.

The money for all three projects will be taken from the fund balance, which stood at $8.17 million as of June 30.

In other action on July 21, the board approved five adjustments to the 2013-14 budget, for the prior fiscal year ending June 30, 2014. The adjustments totaled $96,300.

Public commentary was dominated by fans of AADL’s summer game – in part because they could earn points by speaking to the board. Other issues raised during public commentary included concerns about communication, outreach to underserved populations, the cost of renovations to the downtown library entrance, and the “purging” of reference books.

The board’s August meeting is canceled. The next scheduled board session is on Sept. 15. [Full Story]

County Concerned by Rise in Juvenile Crime

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (July 9, 2014): An increase in violent crime committed by teens in Washtenaw County has spurred the need for additional funding from the county’s Child Care Fund. County commissioners have authorized using $642,707 from the Child Care Fund balance to pay for a range of services overseen by the county’s dept. of human services.

Wes Vivian, Yousef Rabhi, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: former Congressman Wes Vivian talks with Washtenaw County board chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) before the board’s July 9 meeting. Vivian is advocating for the board to put a proposal on the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. (Photos by the writer.)

Linda Edwards-Brown, the county’s juvenile division administrator, told commissioners that there’s been an increase in young men “terrorizing” their communities. The sheriff’s office and court had started working together several months ago after they began observing an increase in gang-type activity, she said, including home invasions, firearm larceny, and assaulting police officers. They’d been hopeful that they could stem the tide of violence, she added, but it had escalated with a death in Ypsilanti earlier this summer.

So the sheriff’s office and court officials have reached consensus to remove some of these young men from the community and put them into residential facilities in other parts of the state, Edwards-Brown said. The juvenile division of the Washtenaw County trial court will place at least six youths in residential facilities this month, in addition to six youths who are currently in residential placements. According to a staff memo, residential placements are costly, with a typical length of stay at nine to twelve months.

At the July 9 meeting, commissioners and staff expressed the need to continue working on this issue as a community-wide effort.

In other action, commissioners were asked to pass a resolution making mid-year budget adjustments and allocating this year’s higher-than-expected property tax revenues, as well as putting the $3.9 million surplus from 2013 into unearmarked reserves.

The adjustments passed on a 6-2 vote, with Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Conan Smith (D-District 9) dissenting. Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) was absent. Dan Smith objected to spending more than was budgeted and making budget changes outside of the annual budget affirmation process, which takes place later this year. Conan Smith didn’t state his reason for voting against it on July 9, though in the past he has advocated for spending more of the surplus, rather than setting it aside in the fund balance.

Commissioners also authorized putting a proposal on the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot to renew a 10-year, 0.2353-mill countywide parks and recreation operations tax. They held public hearings related to other millages that the county plans to levy later this year: (1) for support of indigent veterans and their families; and (2) to fund economic development and agricultural activities, under Act 88. The hearings drew one speaker – Thomas Partridge.

Related to the health department, the board created a new board of health to help oversee public health services in the county. A state official was on hand to talk about the accreditation process that the Washtenaw County public health department completed earlier this year.

Commissioners voted to accept the recommendations of a task force that’s been working on a funding strategy to help end homelessness, and to sunset that task force. The board also made appointments to a new committee that’s charged with exploring funding options for road repair.

Several issues were raised during public commentary. Former Congressman Wes Vivian urged the county board to place a proposal on the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot enabling Washtenaw County voters to ask the state to support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. That U.S. Supreme Court ruling has resulted in corporations “sloshing big money into our elections at all levels,” Vivian said.

Also during the meeting, commissioners honored Arthur Williams, who is retiring as principal of Huron High School in Ann Arbor after 19 years in that job. The board also passed proclamations welcoming the United Association (UA) of plumbers and pipefitters and the Ironworkers International. Both unions hold training programs in Washtenaw County each summer.

At the beginning of the meeting, Rabhi asked for a moment of silence in memory of Rowan David LaBarre, the newborn son of commissioner Andy LaBarre and his wife Megan LaBarre. Rowan David had passed away earlier in the week. “We all pray and hold Rowan in the light of our prayers and thoughts,” Rabhi said. [Full Story]

Kingsley Condo Project Takes Next Step

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (July 15, 2014): Commissioners unanimously recommended approval of a new condo project near downtown – 121 Kingsley West, at Kingsley and Ashley. But because recommendations of approval require six votes – and only five commissioners were present – the development will be forwarded with a recommendation of denial.

Wendy Woods, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Only five members of the nine-member Ann Arbor planning commission were present on July 15, so Wendy Woods was alone on her side of the table. She was later elected chair of the commission, and moved to a different seat to preside over the meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Developer Tom Fitzsimmons and his partners Peter Allen and Mark Berg were assured that the city council would be informed of the circumstances under which the vote was taken.

The plans call for 22 condos in two new structures and an existing building. The request is for approval of a site plan, development agreement and rezoning – from a planned unit development (PUD) to D2 (downtown interface district). The PUD, which has expired, was for a larger development on that same site that was never built – Peter Allen’s Kingsley Lane.

The tallest building at 121 Kingsley West would be 58.4 feet high – just under the 60-foot height limit for D2 zoning.

In other action on July 15, commissioners elected new officers for the coming fiscal year, which began on July 1. Wendy Woods was unanimously elected to serve as the commission’s chair, replacing Kirk Westphal. She has served as vice chair for the past two years. Ken Clein, who has served as secretary, was elected vice chair, replacing Woods in that position. Westphal reported that Jeremy Peters had expressed interest in serving as secretary, though he did not attend the July 15 meeting. Peters was unanimously elected to that position. None of the officer elections were contested.

Planning commissioners also unanimously adopted a master plan resolution and list of resource documents used to support the master plan. This is part of an annual evaluation of the master plan that’s required by the commission’s bylaws. There are no significant changes. Separately, they voted to approve the FY 2015 work program, which planning manager Wendy Rampson characterized as ambitious. [Full Story]

Concerns Lead to Delay for Glendale Condos

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (July 1, 2014): Four projects appeared on the July 1 planning commission agenda, but the meeting was dominated by public commentary and discussion of one in particular: A proposed condominium development at 312 Glendale, the site of a former orchard just south of Jackson Avenue.

Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Residents who live near the proposed Glendale Condos development turned out to oppose the project, which was postponed by planning commissioners. (Photos by the writer.)

Nearly two dozen residents spoke during a public hearing to oppose the project at 312 Glendale, citing concerns about increased flooding and other stormwater problems, dangers of a proposed retention/detention pond, increased traffic, and a loss of landmark tress and green space.

The project had been previously postponed a year ago, at the planning commission’s July 16, 2013 meeting. That meeting had drawn about an hour of commentary from residents who opposed it then as well.

The current proposal has been scaled back – but still drew considerably opposition. The plan now calls for six duplexes, each with two two-bedroom condos. (The original proposal had been for eight duplexes.) Based on the size of the parcel and the site’s zoning, up to 39 units would be allowed by right.

It was a retention/detention pond that drew most concern from commissioners. Wendy Woods said the potential danger it posed would prevent her from supporting the project. Ken Clein questioned the contention of the architect, Scott Bowers, that the pond had been mandated by the office of the Washtenaw County water resources commissioner. Clein and other commissioners asked planning staff to get more information from the water resources commissioner about whether there are other options to handle all of the site’s water detention – such as additional underground systems.

The water resources commissioner is Evan Pratt, who formerly served on the Ann Arbor planning commission.

Also prompting some concerns – but ultimately gaining a recommendation of approval from commissioners – was a proposal for new condominiums on West Liberty Street, called The Mark. The proposal from developer Alex de Parry is to demolish an existing car wash at 318 W. Liberty and build an 11,910-square-foot structure with seven residential condominiums – five two-bedroom and two three-bedroom units. Each condo would have its own two-car tandem garage for a total of 14 parking spaces, although no parking is required.

The lot, on the north side of Liberty, is east of the historic Peter Brehme house at 326 W. Liberty and located in the Old West Side historic district. Concerns raised during a public hearing focused on the fact that a small portion of the site’s corner lies within the floodplain, as well as a general objection to high-end development in the downtown core. One woman also criticized the aesthetics and height of the project. The project’s architect, Brad Moore, responded to concerns about the floodplain by saying that none of the building is within the floodplain. The garages are out of the floodplain, and the living space is located above the garages, he noted.

Two other projects were recommended for approval during the 4.5-hour meeting. Delta Chi plans to tear down its existing fraternity house at the corner of Hill and Oxford and build a much larger structure in its place. The current occupancy of 23 residents would increase to 34 people, including a resident manager. A fraternity representative fielded questions about the decision not to make a voluntary parks contribution. Some commissioners expressed skepticism at the contention that fraternity members didn’t use city parks, and asked that the contribution be reconsidered.

Finally, a $10.5 million expansion of the Gift of Life Michigan facility on Research Park Drive is moving forward to city council, after planning commissioners recommended approval of a site plan and rezoning. The nonprofit wants to build a three-story, 40,786-square-foot addition to connect two existing buildings at 3161 and 3169 Research Park Drive. The additional space will accommodate offices, a special events auditorium and “organ procurement suites.” The nonprofit’s website states that the Gift of Life is Michigan’s only federally designated organ and tissue recovery program. [Full Story]

Greenbelt Communications Plan In Progress

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (July 3, 2014): Commissioners spent most of their relatively brief July meeting in closed session to discuss land acquisition.

John Ramsburgh, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

John Ramsburgh serves on the greenbelt advisory commission’s communications committee. (Photos by the writer.)

The main discussion in open session focused on an update from GAC’s communications committee. The committee has recommended creating an internship for the city’s greenbelt program, drawing from students at the University of Michigan. John Ramsburgh, a GAC member who works for UM’s College of Literature, Science & the Arts, said that his unit could provide office space and resources for the intern.

The work would entail a range of projects, including collaboration with city GIS staff to develop driving or biking maps of greenbelt-protected properties, and drafting Twitter posts and Facebook updates that would promote the greenbelt program. After other commissioners reached consensus to support this approach, Ramsburgh said he’d post the opening with the hope of selecting an intern for the fall semester.

Also at the July 3 meeting, Ginny Trocchio – who provides staff support for the greenbelt program – told commissioners that the city had recently closed a deal to purchase development rights for about 20 acres along Zeeb Road in Webster Township. The transaction brings the total of greenbelt-protected property to a bit over 4,300 acres. [Full Story]

DDA Acts on Infrastructure, Governance

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (July 2, 2014): Much of this month’s meeting was devoted to infrastructure projects and organizational matters, as the DDA board restructured its committees and elected new officers for fiscal 2015, which began on July 1.

Bob Guenzel, Sandi Smith, John Mouat, Ann Arbor DDA, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: DDA board members Bob Guenzel, Sandi Smith, John Mouat. Smith officiated her last meeting as chair on July 2, and Mouat was elected to serve as chair for fiscal 2015, which began on July 1. (Photos by the writer.)

The board approved a $390,000 grant related to an extended-stay hotel project on the downtown’s west side. The development is by First Martin Corp. at 116-120 W. Huron – the intersection of Huron and Ashley streets. The grant will be used to pay for a new 12-inch water main, sidewalk improvements along Ashley, and landscape maintenance in the public right-of-way.

This was the first grant awarded after the board adopted a grant policy earlier this year.

The board also gave a one-year extension to a previously-awarded $650,000 brownfield grant for the 618 S. Main apartment complex. It was originally awarded in 2012, but the project is not yet completed – in part because of the recent harsh winter. The funds would help pay for upsizing a water main to 12 inches, as well as streetscape improvements and a rain garden for stormwater management.

Also related to infrastructure, the board established a project budget of $100,000 for tree maintenance and sidewalk repairs in downtown Ann Arbor in fiscal 2015.

Related to personnel issues, the board held a closed session to evaluate Susan Pollay, the DDA’s executive director. After about 15 minutes, the board emerged and voted to give Pollay a 5% raise, increasing her salary from $109,119 to $114,570.

In describing the rationale for the raise, Roger Hewitt noted that Pollay had received “good raises” in the last two years, but for the six years before that she had not received a raise because of the difficult economy. Her position as a city employee is in the Level 2 category, which has a salary range from $95,000 to $157,000. Several board members indicated a desire to move Pollay toward the midpoint of that range over the next few years. Sandi Smith characterized it as “catch up” to compensate for the years when Pollay didn’t get a raise. Hewitt said the intent is to bring her up to that midpoint salary of $126,000 “within a fairly short time period.”

Casting the sole vote against the 5% increase was city administrator Steve Powers, who said he’d be more comfortable with a 3% raise, and hoped there would be a more robust evaluation process in the future.

Immediately after its regular monthly meeting, the board held its annual meeting to elect officers for the coming fiscal year. John Mouat was unanimously elected to serve as chair of the board. Other officers are Roger Hewitt (vice chair), Rishi Narayan (treasurer), and Keith Orr (secretary). Outgoing chair Sandi Smith was thanked for her service, and received a gift from staff – a small pin from the former Selo/Shevel Gallery, which Pollay indicated evoked a cityscape of tall buildings. Pollay said it was inspired by a trip that several DDA staff and board members took last year to New York City for the International Downtown Association conference.

Also at the July 2 meeting, the board dissolved its two existing committees and created four new committees: (1) marketing, (2) partnerships/economic development, (3) finance, and (4) operations (parking/transportation/construction).

In supporting the idea of a separate marketing committee, Narayan noted that if a staff member is hired to focus on marketing and communications, “this area might become more fleshed out very quickly.” Previously, a marketing subcommittee had been part of the partnerships committee. The new finance committee was created in part in anticipation of the DDA’s growing budget, and a desire for more financial oversight.

During updates, Hewitt reported that work continues on a possible north/south commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Howell known as WALLY – the Washtenaw and Livingston Line. A recommendation will be coming soon to locate a stop on the east side of the railroad tracks between Liberty and Washington streets, opposite of the former city maintenance yard. He stressed that this transportation service is probably a significant way off from being offered. If the project moves forward, the recommended stop wouldn’t be a full station – it would simply be a platform with canopies, and would be built entirely within the railroad right-of-way. Hewitt plans to make a short formal presentation about the recommendation at a future DDA board meeting.

Also related to transportation, Orr reported that the new Greyhound ticket office at the Fourth & William structure will be opening next week – ahead of schedule. Next week also will be the grand opening of the nearby Blake Transit Center, operated by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority.

In other updates, Hewitt noted that members of the DDA’s operations committee continue to work on a downtown ambassadors program, and are likely to bring two potential service providers in for interviews by the end of this summer. [Full Story]

Planning Commission OKs Jesuit Petition

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (June 17, 2014): On a 7-1 vote, the Ann Arbor planning commission cleared the way for a group of up to six members of the Ann Arbor Jesuit Community to live in a single-family home at 1919 Wayne St. The action came at the commission’s June 17 meeting, when commissioners reconsidered an item that they had initially rejected on June 3, 2014.

Alonzo Young, Dan Reim, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Michael Brinkman, Alonzo Young and Dan Reim, a priest who’ll serve as head of household for the Jesuits at 1919 Wayne. Brinkman and Young supported the Jesuits’ petition, and congratulated Reim after the planning commission’s vote on June 17. (Photos by the writer.)

The meeting included a public hearing that lasted about an hour, with the majority of the 23 speakers supporting the request. More than 100 people attended the meeting, many of them wearing stickers that stated “I Proudly Support The Jesuits.” The Jesuits who would be living in the house are affiliated with the St. Mary Student Parish.

Approval requires six votes, but on June 3 the request had garnered support from only five of the seven commissioners who were present. Voting against it on June 3 were Diane Giannola and Kirk Westphal. Two commissioners – Sabra Briere and Paras Parekh – had been absent. Later in that June 3 meeting, commissioners voted to reconsider the item, then postponed it until June 17, when more commissioners would be present.

Giannola again dissented on June 17 to the special exception use, but the remaining seven commissioners at the meeting – including Westphal – supported the request. Jeremy Peters was absent.

Assistant city attorney Kevin McDonald attended the June 17 meeting and fielded questions from commissioners. The motion was amended slightly, with an intent to emphasize the long-term relationship of the Jesuits to each other.

The property is located in Ward 2. Both of the Ward 2 city councilmembers – Jane Lumm and Sally Petersen– attended the June 17 the planning commission meeting, but did not formally address the commission. The planning commission’s decision is final – as the request from the Jesuits does not need city council approval. Westphal – the planning commission’s chair – is running for city council in the Ward 2 Democratic primary. Westphal and Nancy Kaplan are vying to fill the open seat that’s being left by Sally Petersen’s mayoral candidacy. Councilmember Sabra Briere, who serves on the planning commission, is also running for mayor.

After the vote, members of the audience erupted in applause. One woman approached Ben Hawley, pastor and director of campus ministry for St. Mary Student Parish, saying: “Welcome to the neighborhood!”

Commissioners also acted on another item they’d postponed from June 3: A proposal by the Ann Arbor housing commission to expand low-income housing on North Maple Road. The commission recommended rezoning a 4.8-acre site at 701 N. Maple Road from R1C (single-family dwelling district) to R4B (multi-family dwelling district). They also recommended approval of a site plan and development agreement for the project – part of a major renovation effort by the Ann Arbor housing commission. The site is on the west side of North Maple, between Dexter Avenue and Hollywood Drive.

The project calls for demolishing 20 existing single-family homes – the public housing complex known as North Maple Estates – and constructing an eight-building, 42-unit apartment complex with a total of 138 bedrooms. The units range in size from one bedroom to five bedrooms. Five people spoke during a public hearing on the item, including Gwenyth Hayes, the resident representative on the Ann Arbor housing commission. “A lot of times in Ann Arbor we talk about diversity. It’s important that we also include not just cultural diversity, but also socio-economic diversity,” Hayes said. That’s why the city needs more affordable housing, she added.

Another residential housing proposal – a $10 million, 78-unit apartments complex called State Street Village, across from the University of Michigan athletic campus – received criticism from some commissioners, but ultimately was recommended for approval. Commissioners spent about 30 minutes asking question and pressing the developer, McKinley Inc., to go beyond what the city code requires in terms of design, pedestrian amenities, a reduction of impervious surfaces, and stormwater management. “We’re putting our aspirations on you,” Bonnie Bona told them. The vote, which came near midnight, was unanimous – with only six of nine commissioners present.

Also recommended for approval was a proposal for a new drive-thru restaurant on Jackson Avenue near the I-94 interchange, next to Westgate Shopping Center. The plan calls for demolishing the existing one-story service station and auto repair shop and constructing a single building with a drive-thru restaurant and adjacent retail store. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor LDFA Looks to Extend Its Life

Ann Arbor Local Development Finance Authority board meeting (June 17, 2014): The LDFA board’s meeting convened around 8:20 a.m. – about seven hours after the city council’s meeting adjourned the previous evening. And the council’s meeting was the topic of small talk among LDFA board members as they waited for their meeting to convene.

Carrie Leahy is chair of the LDFA board.

Carrie Leahy is chair of the LDFA board.

The council’s meeting was of more than just passing interest to the LDFA board members – because the council voted at that meeting to table a $75,000 contract for business development services with Ann Arbor SPARK, a local nonprofit economic development agency. Ann Arbor SPARK is also the LDFA’s contractor – but not for the same kind of services that SPARK delivers under its contract with the city. The council will likely take up its contract with SPARK again at a future meeting, possibly as soon as July 7.

The city’s annual contract with SPARK, which is paid for with general fund money, is meant to cover the attraction and retention of mature companies to the Ann Arbor area. In contrast, the LDFA contracts with SPARK for entrepreneurial support services – for companies that are in some phase of starting up.

On the LDFA board’s June 17 agenda was the annual contract with Ann Arbor SPARK for entrepreneurial support services – which the board voted to approve. This year that contract is worth nearly $2 million – $1,891,000 to be exact.

An unsuccessful bid by councilmembers made during the city’s FY 2015 budget deliberations would have reduced the total LDFA expenditures by $165,379. The goal of that expenditure reduction would have been to increase the fund balance that was available for infrastructure improvements in the LDFA district – specifically, for high-speed telecommunications. At the LDFA’s June 17 meeting, city CFO Tom Crawford indicated that sometime in the FY 2015 fiscal year, the city would be making a proposal to install fiber throughout Ann Arbor.

The contract between the LDFA and SPARK covers a range of items, with the top two line items consisting of staffing for the business incubator ($420,000) and provision of services to start-up companies in Phase III of their development ($550,000). SPARK classifies its engagement with companies in terms of phases: preliminary screenings (Phase I); due diligence (Phase II); intensive advising (Phase III); and accelerating opportunities (Phase IV). [.pdf of FY 2015 budget line items] [.pdf of LDFA-SPARK FY 2015 contract]

At its June 17 meeting, the LDFA board also approved a routine annual $42,600 contract with the city of Ann Arbor – for administrative support services. Those include items like the preparation of meeting minutes, stewardship of public documents, and preparation of budgetary analyses. [.pdf of FY 2015 LDFA contract with city of Ann Arbor]

The final voting item for the board was approval of its meeting schedule for the next fiscal year. The LDFA board meets in eight out of 12 months, with the next meeting taking place on July 15, 2014, starting at 8:15 a.m. in the city council chambers. [.pdf of 2014-2015 meeting schedule]

These voting items did not, however, generate the majority of the board’s discussion at its June 17 meeting.

The board focused most of its discussion on issues surrounding its application for an extension of the LDFA past its current 15-year lifespan, which ends in 2018. Legislation passed in 2012 allowed for either a 5-year or a 15-year extension – with different criteria for those time periods. The 15-year extension requires an agreement with a satellite LDFA, with two communities currently under consideration to partner with Ann Arbor’s LDFA: Brighton and Adrian. Flint had also been a possibility, but is no longer on the table.

With an extension, the LDFA would continue to capture school operating millage money, which would otherwise go to the state’s School Aid Fund. At least some of the school taxes subject to capture by LDFAs statewide are required to be reimbursed to the School Aid Fund by the state. Questions about how that applies to Ann Arbor’s LDFA have been raised – and a review of the state statute appears to support the conclusion that the key clause requiring reimbursement is inapplicable to the Ann Arbor SmartZone LDFA. That understanding was confirmed to The Chronicle by the Michigan Dept. of Treasury communications staff in a telephone interview on June 23.

The exact nature of that tax capture arrangement and possible reimbursement was also the subject of LDFA board discussion on June 17 – because the LDFA board is being pressed by city councilmembers to account for how the LDFA tax capture impacts the state’s School Aid Fund. Board member Stephen Rapundalo expressed some frustration about that – based on his perception that this material had been well explained in the past: “What’s it take – for them to understand unambiguously how that works? I mean, we have told them. Why is the onus on the LDFA to have to show them that?”

Besides the tax capture mechanism, two other issues raised by city councilmembers are factoring into the LDFA board’s approach to seeking an extension of its term. Board chair Carrie Leahy told her colleagues that she took away two main messages from recent appearances in front of the Ann Arbor city council. Some councilmembers, she said, would like to see: (1) an independent audit of job creation numbers; and (2) a provision for infrastructure investments as part of an LDFA extension.

On the infrastructure side, the LDFA board’s discussion focused on the existing TIF (tax increment finance)/development plan, which provides for investments in high-speed telecommunications (fiber) networks, but not for projects like street construction, sewer construction and streetlight installation. The question was raised as to whether the LDFA could use its school tax capture to pay for a fiber network in the whole geographic district of the LDFA – or if school taxes could only be used to fund a fiber network to an business incubator.

The Ann Arbor LDFA’s district covers the geographic areas of the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti downtown development authorities – although Ypsilanti’s DDA area does not generate any LDFA tax capture. As a consequence, money captured by the LDFA is not spent in the Ypsilanti portion of the district. But that could change under an extension of the LDFA – based on board discussion at the June 17 meeting.

On the job creation numbers audit, the June 17 board discussion indicated that the LDFA will now be looking possibly to incorporate a job numbers audit as part of an upcoming financial audit. The financial auditing firm will be asked to provide some explanation of how it might be able to incorporate a jobs audit as part of its scope of work for the upcoming financial audit. The board appears to understand that some type of jobs audit would be important for winning ultimate city council support for a 15-year extension of the LDFA.

The city council’s representative to the LDFA board, Sally Petersen, made that explicit more than once during the June 17 meeting, saying that “taking the lead on establishing an independent audit would go a long way towards getting city council support for an extension.”

The LDFA’s deliberations and other agenda items are reported in more detail below. [Full Story]

Art Commission, In Transition, Takes Hiatus

Ann Arbor public art commission meeting (June 18, 2014): In what might be their last formal meeting for the foreseeable future, the city’s public art commissioners discussed their role in the context of ongoing transitions for the public art program.

Aaron Seagraves, Ann Arbor public art commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Aaron Seagraves, the city’s outgoing public art administrator.

One aspect of that transition is the departure of the part-time public art administrator, Aaron Seagraves. His current contract ends on June 30 – the final day of the current fiscal year. Seagraves has been working as the public art administrator on a contract basis since May of 2011.

In addition, one of the art commissioners – Ashlee Arder, who was appointed in March of 2013 – has resigned because of a move to Detroit. She did not attend the June 18 meeting.

Six of the nine commissioners who were present at the meeting approved a resolution about AAPAC’s near-term future. It states that the commission “will not initiate any new public arts projects, nor take any action to seek public or private funds for new projects, until it receives: direction on implementing a transition, a plan to support the Public Art Commission in the furtherance of public art, and guidelines for the funding and management of public art projects…” The resolution also states that AAPAC won’t meet until feedback is needed on the transition plan or for ongoing projects.

AAPAC chair Bob Miller, who introduced the resolution, described it as a way “to tie things up in a neat package for us, until the city has a clear direction for us to move forward.”

In other action, the commission authorized using $10,981 for a project called “PowerArt,” to be administered by the nonprofit Arts Alliance in response to a request by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. The DDA is contributing $20,000 to the first phase of the project, which involves wrapping eight traffic signal boxes in the DDA district with vinyl printed replicas of artwork. The expenditure from the city is not from Percent for Art funds, but rather from money donated to the city for public art, and held by the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.

Discussion among commissioners focused on the fact that the Arts Alliance is proposing a roughly 40% project management fee for the first cycle – $9,100 on top of the $23,000 budget for the project expenses. The fee, as a percentage of the project’s later cycles, is expected to decrease in subsequent cycles. If the entire project is completed, an additional 34 boxes would be wrapped.

Commissioners also were updated on several ongoing projects that have been previously undertaken by AAPAC: (1) the Coleman Jewett memorial; (2) sculptures at a rain garden at Kingsley & First; (3) artwork for East Stadium bridges; and (4) Canoe Imagine Art.

Another effort that’s being developed by commissioner KT Tomey – maps for walking, cycling or running self-guided tours of public art – is also moving ahead, though it’s not an official city project. Commissioners intend to continue work on these projects to some degree, despite their decision to hold off on meetings and new initiatives. [Full Story]

Library Moves Ahead on Front Entrance Work

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (June 16, 2014): The main action item for this month’s meeting was approval of a contract with O’Neal Construction Inc. for construction management of the downtown library’s front entrance renovations.

Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Screenshot of Ann Arbor District Library’s summer game website. The game kicked off on June 13. (Image links to play.aadl.org)

Months in the works, the project involves adding new doors and a redesigned facade facing South Fifth Avenue, along with changes to address accessibility issues. O’Neal will bring back a proposal for a guaranteed maximum cost for the work, which the board will be asked to approve at its July 21 meeting. Construction is expected to begin after the art fairs in late July.

The board was also briefed on the start of the annual summer game, which launched on June 13. The board meeting was held at the Traverwood branch, with a game code for 500 points for those who attended. Very few people attended the meeting, however, and no one spoke during the two opportunities for public commentary.

The board got its usual updates on finances, events and library statistics. Trustees also approved resolutions of thanks for three outgoing members of the Friends of the AADL board: Pat McDonald, Mary Kay Cotter and Fred Meyer.

During the meeting, Parker announced that Eli Neiburger has been promoted to deputy director. He received a round of applause from the board. He has previously served as AADL’s associate director of IT and product development.

Responding to a follow-up query from The Chronicle, Parker said Neiburger will be responsible for all departments other than finance, facilities and human resources. AADL has an active search underway for a chief financial officer, who will have responsibility for those three areas.

The change follows the departure of three key staff positions earlier this year. Ken Nieman, former associate director of finance, HR and operations, left in May for a job as CFO at the public library in Sonomo County, California. Former human resources manager DeAnn Doll, who’d been with AADL for about 15 years, also left in May – she’s now director of human resources for Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, Florida. And Celeste Choate – AADL’s former associate director of services, collections and access – was hired as executive director of the Urbana Free Library in Urbana, Illinois. She started that new job in April.

At the end of the June 16 meeting, board president Prue Rosenthal praised Parker and Neiburger for the extra work they’ve taken on during these transitions, and for making the changes seem seamless to patrons and the board. [Full Story]

Request for Jesuit Home To Be Reconsidered

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (June 3, 2014): A controversial request to allow up to six Jesuits to live together at 1919 Wayne St. did not secure sufficient votes for approval from Ann Arbor planning commissioners at their June 3 meeting. A vote by commissioners came after about an hour of public commentary and two hours of deliberations.

Dan Reim, Ann Arbor Jesuits, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Dan Reim, one of the Jesuits who hopes to live at 1919 Wayne St. (Photos by the writer.)

However, at the end of the meeting – near midnight, long after supporters and opponents of the proposal had left – commissioners voted to reconsider the item, and then subsequently voted to postpone action until their next meeting on June 17.

The request – by the Ann Arbor Jesuit Community, formally known as the USA Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus – is for a special exception use to allow a “functional family” to live in a house zoned R1C (single-family dwelling). Without the special exception use, only up to four unrelated people could live there.

The code that allows this special exception use was adopted by Ann Arbor in 1991. Although the city’s ordinance has allowed for a “functional family” designation for more than two decades, this is the first time any group has requested it. The members are affiliated with the St. Mary Student Parish.

Approval required six votes, but the request initially garnered support from only five of the seven commissioners who were present. Voting against it were Diane Giannola and Kirk Westphal. Two commissioners – Sabra Briere and Paras Parekh – were absent. An attempt earlier in the meeting to postpone the vote had failed, with a majority of commissioners wanting to take action that night, apparently assuming it would pass. The final vote to postpone – taken after all other agenda items were dispatched – was 6-1, over dissent from Giannola. The planning commission has discretion to grant a special exception use, which does not require additional city council approval.

During the proposal’s public hearing, 21 people spoke – the majority of them opposed to the request, including representatives from the Oxbridge Neighborhood Association and the North Burns Park Association. Concerns included the possibility of lower property values, the chance of opening the door to student housing or cults, instability of the household because members aren’t related, and “gender housing discrimination.”

Some people directed criticism against the power, privilege and abuse of the Catholic church. Other praised the Jesuits, saying their concerns were strictly related to the zoning code, which they didn’t feel permitted this type of living arrangement in the R1C district. They suggested that the Jesuits could live in other districts – like R4C – that would allow for up to six unrelated people to live together without getting a special exception use.

Three Jesuits who plan to live there – including Ben Hawley, pastor and director of campus ministry for the St. Mary Student Parish – attended the meeting. Rev. Daniel Reim, who serves as the head of household, apologized for the controversy that this request has caused. The group currently lives in a smaller house on Ferdon, which they said they’ve outgrown. Some supporters of the request noted how the men are good neighbors on Ferdon. The former owner of that house pointed out that nearby properties he’s built or renovated had sold for over $1 million, describing the argument about hurting property values as “silly.”

The public hearing will be re-opened on June 17, to allow for additional public input. The Jesuits are encouraging supporters to attend. On June 9, Reim sent an email suggesting specific ways that people can lobby commissioners and the city council.

In voting against the request, Giannola said she didn’t think the Jesuits fit the description of a “functional family.” Westphal said he wanted to get more information from the city attorney’s office about the risk of setting a precedent, and whether there could be conditions on the special exception use that would address concerns about the turnover of residents. Planning staff reported that the city attorney’s office had already vetted the item, but they would make additional queries based on commissioners’ feedback.

There was some question about whether a delay would affect the sales contract that the Jesuits have with the current owner, who also attended the June 3 meeting. The property is listed for sale at $795,000.

In taking up the issue on June 17, one additional wrinkle might be the composition of the commission at that meeting. Two commissioners who supported the request – Jeremy Peters and Eleanore Adenekan – indicated that they would be absent, and another supporter, Ken Clein, said he might also be unable to attend. So it’s possible that there will only be six commissioners at that meeting. That would mean all six commissioners would need to vote yes in order for the request to win approval.

The property is located in Ward 2. One of the Ward 2 city councilmembers, Jane Lumm, attended the planning commission meeting, but did not formally address the commission. Westphal – the planning commission’s chair – is running for city council in the Ward 2 Democratic primary. Westphal and Nancy Kaplan are vying to fill the open seat that’s being left by Sally Petersen’s mayoral candidacy.

In other action on June 3 – a meeting that lasted over five hours – commissioners postponed a rezoning and site plan request from the Ann Arbor housing commission for a property on North Maple, part of a major overhaul of the city’s public housing sites. The project would demolish the single family homes at North Maple Estates, and build apartments that would roughly double the density of low-income housing there. Some neighbors raised concerns about the proposal, which is on the commission’s June 17 agenda for consideration.

Other items on the June 3 agenda were dispatched with little discussion: (1) a site plan for Dusty’s Collision on South Industrial; (2) an expansion at the Rudolf Steiner High School on Pontiac Trail; and (3) a rezoning and area plan request to develop property on Research Park Drive, including an indoor-outdoor tennis facility. [Full Story]

Board Gets Advice from County Electeds

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (June 4, 2014): The board’s meeting featured a discussion of how to allocate a budget surplus – prompted by recommendations from the five countywide “electeds.” The elected officials hope to partner with the county board as it sets priorities for the $3.9 million surplus from 2013. The county’s fiscal year is the same as the calendar year.

Kent Martinez-Kratz, Bob Tetens, Catherine McClary, Brian Mackie, Washtenaw County, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Commissioner Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1); Bob Tetens, director of parks & recreation; county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie; and county treasurer Catherine McClary. (Photos by the writer.)

The board, comprised of elected officials representing nine districts, is responsible for budget decisions. The five positions that are elected by voters countywide – the sheriff, prosecuting attorney, treasurer, clerk/register of deeds and water resources commissioner – head up county departments but must have their budgets approved by the board.

The board is developing a process that will guide budget decisions regarding how to manage budget surpluses or shortfalls, including $3.9 million surplus from 2013 and about $600,000 in higher-than-budgeted property tax revenues in 2014. The county administrator, Verna McDaniel, is recommending that the $3.9 million be kept as general fund reserves. Some county commissioners would rather spend at least a portion of the surplus.

The recommendation from the electeds is to allocate a to-be-determined percentage of any surplus to these five areas: (1) unfunded liabilities for the pension fund; (2) unfunded liabilities for the retiree health care fund; (3) the county’s housing fund, which was eliminated in 2012; (4) the delinquent tax fund reserves, specifically for internal advances on county projects to save bonding costs; and (5) the capital reserve fund or unearmarked reserve fund.

Commissioners made no decision on these recommendations, other than to thank the electeds for their input.

In other budget-related action, the board gave final approval to put a 10-year parks & recreation millage renewal on the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot. Commissioners also set public hearings for two millages that are levied annually in December without voter approval – for support of indigent veterans and their families; and to fund economic development and agricultural activities. Those hearings, to solicit public input, will be held at the board’s July 9 meeting.

The board also gave final approval to set the county’s general operating millage rate at 4.5493 mills – unchanged from the current rate. This is an annual process that includes a public hearing, which was also held on June 4. One person spoke.

A final vote was also taken to create a new committee that will explore funding options for road repair. This follows the board’s rejection – at its meeting on May 21, 2014 – of a proposal to levy a countywide tax for this purpose. No committee members have been appointed yet.

The board was also briefed on work by the community corrections unit, which is part of the sheriff’s department. It provides services that include jail diversion and alternative sentencing options to the Washtenaw County Trial Court, pre-trial services, drug testing, and electronic monitoring. The use of electronic monitoring has increased dramatically, from an average number of cases between 25-30 at any given time in FY 2012-2013, to between 85-115 cases in FY 2013-14.

During public commentary, commissioners heard from David Schonberger, an Ann Arbor resident who thanked the board for passing a resolution last month to oppose oil exploration and drilling in the county. He urged them to use it as a starting point for more action. Specifically, he advocated that the board fund a robust public education campaign and establish an advisory committee to work with Scio Township and the city of Ann Arbor on this issue. [Full Story]

Column: Paying The Price at Michigan

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last week, the Michigan athletic department admitted what many had long suspected: student football ticket sales are down, way down, from about 21,000 in 2012 to a projected 13,000-14,000 this fall.

The department has blamed cell phones, high-definition TV, and a sweeping national trend – but those don’t tell the whole story.

How’d Michigan lose so many students so fast? Answer: a lot of hard work.

Athletic director Dave Brandon has often cited the difficulty of using cell phones at Michigan Stadium as “the biggest challenge we have.” But when Michigan students were asked in a recent survey to rank seven factors for buying season tickets, they ranked cell phones seventh – dead last.

What did they rank first? Being able to sit with their friends.

But Brandon did away with that last year, with his new General Admission seating policy. Instead of seating the students by class – with the freshmen in the end zone and the seniors toward the fifty, as they had done for decades – last year it was first come, first served. (They also raised the price to $295, up from $195 the year before, when Michigan played six home games instead of seven.) The idea was to encourage students to come early, and come often. Thousands of students responded by not coming at all.

This was utterly predictable – and I predicted it, 13 months ago, in this column. [Full Story]

DDA Acts on Sidewalk, Housing Study

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (June 4, 2014): At its final meeting of the fiscal year, the board acted on two items with implications for this year’s budget.

Mary Jo Callan, head of Washtenaw County's office of community and economic development, explained to the DDA board what the affordable housing  needs assessment would entail. The board voted to approve $37,500 for the study. (Photos by the writer.)

Mary Jo Callan, director of Washtenaw County’s office of community and economic development, explained to the DDA board what the affordable housing needs assessment would entail. The board voted to approve $37,500 for the study. (Photos by the writer.)

One was a $37,500 grant from the DDA’s housing fund to help pay for an affordable housing needs assessment to be conducted by Washtenaw County’s office of community and economic development. The other was a routine end-of-year budget adjustment that included the $37,000 grant as well as $500,000 of previous allocations made to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, and a $1.6 million payment for the First & Washington parking garage that was made out of this year’s budget instead of the previous year’s budget.

In other voting business, the board approved up to $125,000 for the redesign and reconstruction of the public sidewalk in front of the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown location on Fifth Avenue. That money will come from next year’s (FY 2015) budget, starting July 1. The project will eliminate the step up immediately adjacent from the curb, which was installed as a result of the streetscape changes the DDA undertook during construction of the Library Lane underground parking garage in 2012. The sidewalk project will be incorporated into an AADL project that will substantially renovate the front entrance to the building.

The final item of voting business considered by the board was adoption of a policy for DDA grants to private developments. The policy establishes criteria for eligibility – which include public benefit to property outside the development. The policy also covers limits on the amount of funding, which is a portion of the additional TIF revenue generated by a project.

A resolution that had been postponed at the board’s May 7, 2014 meeting until the June 4 meeting did not receive any board action – a request to pay about $100,000 for the conversion of streetlights in the DDA district to LED technology. The board did not vote on the item. It did not appear on the board’s agenda as a resolution, but only as an update. That update consisted of remarks from executive director of the DDA Susan Pollay. She informed board members that as a result of conversations she’d had with city staff, they should consider the item tabled, but that the request might be brought back in the future.

The board also received its usual range of updates and reports from committees. [Full Story]

County Continues to Explore Road Funding

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (May 21, 2014): The county board rejected a proposal to levy a 0.4-mill countywide road tax in December, but agreed to continue discussing funding options for road repair.

Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Yousef Rabhi, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Former county commissioner Barbara Bergman, left, talks with Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) and Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) before the board’s May 21, 2014 meeting. Bergman spoke during public commentary to oppose a possible road tax. (Photos by the writer.)

The vote on levying a millage was 2-6, with support only from Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Conan Smith (D-District 9). Alicia Ping (R-District 3) was absent. The tax would have been levied under Act 283 of 1909, which does not require voter approval.

Several commissioners spoke against levying this kind of tax at this time. Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) advocated for waiting to see whether the state provides more funding for roads. Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) reported that the boards of Willow Run and Ypsilanti public schools are considering levying tax increases this summer of 2.8 mills and 1.2 mills, respectively. The state passed legislation that enables school districts to levy millages for debt retirement without voter approval. Noting that a new public transit millage had been approved by voters earlier this month – in Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Ann Arbor – Peterson said the communities that he represents would be hard-pressed to handle yet another tax increase.

Dan Smith argued that there are few funding options available to the county to pay for road repair, and that the need for additional revenues is critical because the roads are in such bad shape. He said he was well aware of the reasons why this was a bad plan – even a terrible one – but added that the only thing worse would be to do nothing. Conan Smith pointed out that because all of the board seats are up for election this year, residents will have a way to weigh in on this decision, albeit indirectly. “This is the most defensible moment that we have” to levy a tax that doesn’t require voter approval, he said.

The May 21 meeting also included a public hearing on the possible levy. And the board heard from people on the topic during general public commentary. In total, seven people spoke about the road funding issue. Former county commissioner Barbara Bergman, who is an Ann Arbor resident, argued against levying the tax, while former state Rep. Rick Olson of York Township urged commissioners to levy the full 1-mill amount allowed under Act 283. Another resident argued against any tax that isn’t approved by voters, calling it taxation without representation.

After the tax levy resolution was rejected, Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) brought forward a resolution to create a seven-member road funding committee that would explore options – including Act 283, as well as other possible revenue sources like bonding or a voter-approved tax. The initial vote to form the committee passed on a 6-2 split, over dissent from Conan Smith and Dan Smith. A final vote is expected on June 4. If approved, members would be appointed at a later date, with the direction to provide a road funding plan to the board in the fall.

Commissioners also weighed in to oppose oil exploration and drilling in the county, prompted by a company’s permit application to the state to drill in Scio Township. The vote was 7-1, over dissent from Dan Smith. Two residents spoke during public commentary,urging the board to oppose oil drilling.

During deliberations, Dan Smith argued that the issue was outside of the county’s purview, because the county can’t regulate oil drilling. He noted that the easiest way to prevent oil drilling is for property owners not to sign leases with companies that seek to drill on their land. Other commissioners supported the resolution, citing environmental and public health concerns, including the proposed drilling location’s proximity to the Huron River.

In other action on May 21, commissioners took initial steps to: (1) put a 10-year countywide parks and recreation operations tax renewal on the Nov. 4 ballot, at 0.2353 mills; (2) create a board of health that would give advice on public health issues; and (3) approve an application for a $940,000 federal grant that the county would make on behalf of Ann Arbor SPARK, the local economic development agency. Funds would be used to help redevelop the former General Motors Willow Run Powertrain plant in Ypsilanti Township for use as a connected vehicle testing facility.

Given final approval on May 21 was this year’s allocation to local nonprofits through the coordinated funding process, in which the county participates.

The board also approved a process that will determine how the $3.9 million budget surplus from 2013 will be allocated. Conan Smith said he felt “personally let down” by the approach, because the county administrator has already recommended to keep that amount in the general fund’s unearmarked reserves. He thought it was “turning out to be little more than a rubber stamp of a decision that’s already been proposed by the administration.” Felicia Brabec (D-District 4), who’s leading this process, stressed that commissioners will be discussing and making the final decision – which might differ from the administration’s recommendation. [Full Story]

Hotel Project Moves Ahead, Condos Delayed

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (May 20, 2014): Development of a new extended-stay hotel on West Huron and North Ashley received a unanimous recommendation of approval from planning commissioners, following a lengthy discussion and concerns voiced by some residents and business owners at the adjacent One North Main building.

Mike Martin, First Martin Corp., Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Mike Martin of First Martin Corp. answered questions from planning commissioners at their May 20, 2014 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Issues included blocked views, noise from rooftop mechanicals, and problems with egress from One North Main’s underground parking. But even people who raised these concerns applauded the project, saying a hotel there would help bring vitality to that part of town. The site on the northeast corner, owned by First Martin Corp., now includes a building that houses the Ann Arbor Convention & Visitors Bureau and the bus depot for Greyhound, which will be relocating next month to the city’s Fourth & William parking structure.

First Martin’s proposal includes a six-floor, 88,570-square-foot building with a ground-floor restaurant or retail space facing Huron and an extended-stay hotel on the upper five levels, with an entrance off of Ashley. The hotel will be operated by Marriott. The bus depot facade – including an iconic art moderne sign – will remain in place.

The project will be forwarded to the city council for consideration.

Also heading to the council with a recommendation of approval is an expansion of the Bank of Ann Arbor’s downtown building at the northeast corner South Fifth and East Washington. The plan involves reorienting the main entrance – moving it from the center of the bank’s South Fifth Avenue side to the corner of Fifth and Washington. A 9,179-square-foot third-floor addition would be constructed over the rear of the building’s east side.

The bank has an existing drive-thru teller window on its north side, which will not be altered. The site’s D1 zoning requires a special exception use for drive-thrus, which the planning commission granted in a separate vote. Because the project is going through a site plan approval process, the requirement for a special exception use was triggered. Special exception uses do not require additional city council approval.

Commissioners amended the special exception use to limit the drive-thru to a financial institution, so that it can’t be used in the future for other businesses – like a pharmacy or fast food restaurant. That amendment, put forward by Sabra Briere, was approved on a 6-2 vote, over dissent from Wendy Woods and Eleanore Adenekan. Briere also proposed an amendment that would restrict the hours that the drive-thru could be open. The concern was that vehicles pulling out from the drive-thru onto Fifth Avenue could cause a threat to pedestrians and bicyclists in the evening. But after discussion – including some comments from Hans Maier, a senior executive for the bank – Briere withdrew that amendment.

Two other special exception use requests were granted during the May 20 meeting – from companies selling seasonal Class C fireworks for the July 4 holiday. Phantom Fireworks will be putting up a tent in the parking lot of the Maple Village Shopping Center, across from Veterans Memorial Park. In previous years the business operated in the parking lot of Colonial Lanes on South Industrial. Patriot Fireworks will be selling fireworks in the parking lot of the Twin Valley shopping center at 2750 Jackson Ave., west of the I-94 overpass. Both special exception uses were amended to limit the sales to fireworks only – not other seasonal items – and to put specific limits on the days of operation.

One item was postponed by commissioners on May 20 – a site plan for Mark Condominiums on West Liberty, brought forward by developer Alex de Parry. The postponement was based on a recommendation from the planning staff, to allow time for a public water system issue to be addressed. City staff determined that the six-inch water main along Liberty needs to be replaced with a 12-inch main. De Parry told commissioners that the development team had just recently been informed about this issue, and they are now analyzing the budget impact and alternatives they might pursue. [Full Story]

Taxicab Board Considers Rates, Drivers

Ann Arbor taxicab board meeting (May 22, 2014): Two topics addressed by the board at its April 23, 2014 meeting received additional conversation this month. First, the board discussed the possibility of deregulating taxicab fares, or setting them at a much higher maximum. The board also continued discussing whether to recommend that the city council enact an ordinance to regulate all drivers for hire – taxicab drivers, limo drivers, as well as those who drive for Uber and Lyft.

Screen of iPhone showing Uber vehicle responding to request for a pickup on May 24. The resulting trip – from Jackson & Maple to Liberty & Main was calculated by Uber as $8. With the current introductory promotion it cost nothing.

Screen of iPhone showing Uber vehicle responding to request for a pickup on May 24. The resulting trip – from Jackson & Maple to Liberty & Main – was calculated by Uber as costing $8.

Both topics will also be considered at the board’s next meeting on June 26.

Consideration of a general driver-for-hire ordinance comes in reaction to the recent entry of Uber and Lyft into the Ann Arbor market. However, taxicab board chair Michael Benson stressed during the meeting that the point of the possible new ordinance was not to “target” Uber and Lyft, but rather to ensure that all drivers for hire are registered with the city. Those two companies, which coordinate drivers and passengers through software applications, have been sent cease-and-desist letters by the Ann Arbor city attorney’s office – for aiding and abetting the violation of a state statute regulating limousines. [.pdf of cease-and-desist sent to Lyft] [.pdf of cease-and-desist sent to Uber]

But the board heard from a University of Michigan student during public commentary time, who reported that the cease-and-desist letters, dated May 14, 2014, were having no impact – as he’d used one of the services three times the previous evening. In the course of his remarks, the UM business undergrad outlined several advantages of Uber and Lyft, including price, convenience and efficiency.

The board had voted at its April 23 meeting to ask the city attorney’s office to draft general driver-for-hire ordinance language for consideration at its May 22 meeting, but that draft was not yet available.

So at its next meeting on June 26, the board is expecting two possible proposals to be ready for consideration: (1) a new rate structure proposal; and (2) a draft ordinance on regulating all drivers for hire. The taxicab board could forward a recommendation to the city council to enact either proposal. A decision on enactment rests with the city council.

Discussion of the driver-for-hire issue at the May 22 meeting included themes familiar from the board’s April 23 conversation, mostly centering on the desire of board members to ensure public safety for patrons of businesses that operate on the public right-of-way. They want to ensure that drivers who are being compensated for their work are registered with the city, that their vehicles are inspected, and that they are adequately insured.

The rate changes to be considered by the board on June 26 come in the context of board interest in seeing the taxicab industry able to compete with limousine services, as well as with services with business models like those of Uber and Lyft. Currently the maximum rate in Ann Arbor is $3 to get in, $2.50 per mile, and 40 cents per minute waiting time.

Those maximum rates were last adjusted upwards three years ago, on May 16, 2011, in response to gas prices that had nudged past $4 per gallon. At that time, the taxicab board indicated it did not anticipate considering another rate change until the gas prices were over $5 for at least two consecutive months.

So the board’s thinking is not being driven by gas prices, which are currently between $3.75 and $4 in the Ann Arbor area. Instead, a possible increase in allowable fares is based on concern that the taxicab industry in Ann Arbor might not be able to survive unless taxis are allowed to charge more. Taxicab board member Robert Goeddel supported setting a significantly higher maximum, saying that if the taxicab industry does not survive, he does not want it to be because the basic costs of doing business can’t be covered.

City CFO Tom Crawford, who sits on the taxicab board as an ex officio member, noted that it’s a challenge to consider changes in rate structures at the same time as new entrants have come into the market – who have a lower cost structure than the taxicab industry. He expressed some concern that the result could be a “race to the bottom” for pricing that could work to destroy the taxicab industry.

In other business, the board elected its officers for the next year – an annual task. Benson and Stephen Kunselman were re-elected as chair and vice chair of the board.   [Full Story]

Library Board Acts on Budget, Infrastructure

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (May 19, 2014): Trustees approved the library’s 2014-15 budget with no increase in the tax rate, following a pattern they’ve established over the past several years.

Ed Surovell, Margaret Leary, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ann Arbor District Library trustees Ed Surovell and Margaret Leary at the board’s May 19, 2014 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The rate of 1.55 mills is also lower than the 1.92 mills that the library is authorized to levy. The $12.568 million budget assumes a 2.4% increase in tax revenues, based on an increase in property values. No one spoke during a public hearing on the budget that was held during the May 19 meeting.

The budget includes a 3% raise for AADL director Josie Parker, increasing her current salary of $143,114. As part of an annual director’s evaluation, board president Prue Rosenthal read aloud a letter from the board that praised Parker for her work and accomplishments.

Related to infrastructure, trustees authorized Parker to negotiate with Ann Arbor-based O’Neal Construction Inc. for work related to the downtown library entrance. O’Neal would be contracted to provide construction management services for the entrance’s renovation. This is the next step in a process that began several months ago, with construction to begin this summer.

The board also got an update from Parker about the public elevator for the downtown library, which is out of service. It’s expected to cost about $100,000 to repair and will take several months to fix. That work will also take place this summer, and requires closing the lower level of the building, where many public events are held.

The May 19 meeting included approval of contracts for janitorial services and HVAC maintenance, for three-year periods. Also approved was the renewal of a space-use agreement with the nonprofit Friends of the Ann Arbor District Library. FAADL operates a bookstore at the downtown library, with proceeds given to AADL.

The board also got a monthly update on library statistics, “top Tweets” and a viewing of a new video to promote AADL’s summer game, which starts on Friday, June 13, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 31. The video was produced by AADL staff and 7 Cylinders Studio. [Full Story]

County Board Continues Weighing Road Tax

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (May 7, 2014): Two topics dominated a four-hour meeting: possible funding options for road repair, and an update on how the community is addressing homelessness.

Curtis Hedger, Dan Smith, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Washtenaw County corporation counsel Curtis Hedger and commissioner Dan Smith (R-District 2). (Photos by the writer.)

Following a lengthy discussion, commissioners voted to set a public hearing about a possible countywide road millage. The hearing will be held at their meeting on May 21 so that the public can give input on a proposal to levy up to 1 mill for roads in 2014. The tax would be levied under Act 283 of 1909.

No final decision is expected at the May 21 meeting about levying a tax – although a resolution to levy a 1-mill tax is on the May 21 agenda for initial consideration.

Commissioners all appeared to support finding a way to secure more road funding, but some voiced concern about process and timing – especially because a tax under Act 283 would be levied without voter approval.

The May 7 discussion began when Dan Smith (R-District 2) brought forward a resolution that would authorize levying a 1 mill tax – under Act 283 – in December 2014. It would generate $14.34 million “to repair 2013–14 winter damage to the roads, streets and paths in Washtenaw County.” The board ultimately voted to postpone the resolution until May 21 over dissent from Alicia Ping (R-District 3).

During the wide-ranging discussion, Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) expressed concern that the public hadn’t yet been informed about the Act 283 proposal. At the request of board chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), Roy Townsend – managing director of the county road commission – had prepared a list of road projects that could be funded by an Act 283 millage, which was distributed at the May 7 meeting. Townsend and two of the three road commissioners – Barb Fuller and Bill McFarlane – attended the May 7 meeting, and Townsend fielded questions from the board.

Corporation counsel Curtis Hedger cautioned that Act 283 lays out a specific process, which calls for a presentation of proposed road projects at a meeting in late September or October, prior to the December levy. Responding to those concerns, Dan Smith noted that options might include passing a resolution this month or in June to indicate the board’s intent to levy the tax, then possibly using money from the general fund’s fund balance to pay for road work this summer. The fund balance would be reimbursed when the tax revenues are collected in December. Hedger pointed out a risk in that approach: If someone sues the county and a court issues an injunction, then the county might be unable to levy the tax – after already spending general fund dollars.

Conan Smith (D-District 9) supported the Act 283 tax. “I’m almost of a mindset of ‘Let’s do it’ – and if someone wants to sue us over it, you know, then when they file a lawsuit we can reconsider,” he said. Smith preferred the Act 283 levy over a ballot initiative that voters would be asked to approve, saying there are other funding proposals he’d rather put on the ballot – for public safety and human services.

The board discussion on this issue will continue at the May 21 meeting.

In other road-related items on the May 7 agenda, the board voted to accept the recommendations of a subcommittee that was appointed last year to explore options enabled by state legislators. The subcommittee had recommended not to make the road commission part of county operations, and not to make the job of road commissioner an elected position.

The May 7 meeting also included an update about the community’s approach to addressing homelessness. The briefing was in response to a board directive given to staff on April 2, 2014 to develop a plan for updating the county’s Blueprint to End Homelessness. The blueprint was adopted in 2004. The process of updating that plan is to be completed by Oct. 1, 2014.

Responding to information that there’s been an increase in people from outside of Washtenaw County coming to the Delonis Center shelter in Ann Arbor, Conan Smith cautioned against making that kind of distinction, saying it “dehumanized” people who are seeking help, regardless of where they’re from.

Mary Jo Callan, director of the county’s office of community & economic development, told Smith that his point was well taken. But she noted that unless the state asks other communities to provide something close to the level of support that Washtenaw County provides, “then it’s an issue of volume. I’m sorry, but it’s not about dehumanizing.” Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, noted that 96% of the shelter’s budget comes from local public funding, and the shelter was built for people who became homeless in Washtenaw County. She said it was her job “to hold that line.”

During the May 7 meeting, commissioners also gave initial approval to allocate funding to local nonprofits as part of a coordinated funding approach for human services, in partnership with several other local funders. The county is one of the original five partners in the coordinated funding approach. Other partners are city of Ann Arbor, United Way of Washtenaw County, Washtenaw Urban County, and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.

This year, 105 applications were submitted by 50 local organizations totaling $8,732,389 in requested funding, according to a staff memo. A review committee recommended that 57 programs receive a total of $4,321,494 in available funding. Of that amount, the county is providing $1.015 million. Among the organizations that are being funded in this cycle are Corner Health Center, Interfaith Hospitality Network of Washtenaw County, Child Care Network, Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw, Food Gatherers and Legal Services of South Central Michigan. Several nonprofit leaders spoke during public commentary in support of this process, as did Ann Arbor city administrator Steve Powers.

In other action, the board appointed Ellen Rabinowitz as health officer for the Washtenaw public health department; passed a resolution calling for an increase in Michigan’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour; and received a first-quarter budget update from the county’s finance staff. First-quarter projections tend to be conservative, because they’re based on only three months of the year, with limited evidence of budget trends. At this point, the 2014 general fund is projected to have a $70,230 shortfall by year’s end – with total revenues of $103,404,537 and total expenditures of $103,474,767. There is no planned use of fund balance for this year’s budget. [Full Story]

Downtown Zoning Revisions Move Forward

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (May 6, 2014): A four-hour meeting was dominated by two topics: revisions to downtown zoning, and the rezoning of land used for public housing.

Ray Detter, Hugh Sonk, Christine Crockett

From left: Ray Detter, Hugh Sonk and Christine Crockett. At the planning commission’s May 6 meeting, they all spoke against a 100-foot height limit for the 425 S. Main site. (Photos by the writer.)

Commissioners voted unanimously to recommend rezoning a large parcel at the southeast corner of Main and William – another step in a review of downtown zoning that began last year under direction from the city council. The recommendation is to rezone the site at 425 S. Main from D1 (downtown core) to D2 (downtown interface), a lower-density zoning. Currently, a two-story 63,150-square-foot office building – where DTE offices are located – stands on the southern part of that site, with a surface parking lot on the north portion.

In a separate action, commissioners were split on adding new requirements to the Main Street character district, where 425 S. Main is located – but that recommendation was approved. The commission voted 6-3 to recommend changes that include setting a maximum height of 100 feet for properties in that district that are zoned D2, and requiring upper story stepbacks from any residential property lines. That maximum is 40 feet taller than the 60-foot height limit specified for D2 zoning elsewhere in the downtown. Dissenting were Sabra Briere, Ken Clein and Jeremy Peters. Briere serves as the city council’s representative to the planning commission.

During deliberations on May 6, Briere pointed out that the 60-foot maximum height had been cited specifically in the city council directive, and she opposed raising that height limit. The 425 S. Main property would be the only D2 site in the Main Street character district, if the city council approves the rezoning recommendation. Because the requirements would apply to just one site, it seemed like spot zoning to Briere.

Neighbors and others had previously raised concerns that D1 zoning – which allows the highest level of density downtown – would result in a negative impact to that part of town, and had supported downzoning to D2. Several neighborhood advocates attended the May 6 meeting and again supported D2 rezoning, but strongly opposed the 100-foot maximum height.

Andy Klein, one of the property owners of 425 S. Main, also attended the meeting, saying that the site would be unbuildable with D2 zoning and a 60-foot height limit, and that the property’s value would be destroyed. He supported the 100-foot maximum.

Members of the commission’s ordinance revisions committee – which brought forward the proposal – defended it, saying that the combination of D2 zoning with a taller height would allow for more flexible design and less massive structures.

At this time, no new development has been proposed for this site. The recommendations approved on May 6 will be forwarded to the city council for consideration. In the coming months, the planning commission’s ordinance revisions committee will tackle other aspects of the council’s downtown zoning directive.

The other major item on the May 6 agenda related to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, as part of its major initiative to upgrade the city’s public housing units by seeking private investors through low-income housing tax credits. Planning commissioners recommended rezoning for three AAHC properties: (1) Baker Commons, at the southeast corner of Main and Packard, from public land to D2 (downtown interface); (2) Green/Baxter Court Apartments, at the northwest corner of Green and Baxter roads, from public land to R4A (multi-family dwelling district); and (3) Maple Meadows at 800-890 S. Maple, from R1C (single-family dwelling district) to R4B (multi-family dwelling district).

AAHC director Jennifer Hall explained that PL (public land) zoning doesn’t allow housing to be built on it. As AAHC seeks private funding to rehab its properties, it needs to ensure if a building burns down, for example, it could be rebuilt. In general that’s why the rezoning is being requested. It’s also being requested to align the zoning with the current uses of the property. Hall stressed that the highest priority properties to be rezoned are Baker Commons, Green/Baxter and Maple Meadows, because investors have already been found to renovate those sites.

Two other properties were also on the agenda for rezoning: Mallett’s Creek Court, at 2670-2680 S. Main; and 805-807 W. Washington, on the southwest corner of Washington and Mulholland. About a dozen neighbors of Mallett’s Creek Court spoke about concerns that the vacant part of the parcel, adjacent to Cranbrook Park, would be sold or developed. Hall assured them that there’s no intent to sell, and in fact federal regulations that govern pubic housing prevent such a sale. She said AAHC hadn’t been aware that the vacant land, which includes a wooded area, was part of the parcel until they started the rezoning process. There are no plans to develop that side of the parcel.

Neighbors of the West Washington property are concerned about the amount of impervious surface on that site, and chronic flooding problems in that area.

Action on West Washington and Mallett’s Creek Court properties was postponed by the commission. AAHC and city staff will continue to evaluate these two properties, which will likely return to the planning commission for consideration at a later date.

In other action, planning commissioners recommended the annexation of an 0.22-acre lot at 375 Glenwood Street – currently in Scio Township – and to zone the site as R1C (single-family dwelling district), which matches the zoning of surrounding sites. It’s located on the west side of Glenwood, south of Dexter Road.

And commissioners held a public hearing on a master plan update, as part of an annual review process. Only one person – Changming Fan – spoke during the hearing, asking the commission to include his company’s technology in the master plan.

The master plan resolution that commissioners will vote on at their next meeting, on May 20, will highlight work that the commission intends to undertake in the coming year that’s related to master planning efforts. That work includes the Washtenaw Avenue and North Main corridor plans; helping the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority develop a streetscape framework; and helping implement the city’s sustainability action plan. [Full Story]

County Debates Expanded Road Commission

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (May 8, 2014): Washtenaw County commissioners tackled the topic of possibly expanding the road commission board, but reached no consensus at their most recent working session.

Conan Smith, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Conan Smith (D-District 9) advocated for expanding the road commission board from three members to five. (Photos by the writer.)

The road commission board is a three-member entity, and is run independently from county operations. The county board, an elected body that appoints the road commissioners, is enabled under state law to expand the road commission board to five members. The possibility of expansion has been discussed periodically for years, but was always met with resistance – most notably from some of the road commissioners themselves.

Although there have been tensions in the past, several county commissioners commented on the current positive relationship between the county and the road commission, and noted that two of the three road commissioners – Barb Fuller and Bill McFarlane – are new. The third road commissioner, Doug Fuller, has served in that role since 2008, and is the current chair. [Barb and Doug Fuller are not related.]

Commissioners who argued against expansion at this time cited the need for the relatively new road commission board to gain more experience before any changes are made.

Arguing in favor of expansion, Conan Smith (D-District 9) scoffed at the idea that the road commission was “some magical institution that needs special treatment.” The only result of leaving the road commission board at three members instead of five is that it will consolidate political power among the three current road commissioners, he said. “Those people who are there longer get to build stronger relationships, get deeper knowledge, and they have that ability then to leverage that knowledge and political authority to their own ends.” Adding two more road commissioners will bring more diversity to the governance of that organization, he argued, saying it’s something that should have been done years ago.

Smith said it’s crucial to bring more voices to bear on one of the most contentious, critical issues that the county will face in a long time – the management of the local transportation network. Over the past decade, he said, the people who’ve served as road commissioners haven’t “had the wherewithal to tackle this issue in a way that presents a comprehensive solution.” Given the changing nature of transportation, the economy and economic development, the most important thing that’s needed is a greater diversity of voices at the table, Smith concluded.

Smith, Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) and Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) indicated that they support expansion. Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Alicia Ping (R-District 3) were inclined to keep a three-member road commission board at this time, while two other commissioners – Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1) and Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) – seemed on the fence, or leaning toward picking up the issue at a later date. Commissioners Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) and Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) did not attend the May 8 working session.

The meeting was attended by one of the three current road commissioners, Barb Fuller. She did not formally address the board.

The issue of possible expansion comes in the broader context of discussions about whether to change the structure of the road commission – by absorbing the commission into county operations. At their Oct. 2, 2013 meeting, county commissioners created a seven-member subcommittee to “explore partnerships and organizational interactions with the Washtenaw County Road Commission.” The subcommittee made recommendations to the board earlier this year that called for leaving the road commission as an independent entity. The subcommittee did not make a recommendation about expanding the road commission from three to five members, calling it a political decision that the county commissioners should make.

The board accepted the subcommittee’s recommendations at their May 7, 2014 meeting, but have not yet made a decision about expansion.

Following the working session discussion, it’s still unclear what action, if any, will be taken regarding the possible expansion of the road commission board. Any of the county commissioners have the option of bringing forward a resolution on the issue. [Full Story]

DDA Takes on Transit, Energy

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (May 7, 2014): The board’s meeting highlighted two main themes – transportation and energy – the day after a new public transportation millage was approved by voters in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.

Fourth & William parking structure viewed from the Fourth Avenue side, where Greyhound buses will likely be staging, when a lease of space in the structure is finalized. Currently that's where AAATA buses stage, but they'll be moving when the driveway is poured for the new Blake Transit Center in the next few weeks.

Fourth & William parking structure viewed from the Fourth Avenue side, where Greyhound buses will likely be staging, when a lease of space in the structure is finalized. Currently that’s where AAATA buses stage, but they’ll be moving when the driveway is poured for the new Blake Transit Center in the next few weeks.

Though the board did not take action on adding circulator bus service to the downtown, the idea was brought up and referred to the operations committee. That was not unexpected, as the board had previously passed a resolution pledging possibly to increase the DDA’s support of transportation, if the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s new millage were to be approved. One specific idea mentioned at the May 7 meeting was to provide a shuttle on Saturdays between the Ann Ashley parking structure and the Ann Arbor farmers market.

The board did take action on two other transportation-related items: a lease to Greyhound for use of office space to be built out in the Fourth & William parking structure; and the setting of a $5 million project budget for  renovations at that same parking structure.

The Greyhound lease would provide a temporary location for Greyhound over the next two years as the bus company will not be able to remain in its Huron Street location – because the property owner, First Martin Corp., is planning a hotel at that spot. After assessment of operations at AAATA’s new Blake Transit Center (BTC), when construction is complete, Greyhound could eventually find a home at the BTC – if it turns out to be feasible.

Establishing a $5 million project budget for the Fourth & William parking structure renovations will allow the creation of construction drawings, and after that a request from the city council to approve the issuance of bonds to cover the cost of the project. The renovations are prompted by a need to replace the aging elevator in the southwest corner of the building, but will likely include improvements to facades and possibly a build-out of ground-floor area for use as retail space.

The Fourth & William parking structure was also part of the meeting’s energy theme. It already includes two parking spaces that are equipped with chargers for electric cars. During public commentary, the board heard from a monthly permit holder at Fourth & William, who wanted to transfer her monthly parking permit to the Library Lane structure. The two spaces at Fourth & William are often occupied, she reported, and she thinks she might have better luck at Library Lane, which offers six electric vehicle chargers.

In another energy-related action, the board delayed a decision on paying roughly $100,000 for the conversion of DTE-owned streetlights in the downtown area to LED technology. In delaying, board members cited the fact that the roughly $20,000 in energy savings would not be realized by the DDA, but rather by the city of Ann Arbor’s general fund. The resolution could be approved at the board’s June meeting and still meet a DTE deadline.

Among other information reported at the meeting, the DDA has decided that it will not lease the former Y lot back from Dennis Dahlmann so that it can continue to be used as part of the public parking system until Dahlmann develops the property. Under the terms of the purchase agreement between the city of Ann Arbor and Dahlmann a certificate of occupancy for a new building on that site is required by January 2018.

In other business, the board voted to deny an appeal made under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. [Full Story]

Greenbelt Commission Works on Outreach

Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (May 1, 2014): During a meeting that lasted less than an hour, commissioners were briefed on a draft communications plan aimed at raising awareness of the city’s greenbelt program.

Stephanie Buttrey, Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Stephanie Buttrey, a member of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission’s communications and outreach committee. (Photos by the writer.)

The hope is to increase support of the program among Ann Arbor taxpayers, landowners who might be eligible to preserve their property as part of the greenbelt, and elected officials and policymakers at the local, regional and federal levels.

The committee is also thinking longer-term, looking at what might happen when the 30-year millage expires. The millage that supports the greenbelt program was passed by voters in 2003. The 0.5 mill tax for land acquisition is called the open space and parkland preservation millage. On the summer tax bill, the line item appears as CITY PARK ACQ.

The committee will continue its work and eventually bring forward a completed plan for the full commission to approve.

Also on May 1, commissioners received a brief update from Ginny Trocchio, who provides staff support for the greenbelt program. She reported on proposed federal legislation related to tax incentives for donating conservation easements. Landowners who want to donate easements or who agree to sell their easements for less than market value have in the past received a tax deduction. But legislation allowing for that deduction expired at the end of 2013. Congress is considering an extension for 2014 and 2015, Trocchio said.

The meeting also included a closed session to discuss possible land acquisitions, which lasted about 30 minutes. The topic of land acquisition is one allowed as an exemption by the Michigan Open Meetings Act for a closed session. When commissioners emerged, they voted on one resolution that will be forwarded to the city council – a recommendation to pursue the purchase of development rights on a property in Pittsfield Township, using matching funds that Cherry Republic had previously donated to the city. [Full Story]

County Considers Road Funding Options

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (April 17, 2014): For more than two hours, county commissioners discussed the future of the road commission and appeared to reach consensus that no major structural changes will be made at this time.

Gene DeRossett, Manchester Township, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Several Washtenaw County road commission employees attended the county board’s April 17 working session, as did some township officials. In the foreground is Manchester Township supervisor Gene DeRossett. (Photos by the writer.)

More likely, though not yet determined, are efforts to find additional funding sources for road maintenance – including a possible countywide road millage on the Nov. 5, 2014 ballot.

Keeping the road commission unchanged had been the recommendation of a board subcommittee that met for several months to discuss available options, including the possibility of dissolving the road commission and making it part of county operations, rather than operate as an independent entity. Most county commissioners oppose that approach. The board’s May 7 agenda includes a resolution accepting the subcommittee recommendations, which also rejects making the job of road commissioner an elected position. The three road commissioners are currently appointed by the county board.

State legislation enacted in 2012 allowed for: (1) a county board of commissioners to exercise the powers and duties of a road commission; and (2) the functions of a road commission to be transferred to the county board. A sunset clause means that the laws expire on Jan. 1, 2015. That deadline prompted the county board to examine these options.

The board’s May 7 agenda includes a letter to the state House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, urging passage of HB 5117 and 5118 – bills that would eliminate the current sunset clause and extend the options for changing the road commission functions.

Much of the focus of the April 17 working session was on funding options and long-term strategy for maintaining the county’s road network. Several township representatives who attended the session voiced support for special assessment districts, known as SADs, which are being used in Scio Township to pay for road maintenance.

But Conan Smith, an Ann Arbor Democrat who’s been vocal in urging the county board to take responsibility for the road commission, argued that SADs shouldn’t be a long-term approach. The road network is an asset to the entire county’s economy, he said, and the burden of maintaining it shouldn’t rest on the smaller communities.

Smith also noted that the economy is changing. Telecommuting, for example, might change the way people use the roads, he said. Later in the meeting, road commissioner Barb Fuller noted that other infrastructure needs are important to achieve the vision that Smith had described. “I would suggest that you folks look at making broadband ubiquitous across the county,” she said. For those commissioners who take access to broadband as a given, she said, “trust me – there are parts of the county where they can’t get a signal at all.”

Yousef Rabhi, another Ann Arbor commissioner, also spoke of the need for a broader vision. Roads should serve not just drivers, but also bicyclists and pedestrians. Potholes are a serious safety issue for cyclists, he noted. “We have to keep in mind that not every taxpayer drives a car.”

Regarding funding for roads, Rabhi wanted the discussion to be about the structure of a millage – not whether there should be a new road tax. “I think it’s pretty obvious that we need more money,” he said.

The May 7 agenda includes a discussion item on options for road funding. A draft resolution was circulated at the April 17 working session to put a countywide road millage on the Nov. 5, 2014 ballot. The draft resolution calls for a four-year, 0.5 mill tax – from 2014-2017 – that would raise $7.15 million in its first year. It would earmark 50% of the gross revenues to be used in the municipality in which the revenue was generated. Beyond that, 10% would be used for non-motorized transportation needs – like bike lanes and pedestrian paths – with the remainder to be allocated “based on use, need, and impact to the traveling public.”

Another possibility is for the county board to levy a millage under Act 283. The law allows the county board to levy a millage to cover those costs, without voter approval. A draft resolution that’s been circulated among commissioners calls for levying a 1 mill tax in December 2014, which would generate $14.34 million “to repair 2013–14 winter damage to the roads, streets and paths in Washtenaw County.”

On April 17, commissioners also discussed the possibility of expanding the road commission board from three to five members. That discussion will be continued at a May 8 working session agenda.

For additional background on this process, see Chronicle coverage: “No Major Change Likely for Road Commission” and “Group Explores Road Commission’s Future.[Full Story]