Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting (July 20, 2010): Parking is a frequent topic for planning commissioners, though often tangentially, as it relates to specific developments. The issue was brought up more directly at their July 20 meeting, when Susan Pollay – executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – made a guest appearance.
Pollay was on hand to describe and answer questions about a DDA proposal for a payment-in-lieu-of-parking program, known as a PILOP. The planning commission won’t be acting on the proposal, which sets out options for developers to meet the city’s parking requirements for new buildings. But Pollay was asking for feedback, before crafting a resolution that council will likely consider later this year. The proposal that Pollay presented would have developers pay for parking permits, plus a monthly surcharge. Some commissioners voiced preference for taking payments from developers to support the parking system, but not including parking permits as part of the deal.
Commissioners also approved a site plan for a drive-thru pharmacy at the Kroger on South Maple, and as well as rezoning for the Ann Arbor Guest House, a proposed residence on Dhu Varren Road for people with relatives in the hospital.
And while they initially seemed poised to approve revisions to their bylaws, commissioners ultimately postponed that vote, hoping to bring someone from the city attorney’s staff to an upcoming meeting to answer questions about some of the proposed changes.
Payment In Lieu of Parking (PILOP)
Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, gave a presentation to the commission about a proposed payment-in-lieu-of-parking (PILOP) program. For proposed developments, there are certain minimum on-site parking requirements. A PILOP would provide a way for developers to make a payment in lieu of building parking spaces. [For background on the DDA discussion of this topic, see Chronicle coverage of the DDA board's July 7, 2010 meeting.]
She began by noting that as part of the A2D2 zoning changes, there had been a “placeholder” for developing a PILOP program. Work on putting together a program was spurred a few of months ago, she said, when the DDA heard that there was developer interest in building downtown, but that developers were holding back because there wasn’t yet a PILOP policy in place. Developers wanted that information to determine whether it was worth it for them to come forward with a site plan proposal, she said.
The city’s planning staff gathered information on PILOP programs nationwide, and that work was then analyzed by the DDA staff and board, resulting in a recommendation to city council. [.pdf of DDA PILOP recommendation] Pollay said her goal now was to get feedback on the issue from planning commissioners, as she drafts a resolution to be considered by city council. She also wanted to share the DDA’s rationale for the proposal it’s recommending.
The DDA has been managing the city’s parking system since 1992, Pollay said, and as part of that they “inherited” some parking contracts with building owners. They’ve also played an active role in shaping other parking contracts, including at least a couple of instances that helped private development occur in cases where developers weren’t able to incorporate parking onto their site: Corner House Lofts, at Washington and State; and the McKinley development along East Liberty and Division. The DDA’s role in conversations with developers has been to explain how the city’s parking requirement for downtown development could be met with a parking contract in the Liberty Square parking structure. Many of the DDA’s PILOP recommendations are based on those two contracts, which Pollay said seemed to work well.
When the city deems it necessary that parking is part of a site plan, it establishes a parking minimum, Pollay explained, and the DDA works from that. The DDA does not pursue parking contracts, she noted, and in fact, tries to have as few contracts as possible. The Nelson\Nygaard study commissioned by the city and DDA, which looked at parking management, also recommended having as few contracts as possible. The reason is that when someone prepays for parking each month, there’s less incentive to use alternative transportation, she said.
Another reason is that the DDA tries to manage the system with the same number of parking spaces – they don’t want to build more, Pollay said. If those spaces are under contract, then as demand grows, there’s less flexibility. Instead, she said, the DDA tries to keep permits on a month-to-month basis, so that when a company like Google comes to town, for instance, the city hasn’t contracted all its parking and might be able to use parking spaces to achieve a community goal.
The DDA is recommending to council that the parking contracts are tied to a site plan only so long as city policy requires them to be, Pollay said. There might be a time in the future when there are so many transit choices that there might not be a parking requirement. So they’re recommending that council use ordinance language that allows for flexibility, she said, and that would allow the city later on to undo the contracts, if it chose.
For the two specific contracts that Pollay had mentioned, the DDA is using the concept of a surcharge on top of monthly permit payments. There are many ways that PILOP programs can work, she said. One way requires developers to pay a contribution to the parking system. The DDA explored that option, but it leaves open the question of how the needs of the tenants will be met. No matter what gets built, some tenants will want parking, she said. So the DDA is recommending that the city portion out the developers’ contribution. Instead of a large upfront contribution, the developer would pay a much smaller monthly surcharge, plus the permit fee.
Under this approach, the building is always paying overmarket rates for parking, she noted. The DDA is also recommending that the surcharge escalate annually at the rate of inflation. This makes parking less attractive – it should be something that you really want, Pollay said. The DDA also sees those dollars as an investment in the overall parking system, for either repairs to existing structures, future construction, or investments in the transit system.
The DDA recommends that the city in the future distinguish between “need” spaces – those that are required under the site plan – and “want” spaces, or extra parking that the developer would like. The two different types of spaces should be handled under separate contracts, she said. The “want” spaces might be negotiated in a different way, she added – possibly farther away from the site, or locked into a shorter time period.
Many DDA board members say they don’t believe there will be another parking structure built in the city during their lifetimes, Pollay said. Instead, there’s growing interest in working with the city about strategic uses of the surface parking lots. So structural additions to the parking system are very unlikely, she said. The dollars coming to the DDA for parking will more likely be used for repairs or investments in the broader transit system. Right now, the DDA’s parking fund gives about $300,000 annually to the go!pass program, for example, and more than $50,000 supports the getDowntown program. The DDA also helps pay for transportation studies, she said.
Increasingly, the DDA sees its parking fund as a transportation-centered fund. Though parking is a piece of the puzzle, the more the city can enrich its transportation options, the better for residents, Pollay said. The DDA is recommending that dollars from the PILOP program be returned to the DDA for these purposes, she said.
The DDA board approved the PILOP recommendations at its July meeting, and Pollay said she expects a resolution to be considered by council soon.
PILOP: Commissioner Comments and Questions
Bonnie Bona said she was puzzled by the concept of “need” spaces. She said she never interpreted the parking requirement downtown as meaning that spaces were absolutely required for that project. As soon as the city forces people to buy spaces, they won’t look at other alternatives, she said, adding that she was very surprised that the DDA would come up with this option.
Pollay clarified that it wasn’t the DDA’s requirement – it’s the site plan requirements that stipulate the number of spaces. Bona said she thought the payment-in-lieu would be a payment toward the parking system, and that the tenants would need to get permits just like anyone else. That way, there’d still be motivation to use alternative transportation, she said.
Pollay stated that the DDA’s recommendation to separate out contracts for the two types of spaces – need vs. want – was intended to give the city more flexibility. There are many reasons why a developer might want additional spaces, beyond what’s required by the city, including bank financing requirements or for marketing purposes. The DDA isn’t urging anyone to buy parking, she said.
Jean Carlberg asked about how the two developments that Pollay mentioned are actually using the parking that they have, noting that there are far more tenants than there are parking spots allocated for those developments.
At Corner House Lofts, Pollay said, residents don’t typically use their cars all week long – perhaps they just use their car to go shopping or run errands on weekends. “Generally, those cars aren’t moving,” she said. “They’re stored until they’re needed.” For the McKinley project, the spaces have much more of a commercial use, she said, to meet the needs of the office and retail tenants.
What does that say about future parking use? Carlberg wondered. For residents of Corner House Lofts who don’t have spaces, where are they parking? That’s a great concern to neighborhoods, she noted, who fear that residents are using on-street parking.
Pollay said she could only speak anecdotally. The new residential permit program north of Huron will likely have an impact, she said, because that’s were some Corner House residents have been parking. Some tenants are finding spaces through Craigslist, renting from people who advertise there. And some residents are going without a car, she said.
Carlberg also asked for clarification of language in the DDA proposal, which states that the PILOP would “work” with a 20% monthly surcharge. Does that mean it would only make sense financially for the DDA under those conditions? Pollay said that right now, there’s a $30 surcharge on those parking contracts. Rather than change the dollar amount each year, she said it makes more sense to tie it to a percentage of the monthly cost for parking, whatever that cost might be.
Carlberg noted that it still doesn’t bring the price up to the cost of actually building a parking space. Pollay replied that it’s true it would cost more to build a space than what they’re charging – but most of the spaces in the city’s system are already paid for. She described the price as a balancing act. By paying over market rate, developers are paying for repairs down the road. They’re becoming an investor in the system, she said, not simply buying a space.
Kirk Westphal characterized it more as a permit-in-lieu system, with a surcharge – and Pollay agreed. He asked about the research that had been done on PILOP best practices. Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, had done most of the work, Pollay said. Rampson clarified that the staff had looked at PILOP programs in about 10-12 communities in the country, and at what the advantages and disadvantages were to the different approaches.
Westphal asked whether any other community required a lump sum payment without a permit attached. Pollay said it could certainly be done, but the DDA wasn’t sure what exactly the city council would want in terms of requiring parking for a development. The DDA is working under the assumption that the city will require that a development have a certain number of parking spaces within the public parking system.
Rampson added that in communities where lump sum payments are required, the payments were “quite small” – at most $8,000, she said. For many communities, parking was on surface lots. But in Ann Arbor, where spaces in an underground structure might cost $40,000 apiece or more to build, when you’re asking a developer for that amount per space upfront, before anyone has moved into their building, “that is a real deterrent,” Rampson said.
Westphal asked how many parking spaces a development might need under the PILOP program. Pollay said each one would be different.
Pollay then returned to the topic of the Nelson\Nygaard study, and pointed out that the study spoke to the advantage of having the DDA manage most of the city’s parking system. First, the more projects that have their own parking, the more curb cuts there will be, and more potential pedestrian/car conflicts on the sidewalks – so that should be discouraged. Second, the study looked at all the private surface parking lots downtown – a study group went out at least a couple of times, she said, and found that at no point were there more than 40% of those spaces in use. It seemed like a wasted opportunity, she said. If those vehicles could use spaces in the public system, then the land could be developed in other ways. So as much as the DDA could pull people into the public parking system, the downtown might gain from that.
Westphal asked whether the monthly permit fee and surcharge would still make the parking attractive to a developer, rather than build themselves. Pollay said it depended on the developer’s target market. Also, for some with large parcels, it might always be more attractive to build parking themselves. For smaller parcels, they might not have the ability to build on-site. Looking to the city’s future goal of having fewer cars, not having on-site parking might make it easier for tenants to give up their cars. The chances are greater that they’ll try alternative options, like a Zipcar or public transit, if they haven’t made an investment in parking in their own building, she said.
Finally, Westphal wondered whether the DDA would be constrained from spending revenues from the 20% surcharge on non-parking uses. The transportation system as a whole obviously extends beyond the DDA district, he said. Would their hands be tied so that they’d be unable to spend money in ways that would alleviate car-centric transportation? For example, could part of that PILOP revenue be diverted to the city to put in bike lanes?
Pollay explained that the DDA has two sources of funds. One is revenue from tax capture – tax increment financing, or TIF – within its downtown district. The other source is through managing the city’s parking system, which it’s done since 1992. That includes managing some parking outside the DDA district, she noted – the Forest parking structure, for example. In 2002, the DDA took over management of street metered parking, too, many of which are also well outside the district. The DDA’s commitment to transit also includes support of go!passes, she noted. So the DDA has been thinking regionally, Pollay said, and it would be in keeping with that approach to encourage more and better transportation options.
Pollay said they’d need to run it by legal staff, however. Since it’s a payment-in-lieu-of-parking, would everyone see “parking” as part of a broader transportation picture? Or would it need to translate directly into a parking payment?
Wendy Woods asked how the program would work. She said that in some buildings, there’s a designated space. But for others, a permit is really a “hunting” permit – that’s how it works in the University of Michigan parking system, for example. She also asked what the disadvantage to a PILOP program might be.
Pollay said the system would be similar to UM’s – it’s a guaranteed space in a facility, but not an assigned space in a public structure. To residents of a building, it depends on their desire for convenience, and like anything else, they’d be paying for the convenience of a designated parking space within their building. She also noted that even in buildings that have a one-to-one ratio of parking spots to units, many units are occupied two-car families, so there’s still juggling about where to put their second car. Oftentimes, they’ll turn to the public parking system, she said.
Woods asked whether Pollay knew if people living downtown took advantage of university lots, where you can park after 6 p.m. as long as you’re out by 6 a.m. Woods said she wasn’t advocating for that, but she wondered if it were a factor. Pollay said that people did use the lots in that way, but it wasn’t always possible for residents to get out as early as required. She said she was sure that a kind of juggling occurred, just as it did for residents who had to move their cars from one side of the street to another, for alternate-day parking. “People will do a whole lot to get free,” she said.
Pollay said the DDA’s goal in doing this is to try to create something flexible, as different developments get built. If there’s a disadvantage, she said, it’s that the program doesn’t dictate exactly what’s required – they wanted the developer to have options.
Evan Pratt asked about the two parking contracts that Pollay had mentioned – did the DDA deal directly with individual tenants, or with the developers? Pollay said they dealt with the building’s accounts payable staff – the building’s owners have to pay a set amount every month, regardless of whether their permits are used. There are pros and cons to this approach, she said. As parking operators, it’s really easy to deal with the accounts payable staff, rather than with the tenants. But there’s no disincentive for the building owners to let go of those permits, she noted.
The Nelson\Nygaard study encouraged the DDA to break apart its large parking contracts, she said. For the Village Green project, which hasn’t yet been built, the DDA is recommending that it work one-on-one with tenants. By making it individualized, the staff might be able to encourage alternatives, like Zipcar. The DDA sponsors that program, and makes up any revenue shortfall that Zipcar would experience if not enough people use the car-sharing service. In 2.5 years, she said, they’ve had to pay only about $3,000, because the cars are so well-utilized.
Pratt said he respects Bona’s concerns, but that it seems the DDA is highly motivated not to have more parking spaces consumed. He said he very much agreed with getting as much of the downtown parking into the public parking system as possible. One of the big issues that the planning commission has is the “unbundling” of parking and rent. He’d like to ensure that parking costs aren’t wrapped into someone’s rent payment. If a tenant has to pay someone else directly for parking, then it’s clear that parking is separate.
Pollay said it would be exciting to start talking about parking maximums – the planning commission would find a willing partner in the DDA for that discussion, she said. They’d also like to encourage alternatives like Zipcar, more evening transit services, links between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and more and better bike parking. She suggested having a joint working session between the DDA and planning commission to talk about these issues.
Pratt suggested finding a way to offset costs for Zipcar as an option in the PILOP. He noted that it’s “in lieu” – the program is voluntary, not mandatory, so he hoped the legal staff would view that as providing the flexibility they need to try things other than parking.
Westphal said he supported the notion of cashing out parking, though he understood the obligation that the PILOP program had to satisfy with regards to the city’s parking requirement. However, he wondered whether they might find an analogy in the affordable housing payments that developers can make to the city, when they apply for planned unit development (PUD) zoning. Developers can either incorporate affordable units into their project, he noted, or they can pay the city’s affordable housing trust fund. He hoped the city wasn’t being too conservative because of concerns over a possible legal challenge.
Bona said she wanted to respond to some previous comments, specifically Rampson’s point about how expensive it would be to make a full upfront payment in lieu. She wondered whether there was a way for developers to pay the surcharge, but not tie that to a parking permit. In some sense, she said, the surcharge could be viewed as a payment plan toward the bigger sum – a sum that reflects the cost of building a parking space. She likened it to making mortgage payments, and noted that if developers were making payments toward a set total amount, there would be an end point for them – they wouldn’t have to keep making payments indefinitely to the city. And separately, they would be able to purchase parking permits, just like anyone else.
Bona said that if it would help to change the ordinance related to the city’s parking requirement, the DDA should “come talk to us.”
Pollay thanked commissioners, saying she found the feedback “enormously helpful.”
Ann Arbor Guest House
On the agenda was a request to rezone a 4.77-acre parcel at 2000 Dhu Varren Road and to grant a area plan waiver for the Ann Arbor Guest House on that parcel. Tied to that was a proposed amendment to Chapter 55 of the zoning code. The commission tackled the zoning amendment first.
Chapter 55 Text Amendment: Staff Report, Public Hearing
Jeff Kahan gave the staff report, noting that the commission was being asked to make a text amendment to Chapter 55 of the zoning code related to the Ann Arbor Guest House. It would amend the principal uses allowed for R4A zoning (multi-family dwelling) – adding “guest houses for relatives of hospital patients.” The amendment would allow group housing, such as the Ronald McDonald House, to be located within R4A districts, as long as a minimum of 400 square feet of net lot area is provided, per occupant.
No one appeared to speak during the public hearing on the issue.
Chapter 55 Text Amendment: Commissioner Questions and Comments
Wendy Woods had a question about the minimum square footage. If a husband and wife were staying there, would the house need to provide 800 square feet for them? Kahan clarified that the square footage referred to the size of the lot, not the house. The language is already in the code for R4A zoning, he said – it’s a ratio of the number of occupants to the size of the lot.
Diane Giannola asked if there was a time maximum for someone to stay there. If someone is in a convalescent center, that could be a very long time. Kahan said they specifically chose language specifying “hospital patients” because those stays were typically one night to two weeks, though there are cases when people stay longer. Owners of the Ann Arbor Guest House expect the stays would be a week or two, he said.
But what about rehab, Giannola asked? Kahan said they didn’t include specific time limitations, other than saying it’s just limited to relatives of hospital patients. Kirk Westphal clarified that it did not apply to relatives of patients in convalescent homes.
Woods asked if there was a reason they’d want to restrict it to hospitals. She said she was thinking of someone who might come to town to visit a relative staying at Glacier Hills, for example. Kahan said this emerged from a need that several organizations indicated they’d like to address – to provide a cost-effective place to stay while a relative is in the hospital. It’s intended for people who might not have the resources to stay in a hotel for 10-15 days.
Eric Mahler asked how broadly they were defining relatives – is that definition codified? Kahan read from the city code, which defines a family as “an individual or group of individuals occupying a dwelling unit as a single-housekeeping unit, in accordance with the standards of Section 5:7.” Mahler said the definition could be very broad.
Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, said that the staff had gone through the process of defining a family several years ago, and that the courts have held that even if you’re not a blood relative, there are still relationships that mimic a family relationship. She suggested staying away from defining it further, and instead leave it as someone who’s there for the purpose of supporting someone in the hospital. From a zoning perspective, it doesn’t make a big difference, she said. She also said that the planning commission is dealing with the zoning issue, but in addition the house would need to comply with building codes. It will be treated as a rental property, so there’ll be certain limits on how many people can be there.
Woods wondered if they should change “relatives” to “families,” since the code defines families. Kahan said that staff hadn’t spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the issue. He said it would benefit the city to have some degree of flexibility.
Bonnie Bona wanted to leave the term as “relatives” and make it as broad as possible. Anyone who wants to come to town to support someone in the hospital is fine with her, she said. Westphal agreed, saying that it’s also the owner of the facility who’d be determining who could stay there.
Outcome: The planning commission voted unanimously to recommend amending Chapter 55 to include the principal use “guest houses for relatives of hospital patients” for R4A multi-family zoning. The change will next be considered by city council.
Guest House Rezoning: Staff Report and Public Hearing
Kahan gave the staff report, noting that at their April 6, 2010 meeting, the commission had approved annexing the parcel at 2000 Dhu Varren Road into the city, from Ann Arbor Township. The site is located south of Dhu Varren and east of Pontiac Trail, adjacent to the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks. City council has also approved the annexation, he said.
The rezoning and area plan waiver were considered at the planning commission’s May 4 meeting, but were tabled in order to give staff time to evaluate some of the other zoning options. Staff met and concluded that the text amendment to Chapter 55 – which the commission had just approved – would be appropriate. The planning staff is recommending that the site be rezoned as R4A, he said, as it’s consistent to the master plan and surrounding zoning and land uses. Staff also recommended that the area plan be waived, since no new construction is proposed.
No one spoke at the public hearing on the issue.
Guest House Rezoning: Commissioner Questions and Comments
Westphal pointed out that the memo about the project notes the rezoning would allow a maximum of 12 adults – is that a restriction on top of the typical R4A zoning? Kahan said that R4A allows for six unrelated adults. The number 12 assumes there could be couples. Rampson further clarified that the mention of 12 adults was a description of what the zoning would allow, but that the owners of the guest house would have to go through the regular city approval process to convert the single-family home into a multi-family dwelling.
Westphal clarified that if the Ann Arbor Guest House doesn’t work out, the site would still be zoned R4A and could be used for any purpose allowed under that type of zoning. Rampson confirmed that he was correct, adding that any project would have to go through a site plan approval process. Westphal said he just wanted to make clear that the project that’s driving these changes isn’t the only one possible in the future.
Outcome: The planning commission voted unanimously to rezone the parcel to R4A and to waive the area plan.
Kroger Drive-Thru Pharmacy
At their July 8, 2010 meeting, the planning commission had postponed action on a site plan proposal for the Kroger on South Maple Road, due to a few unresolved issues. The grocery is adding a drive-thru pharmacy, and needs city approval to reconfigure its parking lot to accommodate the drive-thru lane.
At the July 20 meeting, Wendy Rampson of the city’s planning staff reported that Kroger had addressed the concerns of staff and commissioners. In particular, the project’s architect has proposed narrowing the south drive-thru window lane to 20 feet. There were also concerns about sufficient space for the turning radius of semi trucks, which have been addressed. Rampson ticked through several other issues that were also resolved, and said that staff recommended approval of the site plan.
Kroger Drive-Thru: Public Hearing
The only person who spoke at the public hearing was Jason Fochtman of Jeffrey A. Scott Architects, the Farmington firm that is handling the project. He said they made the adjustments that were requested and that he’d be willing to address any questions that commissioners might have.
Kroger Drive-Thru: Commissioner Questions and Comments
Tony Derezinski asked what the status was of the construction material on the site – Kroger had been asked to move it. Fochtman indicated that the contractor has moved the material, and that the project has been finished on the inside of the store.
Outcome: The planning commission unanimously approved the site plan for the Kroger drive-thru pharmacy.
Planning Commission Bylaw Revisions
The planning commission bylaws are being amended and have been under review by the city attorney’s office. In part, the changes aim at making the bylaws of all the city’s commissions and boards consistent. All bylaw changes now must also be approved by city council. [.pdf draft of proposed revised bylaws] Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, said that the changes are consistent with conversations the commission has had over the last few months.
Bylaws: Public Commentary
Speaking during the time allotted at the start of the meeting for public commentary, Jim Mogensen said he knew that the commission was planning to vote on the bylaws at that meeting. He was concerned that there’d be “Mogensen amendments to the audience participation section” because he’d been “overdoing it” on audience participation. [Mogensen is a frequent speaker during public commentary at the planning commission and meetings of other public entities.] Even prior to this meeting, he said, he’d decided to take a sabbatical from audience participation.
But before he did, he wanted to make sure that the commission kept the opportunity for the public to comment on emerging, non-project-based issues. Otherwise, there wasn’t the opportunity to address some of these broader issues until they arose in a specific project. He said he’d been trying to do that himself – he mentioned the public commentary he’d made at the commission’s last working session, when he’d described his experience as a resident in a high-rise, and the issues related to storing his car.
Mogensen noted that the capital improvement plan is part of the planning commission’s charge, and that the commission had talked about how there’ll soon be a deficit in public infrastructure in the Washington Street area. He noted recent flooding issues as another example. There’s a reason why the planning commission has to deal with those broader issues, he said.
Mogensen said he wouldn’t abuse the audience participation rules, and that he’d be going away – though he joked that he planned to organize hundreds of people to show up in his place, a comment that drew chuckles from some commissioners. He said he recognized the problem – that speaking too much results in tone-deafness – but said that he’d continue to watch the commission’s proceedings.
Bylaws: Commissioner Questions and Comments
Kirk Westphal asked for clarification about the bylaw change as it relates to public commentary. Wendy Rampson said she didn’t believe it changed from the commission’s current practice. The revised bylaws state:
Section 19. Audience participation in the form of public comment shall be allowed at all meetings. An individual may speak for up to three (3) minutes. The Chair may extend an individual’s speaking time in his/her discretion. Commission agendas shall provide two (2) opportunities for audience participation.
a. Speakers at the first Audience Participation agenda item may address the Commission about any item on the agenda that does not have its own public hearing scheduled
b. Speakers at the second Audience Participation agenda item may address the Commission about any item related to the Commission’s business.
Previously, the bylaws stated that “speakers at the earlier Audience Participation agenda item may address the Commission about any item that is not on the public hearing agenda for that meeting” and “speakers at the later Audience Participation agenda item may address the Commission about any item.”
Rampson said she wasn’t sure why it had been changed, but she noted that the “commission’s business” covered many, many topics.
Several of the questions from commissioners related to the general topic of communication.
Bonnie Bona noted that the section on electronic communications doesn’t mention communications amongst commissioners. She was referring to Article VII: Meetings, Section 17:
Section 17. During regular or business meetings, Commission members shall not initiate or respond to electronic communications (including email, instant messages, or text messages) with or from members of the public or the petitioner regarding Commission business.
Based on the “recent history that brought this to our attention,” she said, it should also read “with or from members of the commission, members of the public, or the petitioner regarding Commission business.” Other commissioners agreed. [She was referring to email exchanges among certain city councilmembers that were brought to light last year under Freedom of Information Act requests.]
Eric Mahler had several issues to clarify, and said he had hoped that Kevin McDonald of the city attorney’s office would be there to answer questions. For example, a reference to “the entire geography of the local unit of government” is about as clear as mud, he said, and needs clarifying.
Westphal wanted to clarify a section under Article IX: Petitions and Communications (emphasis added):
Section 4. The Commission shall invite persons concerned with items the Commission is to consider to address written communications to the Commission and Planning and Development Services Unit. The Commission shall request that these communications be directed at the entire Commission and not toward individual members and that these communications be sent at an early enough date to give the Planning and Development Services Unit sufficient time for careful consideration in arriving at its recommendation to Commission. Commissioners who receive individual communications from the public regarding items under consideration shall share such communications with the entire Commission, and, where applicable, with staff, as soon as practicable. Communications from the public on particular items shall be made available to Commission members prior to Commission meetings at which those items will be considered. Members may request that the contents of certain communications be read before the Commission.
He wondered what form those communications would take. If it’s a note, it does an end-around of people coming to the microphone to speak publicly, he said. Mahler said that in this case, it would be something that’s at the discretion of the chair to decide how to handle.
Diane Giannola wondered whether the section on electronic communications – barring email and text exchanges during meetings – should also extend to handwritten notes. Mahler said that the word “electronic” serves a purpose, but he suggested adding the word “private” or “paper.” He asked Rampson to pass along that issue to the attorney’s office.
Wendy Woods brought up a related issue, in Article V: Ethics and Conflicts of Interest, Section 7:
Section 7. Members of the Commission shall make reasonable efforts to avoid individual communications with interested parties regarding specific site specific proposals or site specific petitions before the Commission. If a member receives such communications, the member shall make note of the content of the communication and report it to the Commission at a public meeting or hearing, so that every member of the Commission and other interested parties attending are made aware.
Woods said she was unclear about instances when you receive an email about commission business – should you then send that email to all commissioners? Mahler said he understood it to mean that you’d bring it up as communications during a meeting, letting other commissioners know who had contacted you and what they said. It would be a real change from what they’d done in the past, he noted, and the city attorney should clarify it.
Jean Carlberg said that certainly any communication from the public or a petitioner about a project they’d be voting on should be made available to all commissioners. She said she was a little reluctant to say that during a meeting, someone can’t hand you a communication. That information should be disclosed, she said – people shouldn’t feel they can lobby commissioners with notes in the middle of a meeting. But there might be something important to communicate. She’d rather err on the side of allowing people to communicate, rather than to say that once they enter the meeting room, there’s absolutely no communication.
Woods asked about Article VII: Meetings, Section 7 – “Public notice of all meetings shall be posted at City Hall.” In addition, meetings are noticed on the website too, she said – should that be in the bylaws? She pointed out that right now, it’s so difficult to get into city hall that people can’t easily see the notices. Tony Derezinski said that would be a question for the attorney.
Rampson said she hadn’t invited McDonald, the assistant city attorney who’s handling these changes, to their meeting because she thought they were close to approval. There was a consensus among commissioners that he should attend their next regular meeting. Derezinski said it was especially important since a lot of the issues raised relate to the Open Meetings Act.
Outcome: The planning commission voted to postpone approval of their revised bylaws until the next meeting when someone from the city attorney’s staff is available.
During the time for communications from commissioners, Tony Derezinski – who also serves on city council, representing Ward 2 – reported that the Zingerman’s Deli project had been unanimously approved by council at their July 19 meeting, with kudos from every part of the community. “It was a love-in,” he said, noting that it was also one of council’s shortest meetings in recent memory.
Derezinski also reported on a couple of other meetings he’d attended that had connections with planning: 1) an open house about the Washtenaw Avenue corridor study, held at Paesano’s restaurant and drawing about 40 people, and 2) a meeting with homeowners and city staff in the Iroquois neighborhood, to talk about recent flooding issues. He had just been at the Iroquois meeting and had left before it was over to come to planning commission, “and it’s refreshing to be here,” he said.
Later in the meeting, Bonnie Bona said she’d sent commissioners information about Pat Murphy, a nationally recognized speaker in the field of planning, climate change and sustainability, and author of the book “Plan C – Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change.” Her firm is bringing Murphy to town on Sept. 28 to speak at a workshop, but he would also be available to meet with the commission, if they like. She said it would be a great opportunity to have an intelligent conversation about sustainability, and that they could hold the session as a public meeting and invite the environmental and energy commissions. [The three commissions had held a joint meeting on sustainability in April 2010.]
The council chambers are available on Sept. 28, she said, and it might also be possible to tape the meeting for broadcast.
Bona said her firm would pick up his expenses and split his $1,000 fee – it would cost the planning commission $500.
Wendy Woods asked if the commission had a budget for this kind of thing. Rampson said that they do. Last year, the commission spent about $2,000 – it’s mostly used to pay for conferences and training. There’s more than $2,000 in the budget, she said: “We have plenty of money [for a speaker like this].”
After further discussion, commissioners unanimously indicated that they were supportive of the event.
During the final opportunity for public commentary, Brad Mikus spoke about a couple of topics. He said he was sorry he missed the presentation about payment-in-lieu-of-parking (PILOP). He wondered whether the topic would come before planning commission, or if it would go straight to city council. He said he was unclear about the planning commission’s role in the process.
Secondly, Mikus said he was disappointed that there had been no public comment at the July 8 meeting on the zoning revisions to area, height and placement (AHP). It was disappointing that for a huge rezoning, the public wasn’t there and commissioners didn’t make any amendments – all the suggestions they discussed were relatively minor. It seemed as though everything had been decided beforehand, he said. He was discouraged about that.
Public Commentary: Commissioner Response
Wendy Woods told Mikus that the AHP was a two-year process with lots of public meetings, especially last summer. There had been a lot of input, she said. It wasn’t done in secret. Regarding the PILOP program, it’s a city council decision, she said.
Present: Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.
Absent: Erica Briggs
Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. in city hall council chambers, 150 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]