Couch Ban Smolders; NanoBio Taxes Abated

Also, two non-motorized transportation issues discussed

Ann Arbor City Council meeting (Sept 7, 2010): The council handled its relatively light agenda without taking a recess, taking a little over two hours to finish its Tuesday-after-Labor-Day business.


Before the meeting, Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), who's seated in his usual spot at the council table, chats with city attorney Stephen Postema. During Tuesday's meeting, Rapundalo and Postema insisted that there had been no directive given to the city attorney regarding a medical marijuana moratorium – despite the fact that previously both men used forms of the word "directive" to explain the attorney's actions. (Photo by the writer.)

An item that could have prompted extended deliberations – the so-called “porch couch ban” – was instead postponed until the council’s next regular meeting on Sept. 20. At the start of the meeting, the council heard a staff presentation on the fire hazards posed by porch couches and their negative visual impact.

Mayor John Hieftje and the sponsor of the measure, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), indicated early in the evening that a postponement of the couch ban was likely, but several people still addressed the council during a public hearing on the issue. The public hearing will be continued until Sept. 20, when the council is likely to take a final vote on the matter.

Among the business the council did vote on at Tuesday’s meeting was a tax abatement for NanoBio worth around $30,000 over the next five years. The biotech company is a University of Michigan spin-out, which has developed nano-technology platforms in the area of topical antibiotics and nasal sprays. The abatement is on NanoBio’s investment of roughly $200,000 in building improvements and $483,000 in equipment purchases for its Green Road facility.

Also affecting the Green Road neighborhood was an application to the Michigan Dept. of Transportation for Thurston Elementary School’s Safe Routes to School program, which the council authorized. The grant from MDOT, worth $157,555, would pay for infrastructure improvements – like pedestrian islands on Green Road. The grant would cover all of the construction costs, with the design and contingency costs of $30,000 to be drawn from the city’s alternative transportation fund, which ultimately comes from the state through Act 51 [gas tax] monies.

The city’s alternative transportation fund was lurking in the background on Tuesday night in an additional way. A public hearing took place on the special tax to be assessed on property owners whose land abuts a proposed non-motorized path along Washtenaw Avenue between Tuomy and Glenwood roads. The project is to be funded from $826,727 out of the alternative transportation fund, $694,039 from an MDOT grant, with a special assessment on property owners paying for the remaining $59,234. Several of the property owners addressed the city council Tuesday night to object to the assessment, which will cost them around $3,500 each.

In addition to the meeting’s usual range of communications and announcements, Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) attempted to clarify some comments he’d made at the council’s Aug. 5 meeting about a closed session that council had conducted on July 19 regarding a medical marijuana moratorium. The Chronicle will report on those comments – and the council’s possible Open Meetings Act violation – in a separate opinion piece.

Porch Couches

Before the council was a resolution regulating the placement of upholstered furniture in outdoor locations not intended for such use.

Porch Couches: Background

The council considered an ordinance back in 2004 addressing the issue of porch couches. The 2004 proposal was to amend the city’s code for fire prevention, Chapter 111. As described in the city code, the purpose of that chapter is to prevent fires:

Chapter 111 Fire Prevention
9:102. Purpose. The purpose of this chapter and Code is to provide for the prevention of fires and the protection of persons and property from exposure to the dangers of fire and explosion; …

Currently, however, the proposal before the council is to amend the code chapter on public nuisances, which can address threats to safety, but is intended to address public safety specifically [emphasis added]:

Chapter 106 Nuisances
9:1. Nuisance defined and prohibited. Whatever annoys, injures or endangers the safety, health, comfort or repose of the public; offends public decency; interferes with, obstructs or renders dangerous any street, highway, navigable lake or stream; or in any way renders the public insecure in life or property is hereby declared to be a public nuisance. Public nuisances shall include, but not be limited to, whatever is forbidden by any provision of this chapter. No person shall commit, create, or maintain any nuisance.

The chapter contains a kind of circular “escape hatch” allowing anything forbidden in the chapter to be defined as a public nuisance.

From the point of view of enforcement, the city has more personnel who are authorized to issue citations for Chapter 106 nuisance violations than can issue citations for Chapter 111 fire code violations. For example, along with community standards officers, even staff like the stormwater and floodplain programs coordinator – Jerry Hancock – are authorized to write nuisance citations. However, fire safety officials are not currently authorized to enforce nuisance violations. So as part of the ordinance change, fire safety officials would be given the right to enforce Chapter 106 nuisance violations.

In 2005, when the council again contemplated a possible couch ordinance, the issue was seen as a topic appropriate to be addressed by the then newly-formed council-student relations committee. From a Nov. 12, 2005 Ann Arbor News article, “Fire Official Pushes for Couch Ban,” by Tom Gantert:

“The new student relations committee needs to talk about this,” said [councilmember Leigh] Greden, who will serve on that committee. “I want them to look at the issue and talk about ways to solve the problem. We are going to have a dialogue about it.”

The current council’s student relations committee has not met for over a year. Michael Benson, who served on the council-student relations committee in 2008 and 2009 – while he was Michigan Student Assembly’s general counsel – wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the council-student relations committee has not met since Greden’s loss in the Democratic primary election of August 2009. Benson puts responsibility for meeting on both the MSA and the city council:

This lack of meeting is a shared responsibility between the the Michigan Student Assembly and the Council… MSA did not appoint any representatives to the committee in the 2009-2010 academic year and the two Council members did not attempt to hold a meeting nor to ask that the MSA appoint its members. To my knowledge, the current MSA administration has not appointed either a City Council Liaison or the student membership of the student relations committee. As a comparison, when I was serving as MSA’s student general counsel, we appointed the student members of the committee in the spring, directly after taking office at the end of the Winter 2008 term.

The city council’s current representatives on the student relations committee are Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3). It was Kunselman who defeated Greden in the August 2009 primary.

Porch Couches: Staff Presentation

The council’s meeting began with a staff presentation made by the city’s housing inspector, Rita Fulton. She led off by tracing the city’s recent history with a possible couch ban. She recounted how an ordinance had been proposed in the summer of 2004 that was similar to the one that is currently before the council for its consideration. The council tabled that 2004 proposed ordinance.

In somewhat more detail than Fulton provided, the ordinance proposed in 2004 approached the issue from a fire-prevention perspective, with a modification to Chapter 111 of the city code, which handles fire prevention.

[Proposed but tabled Aug. 16, 2004] Chapter 111 of Title IX of the Ann Arbor City Code


Upholstered or other furniture designed or manufactured primarily for indoor use shall not be used or left:

  1. On residential unenclosed, exterior porches or balconies
  2. In an exposed open area of private property


  1. Wood, metal or plastic furniture.
  2. Outdoor patio furniture with weather resistant cushions
  3. Upholstered furniture designated for pre-paid special pick-up by public or private haulers complying with sections 2:7 and 2:12 of Chapter 26 of this Code.

Before the council now is not a modification to the fire prevention chapter, but rather an amendment to Chapter 106, which deals with public nuisances.

[Proposed Aug. 5, 2010] Chapter 106 9:7. Outdoor Storage. No responsible person [a property owner, tenant, occupant, lessee] shall place, or permit to remain, furniture which is not intended or designed for outdoor use on exterior balconies, porches, decks, landings, or other areas exposed to the weather.

Fulton’s presentation advanced a case for the new ordinance based on porch couches as a public nuisance as well as on fire safety considerations. She presented several slides showing couches on porches, many of them covered with snow, in support of the contention that they are an “eyesore” and that they “don’t look good.”

From a fire-safety perspective, she cited the Michigan Daily’s coverage in 2005 of fire officials’ warning that a student would die in a fire if the city did not ban couches on porches. [An Eastern Michigan University student, Renden LeMasters, died in an Ann Arbor house fire on South State street in April of 2010 – a fire that apparently originated in a waste container on the porch and spread to an adjacent couch, which accelerated the spread of the fire to the structure of the house.]

Fulton then walked the council through some technical details on the specific fire hazard posed by porch couches. She illustrated the sheer amount of heat energy released by a burning couch by comparing it to other burning objects:

  • 4‐18 kilowatts: small waste basket
  • 400 kilowatts: small pool of gasoline
  • 3,120 kilowatts cloth-covered (polyester) sofa

Fulton also explained that balloon frame construction of houses – prevalent in the older homes in Ann Arbor’s student rental neighborhoods – allows for the rapid spread of fires between stories, because there is no fire blocking in the walls between levels in the balloon frames.

Fulton then addressed a common critique of the argument that couches on porches pose a fire risk, which goes like this: If couches are a fire hazard, why not ban them inside houses as well as outside on porches? She stressed that the fire risk outside is greater, due to a variety of factors, including the greater availability of oxygen and the lack of early warning devices like smoke detectors on porches – detection is dependent on a passerby seeing the blaze.

Statistically, there have been only three indoor house fires since 2000 which had origins directly attributable to upholstered furniture, Fulton said. Turning then to exterior fires, she focused on the off-campus residential area of the city, which her maps showed to be roughly the area bounded by Jefferson Street on the north, Stadium Boulevard on the south, Main Street on the west, and Olivia Avenue on the east.

Fulton presented aggregated statistics from 2000-2003: 55 out of 63 exterior fires with origins in upholstered furniture took place in the off-campus residential area of the city. After 2003 Fulton presented statistics for individual years. [The Chronicle has assigned an average to each year in the initial four-year span for comparison.]



2000*     13.75           15.75
2001*     13.75           15.75
2002*     13.75           15.75
2003*     13.75           15.75
2004      13              19
2005       8              19
2006       6               9
2007       2               2
2008       5               5
2009       2               6
2010       2               4

* annual average over four-year span


Of those, Fulton then highlighted the five major residential house fires since 2004 that have been attributed to outdoor upholstered furniture: 924 Oakland (2004); 730 Arbor (2005) 423 Benjamin (2007); 808 E. Kingsley (2009); 928 S. State (2010).

Fulton’s presentation also included a listing of other Michigan university cities with some kind of ordinance addressing upholstered furniture outdoors: East Lansing, Michigan State University; Kalamazoo, Western Michigan University; Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan University; Mt. Pleasant, Central Michigan University; Marquette, Northern Michigan University; Houghton, Michigan Technological University; Detroit, Wayne State University; Allendale, Grand Valley State University.

Fulton concluded by asking whether properties with porch furniture designed for outdoors looked better – she felt it did – but contended that the more important question was whether those properties are safer, and concluded that they are.

Porch Couches: Council Questions

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) got clarification about the difference between the five outdoor fires since 2004 that were highlighted in the staff presentation compared to all the other fires. The five were the major conflagrations that had resulted in major house fires, whereas the others had not.


Standing are Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Michael Benson, University of Michigan student. Seated is Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3).

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) indicated that he thought the city already had regulations on the books that address fire prevention measures for barbecue grills. He asked that someone from the fire department talk about the routine enforcement of codes that the city already has.

Kathleen Chamberlain, the city’s fire marshal, told Kunsleman that the fire code regulations did specify what kind and what size grills are permitted and that she could make that information available. She indicated that if there is a complaint that is brought to the fire department’s attention, they investigate it and notify the occupants of what the rules are. If the occupants don’t comply, she said there’s a procedure for citing violations.

Kunselman picked up on Chamberlain’s mention of “occupants” as opposed to the property owners, noting that some of the opposition to the proposed ordinance was coming from property owners who don’t want to be held responsible for actions of their tenants. He noted that the fire department already had a practice of working with occupants to bring fire codes to their attention, so he wanted to understand if that was effective.

Chamberlain said that with respect to barbecue grills, the fire department would typically talk to occupants as well as management companies. She said she did not know for certain that the fire department had ever issued a violation for a barbecue grill. There seems to be compliance, she said. Management companies she’s spoken with, she said, seem to incorporate it into their lease agreements. In response to another query from Kunselman, Chamberlain said there was movement towards regulating “fire pits,” but that they are currently unregulated.

Porch Couches: Public Hearing

The public hearing on the ordinance change was begun on Tuesday, and will be continued at council’s Sept. 20 meeting.

Bob LeMasters – the father of Renden, who perished in the South State Street fire in April of this year – told the council that people say that losing a child is a parent’s worst nightmare. It’s worse than that, he said. He asked the council to pass the new ordinance.

Kim Kachadoorian told the council that she typically came to address them in opposition to things, but that she supported the proposed ordinance. She asked them to consider some of the specifics: how screened-in porches would be handled; how compliance can be demonstrated; how property owners will be notified when tenants themselves might not want to give their landlords a problem notice; how an inclination might be handled to just burn couches on the front lawn, if they can’t be placed on porches. She encouraged the council to pass the ordinance this time.

mark supanich

Mark Supanich, Ward 5 resident, spoke against the proposed couch ban ordinance.

Mark Supanich, a Ward 5 resident, spoke against the proposed ordinance, saying that the powers given to the city council were to address matters of municipal concern. He focused on the fact that the ordinance is proposed as part of the nuisance code and questioned whether couches on porches were actually a public nuisance. He contended that the statistics on numbers of fires in the staff presentation had been taken out of context, but noted that the number of outdoor couch fires was decreasing with time. He said that the appropriate place to regulate couches on porches is a lease – if landlords wished to prevent couches on porches, they should put it in their leases, he said. He allowed that it is an emotional issue, but concluded by saying that it had not been demonstrated that couches on porches are a public nuisance.

Chris Crockett spoke in support of the proposed ordinance, saying she’d always lived in a student neighborhood. She contended it is a safety issue, not one of aesthetics. Alluding to the proposal that had been made six years ago, she noted that the council had gone through the same discussion before. She asked when the council would have the courage to pass it.

John Oltean, a member of the Michigan Student Assembly, supported the idea of postponing the vote until Sept. 20. He encouraged the council to address the issue fully by considering how rental housing may not be up to code in other ways, describing a lot of the city’s student rental housing stock as “ancient.”

Bob Snyder spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying that he’d been a student at the University of Michigan three times. The language of the ordinance specifies “responsible persons” and Snynder asked who these responsible people are. Is it the student tenants? Is it the management companies? Is it the property owners? Snyder’s conclusion [and the language of the ordinance] is that all of them are responsible. As for the cost of removing existing upholstered furniture from porches, Snyder suggested that furniture could be hauled away for $75.

Porch Couches: Council Deliberations

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), during his communications early in the meeting immediately following public commentary reserved time, thanked the staff for their preparation of the presentation on the couch ordinance amendment, for which he is the sole sponsor. He said that when the issue came up on that night’s agenda, he’d be in favor of a postponement, because he said there was, broadly speaking, a misunderstanding of the proposed ordinance in the student community. He said he hoped that the postponement would allow for greater compliance and understanding.

When the item came up on the agenda, Taylor said he’d be moving for a postponement, but wanted to alert the council to a couple of minor changes to the ordinance that had been made since the first reading. In one place, the word “upholstered” had been inserted. Some possible defenses to a citation had also been added, he said, including a “moving day” provision as well as one for sale preparation.

Outcome: The council unanimously voted to postpone the couch ban ordinance.

NanoBio Tax Abatement

The council had voted to establish an industrial development district at its Aug. 16, 2010 meeting, which allowed for NanoBio to apply for a tax abatement.

NanoBio: Public Hearing

David Peralta, who is NanoBio’s vice president, chief operating officer and chief financial officer, appeared before the council during the public hearing. He described the biotech company as a University of Michigan spin-off that started 10 years ago with two major nanotechnology platforms – one for topical anti-infectants and the other for nasal-spray-based vaccines.

david peralta

David Peralta of NanoBio was available to the council to answer questions about the firm's request for a tax abatement.

He noted that there was not a lot of local “vaccine talent” in that specific area of expertise and that they had needed to hire from out of state. He indicated that the MEGA program [Michigan Economic  Growth Authority] was incentivizing NanoBio to hire those employees, around 32 of them over the next five years, and bring them to Michigan. He estimated that $10 million in wages would be paid to those employees over the course of five years. He indicated that NanoBio would be expanding its facility to the tune of about $1.5 million.

Jim Mogensen raised the issue of the policy that the council had enacted for such tax abatements that included some kind of “sunset provision.” He stressed that it’s important to analyze and understand how these tax abatements work.

NanoBio: Council Deliberations

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) spoke in support of the tax abatement, saying that by any measure NanoBio is a huge success story. Responding to Jim Mogensen’s mention of a “sunset provision” during public commentary, Rapundalo said there was a “clawback” clause still in place, which was milestone-based and performance driven. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) noted that the tax break to be granted is relatively small – $30,000 over five years.

Tom Crawford, the city’s CFO, had provided some information to the council at the request of Briere, on the amount of total taxable property and how that fit into the legal requirement that abated property not exceed 5% of the city’s taxable value. Mayor John Hieftje conveyed that information at the meeting: The total state equalized value of all property in the city is $5,286,396,700; the total of abated property is $7,021,729, or 0.133% of the total. The city is thus comfortably under the 5% total abatement allowed by law.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the NanoBio tax abatement.

Safe Routes for Thurston

At Tuesday’s meeting, council authorized a grant application to the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT), worth $157,555. The money would pay for construction of  infrastructure improvements – like pedestrian islands on Green Road. The grant from MDOT would cover all of the construction costs, with the design and contingency costs of $30,000 to be drawn from the city’s alternative transportation fund, which ultimately comes from the state through Act 51 [gas tax] monies.

Thurston Safe Routes: Public Commentary

Jane Klingston spoke on behalf of the Arbor Hills Condominium Association in favor of the Thurston Elementary Safe Routes to School grant application. She noted that the program included several measures to encourage children to walk to school and also to encourage pedestrian safety for the community at large.

She noted specifically the Green Road corridor as one of the longer stretches of road in Ann Arbor that is completely missing any traffic lights or stop signs. She said that the traffic volume in the corridor is currently measured at around 10,000 cars per day. Besides one pedestrian island at Burbank near Bluett Road, there are no special measures to facilitate pedestrian crossing. The grant application would install pedestrian-activated flasher beacons at both ends of the corridor, along with two pedestrian refuge islands.

Thurston Safe Routes: Council Deliberations

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) said that his own neighborhood association supports the Thurston safe routes program, saying that Green Road is notoriously bad for pedestrians.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the Thurston Elementary Safe Routes to School application to MDOT.

Washtenaw Avenue Non-Motorized Path: Public Hearing

At the council’s previous meeting on Aug. 16, the council had set the public hearing date as part of a four-step process for levying a special assessment on property owners along Washtenaw Avenue between Tuomy and Glenwood. Here’s how the special assessment fits into the funding plan for the project:


$ 205,000 Design Engineering 

$ 1,050,000 Construction
    135,000 Construction Engineering
     85,000 Miscellaneous Costs
    105,000 Contingency

  1,580,000 Total Estimated Project Costs



$   538,527 Transportation Enhancement
    155,512 Surface Transportation Program - Urban Funds

Local Ann Arbor Share

$    59,234 Estimated Property Share Assessable
    826,727 City Alternative Transportation Fund

$ 1,580,000 Total Estimate Project Revenue


$   694,039 Total MDOT Grant
    885,961 Total City Share


Kathryn Gallagher addressed the council as legal counsel for Bill Bollinger, whose property is part of the special assessment. Bollinger owns three parcels to be assessed, two of which have houses on them, one of which is vacant. She put the cost of the special assessment to Bollinger for the three properties at $9,250. She said she was there to protest the assessment. She noted that the non-motorized path abutted six lanes of traffic on Washtenaw Avenue with 40-50 mph traffic. There should be a needs assessment, she said, before any action.

Jim Mogensen indicated to the council that he was not opposing the special assessment, but said there’s a need to think through how to build new sidewalks. The non-motorized path, he said, is one of those situations where it’s a public kind of benefit.

Edwina Koto, also a property owner to be assessed as part of the project, objected to the assessment. She noted that the people whose property fronts on the path are to be assessed, but that those whose property abuts the path but does not front it are not being assessed – that’s different from the way that sidewalks are assessed, she said. The path is different from a sidewalk, she said, because it’s a 10-foot wide asphalt facility, with another two feet of hard surface next to the road, which is as wide as a whole traffic lane.

Shannon Bellers spoke on behalf of the board of deacons of the Ann Arbor Assembly of God, which property is being assessed. She indicated that the the church had conveyed an easement to the city in March and that they were disappointed to see the church’s address still on the assessment roll.

Asif Zafar, whose property is being assessed, indicated that he agreed with the sentiments of others who’d spoken against the assessment. He said he’d lost his job in the auto industry and that he didn’t have that kind of money to spare. He pointed out that there is already a path on the opposite side of Washtenaw Avenue – construction of an additional path made it a luxury project. He concluded by saying that as a 10-year Ann Arbor resident, he wanted to go on record protesting the assessment.

Outcome: The council did not vote on the special assessment. Action will likely take place at the council’s next meeting on Sept. 20.

Farmers Market Electricity

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) pulled a consent agenda item out for separate consideration, which involved a $59,180 contract with Huron Valley Electric Inc. to upgrade electrical service at the Farmers Market. She called the city’s energy coordinator, Andrew Brix, to the podium to explain how the metering worked at the market. He said that the solar panels at the market generate roughly one-third of the electricity used by the facility, which is used on-site as long as there’s demand. When the demand is less than what’s produced, the electricity flows back through the meter and is credited to the city.

Outcome: The city council unanimously approved the HVE contract.

Other Comment and Communications

The meeting included, as is typical, a number of remarks from city councilmembers and the public that were not necessarily related to an agenda item that night.

Comm/Comm: DDA-City Mutually Beneficial Discussions

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) gave his colleagues an update on the activities of the council’s “mutually beneficial” committee, which is in discussions with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority about renegotiating the parking agreement under which the DDA manages the city’s parking system. [Most recent Chronicle coverage of those talks: "DDA Parking Enforcement Prospects Dim"]

Comm/Comm: Council To Take Stand Against Quran Burning

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) indicated that the city’s human rights commission had asked that the council address the anti-Muslim rhetoric that had received national attention recently, partly in the form of threatened burning of the Quran. He indicated that he would be bringing forward a resolution to the next meeting to condemn that kind of rhetoric. Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) also expressed his support for that kind of resolution. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) commended Hohnke for bringing forward the resolution.

Comm/Comm: Panhandling

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) reported to her council colleagues her attendance at the previous week’s Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council, during which the issue of panhandling had been discussed. [A description of that meeting is included in The Chronicle's report on the DDA's Sept. 1 meeting.] Briere told her colleagues that budget constraints dictated they would not be able simply to re-allocate police resources. She alerted her colleagues to the fact that she would be proposing a reconstitution of a task force – one had existed in the early 2000s – to look at the issue again.

Comm/Comm:  Skatepark and DDA

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) conveyed a statement to his colleagues from Trevor Staples, who is chair of the Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark. Kunselman also indicated that he is a good friend of Staples. The statement was consistent with a posting written by Staples on the FAAS website, that distances the FAAS from a recent resolution considered by the DDA board. That resolution was initiated by board member Newcombe Clark, and would have allocated $50,000 for the skatepark. The statement from Staples sought to establish that FAAS did not request that the DDA resolution be brought forward – they’d neither initiated it nor requested it – and that they had little advance notice that it would be coming forward.

The Chronicle’s report on the DDA’s Sept. 1 meeting includes discussion of the skatepark resolution.

The morning after the council’s Sept. 7 meeting, the DDA’s partnerships committee met and discussed the skatepark resolution – it had been remanded to the partnerships committee at the full board’s Sept. 1 meeting. The three councilmembers present – Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), and Margie Teall (Ward 4) – apprised Clark of Kunselman’s remarks the night before, which he’d conveyed on behalf of Staples.

At the DDA meeting, Clark eventually suggested that the whole issue be “put on ice,” saying he felt that if he said another word, he was doing more harm than good, and the other committee members agreed. Before the matter was put to rest, however, Clark gave his perspective on the issue of whether the FAAS had asked for the DDA’s help, saying, “They asked me for money, they asked you for money.” He also pointed out that Staples had been quoted in the local media as initially saying he was “stoked” about the idea of the DDA supporting the skatepark. For his part, Clark disavowed any political motive in bringing the resolution forward.

To understand what the politics are, it’s useful to know that Clark is a candidate for the Ward 5 city council seat currently held by Carsten Hohnke. Staples is a supporter of Hohnke. For critics of Clark, the resolution could be analyzed as an attempt to upstage Hohnke, who has positioned himself as a supporter of the skatepark, by drafting a letter signed by city councilmembers and addressed to the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission encouraging support for their $400,000 matching grant, which was made in March of this year.

While the city of Ann Arbor has provided in-kind support for the skatepark – with staff resources and a location for the skatepark at Veterans Memorial Park – it’s unlikely, as Clark pointed out at the partnerships committee meeting, that the city will have anything in the budget this coming year to support skatepark construction. City councilmembers at the partnerships committee didn’t object to Clark’s assessment. [The most likely source of any city dollars would be from the parks capital improvements and maintenance millage; however, in recent years, the city's policy on allocating those capital improvement dollars has been to invest in existing infrastructure, not new facilities.]

On the other side, the now cool reception from FAAS to the possible DDA money could be analyzed as a desire to keep Clark from scoring a political “win” by demonstrating that he’s able to help FAAS obtain money for the project.

Peeling away some of the politics surrounding the resolution, the proposed $50,000 from the DDA could not be used for skatepark construction at Veterans Memorial Park, because it lies more than a mile outside the DDA tax district. FAAS is committed to the Veterans Memorial Park location and has pitched that location to potential larger donors. However, as the partnerships committee discussed, the $50,000 could be invested in the downtown area in ways that indirectly support the skatepark – with signage pointing people to the park, for example. But that approach would not allow FAAS to leverage the Washtenaw Parks and Recreation Commission’s matching grant, Staples says, because the matching arrangement involves payment of half of skatepark construction invoices, not a match of any donations to FAAS.

According to fundraising chair for FAAS Jim Reische, FAAS has $50,000 in its design/build fund maintained by the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation and just over $6,700 in the endowment for maintenance.

The right place for the DDA resolution, Reische wrote in an email to The Chronicle, is in fact “on ice.” And that’s where the resolution currently is.

Comm/Comm: Dangerous Buildings

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) brought two buildings in his ward to the attention of his colleagues: 3254 Springbrook, which has a collapsed garage; and 2 Faust Court, which is boarded up and burned out. The two properties are significant, he said, because they are in tax foreclosure. They’re up for a second tax sale, because neither property sold at the first sale. Kunselman lamented the fact that there was no court order yet, to have the properties demolished, and so he asked for his colleagues’ support to get those properties cleaned up. He suggested that federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) money might be coming through at the end of the year, and said that this might be a potential source of funds.

Comm/Comm: Allen Creek

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) called for more rapid movement on a hydrological study of the Allen Creek watershed.

Comm/Comm: Lessons from Old Y Lot

Jim Mogensen addressed the council on the topic of lessons that could be learned from the old YMCA site at Fifth and William. Mogensen described how some people said those lessons were that the city tried to do too many things on that site, that the developer was incompetent, and “thank goodness for the Y,” which was the only party that could make things happen. He suggested that he had a different perspective on that, without wanting to argue about old history. In the late ’80s, he said there was an affordable housing proposal, a proposal to construct minimum wage housing near the Old West Side, which was not well-received. The YMCA, Mogensen said, had said they could solve that problem by putting single-resident occupancy housing on their site, and that they would accomplish that without going through affordable housing programs with all their red tape. Rather, they’d simply take out a commercial bank loan. At the time, affordable housing advocates said they didn’t think the numbers worked, and the banks also said they didn’t think the numbers worked – but the banks said they’d lend the money if the city co-signed the loan.

And it turned out that the numbers didn’t work, Mogensen said. Then when the YMCA was going to default on the loan, the city said it recognized the YMCA building was falling apart, and came up with a schedule to repay the cost of the loan, contingent on the idea that if the YMCA moved off the property, they would have to repay the loan at that time. Then the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority tried to purchase the property. When AATA did their assessment, they determined that they’d need to deduct the cost for environmental clean-up. But in light of the lien the city had on the property, the YMCA said they couldn’t afford to make that price concession. And so the city bought the property, said Mogensen. And the city did not require the YMCA to pay back the loan until their first meeting in March 2009. There’s a lot to learn from all that, he said, and suggested that there needs to be some really deep thinking about this.

Comm/Comm: AATA Board Accountability

Tim Hull addressed the council on the topic of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, introducing himself as a Ward 2 resident. He reminded the council that he’d previously addressed the board on the subject of the importance of holding AATA board appointees accountable for their actions. He said that despite many additional emails he’d sent, he’d received virtually no response, including none from his Ward 2 representatives [Tony Derezinski and Stephen Rapundalo]. He suggested that city councilmembers were treating it as a non-issue.

But Hull pointed to a recent board meeting of the AATA that had not happened because only three members showed up, which meant that the board failed to achieve a quorum. [See Chronicle coverage: "AATA Board Fails to Achieve Quorum"] He reminded the council that the AATA board is supposed to do serious business – it’s not something they do just for the heck of it. Hull called it inexcusable for a body that controls a multimillion-dollar budget to have more than half its members miss a pre-scheduled meeting. He also noted that even when the numbers are sufficient for a quorum, many times several members are absent. He pointed to a lack of accountability in some recent service changes, when the AATA eliminated all service on Briarwood Circle south of the mall, with only four days notice. He also criticized the fact that the board did not vote on the service change, allowing staff to make the decision. He called on the city council to do a better job of holding the AATA board more accountable, by maintaining better communication with the board beyond the appointment process.

Comm/Comm: Permit Fees

Tom Wall addressed the council on the topic of fees for permits – he’d filled the application at city hall recently for a permit for his All Star hot dog stand, which he operates on football Saturdays near his driver education school located on Main Street, north of the stadium. He said he was ready to fill it out and pay the same fee he’d paid last year: $30. Unfortunately, he said, the fee had risen to $50 this year. He asked the council to consider the impact of fee increases like that on nonprofits like his TWall Foundation.

Comm/Comm: Zoning for Affordable Housing

Thomas Partridge introduced himself as a Washtenaw Democrat who advocated for all of Washtenaw County, southeast Michigan, the whole state of Michigan, and the nation for those who need government services the most, along with economic stimulus and job provisions services. He called for zoning ordinances that promote housing for lower-middle class people and for seniors. He criticized the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority for turning inward on itself and allowing itself to be susceptible to the rivalries within itself. He said the state needs the leadership of someone like Virg Bernero. [Bernero is the Democratic candidate for governor.]

Partridge also spoke at a public hearing on the rezoning of 1943 Jackson Road, which was annexed to the city, but not zoned until now. Council approved its zoning as R4C later in the meeting. Partridge called for affordable housing provisions to be attached to all rezoning proposals.

Present: Stephen Rapundalo, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Kunselman, Marcia Higgins, John Hieftje, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke.

Absent: Marcia Higgins.

Next council meeting: Sept. 20, 2010 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]


  1. By Sam Offen
    September 12, 2010 at 9:42 pm | permalink

    Dave, Do I understand correctly that the homes on Washtenaw which face the street will be assessed, but the homes which back to Washtenaw and face streets like Adare will not be assessed?

    Also, you’ve got Marcia Higgins both present and absent from the meeting. Nice trick if you can do it.

  2. By Dave Askins
    September 12, 2010 at 9:59 pm | permalink

    Re: [1]: Thanks for the heads up on the attendance — Higgins was absent.

    Houses that front Adare, which have Adare addresses, aren’t on the roll. Only properties with Washtenaw Ave. addresses are on the special assessment roll. Here’s the complete list, with the amount to be assessed: [link]

  3. September 14, 2010 at 8:17 am | permalink

    Was there any explanation for the appx. 75% drop in annual fires “with origins in upholstered furniture” between the 2000-2005 period and the 2007-2009 period? That’s a dramatic and sudden change in numbers. I’d hypothesize one of: a change in how fires were accounted for, a change in code/inspection procedures that led to prevention of these fires, or an increased awareness coming out of the 2004 debate that led to behavioral changes by residents.

    Any indications given that would support any of these?

  4. By Dave Askins
    September 14, 2010 at 8:57 am | permalink

    Re: [3] and accounting for the drop in numbers;

    Mark Supanich, who spoke against the ordinance, did note the decrease in numbers over time. In my recollection, but not reflected anywhere in my notes, someone — either Supanich, or the housing inspector, Rita Fulton, or possibly a councilmember, or also possibly nobody — speculated that the decrease in couch fires might be attributed to increased awareness and outreach, educational efforts.

    It’s too bad, I think, that a decision was made to put the ordinance change in the chapter on public nuisances. If the case for the ordinance is based on risk of fire, then let’s please put it in the chapter on fire prevention, as it was proposed in 2004. If it’s based on the idea that porch couches are visually offensive [like graffiti], or somehow pose some safety risk to the public [like refrigerators with doors left on front lawns than a kid could wander into, close the door and suffocate], then let’s put the ordinance change in the chapter on public nuisances.

    It certainly doesn’t help the clarity of case for the ordinance change to have Christopher Taylor over on Arborblahg insisting that he’s not motivated by aesthetic considerations, while Bob Snyder back at a spring caucus — who’s been perhaps the most vocal resident in support of a couch ban — spoke about the fact that it’s fine for the city to legislate aesthetics, if that’s what it takes to get couches off porches, and while the city staff presentation includes the claim that “they look bad.” Granted the staff presentation included the “look bad” statement as a foil along the lines of “Yes, they look bad, but the real reason to legislate against them is because of the fire risk.” Still, it’s a muddled message that’s being presented.

    Apparently, the greater range of different city staff who are authorized to issue citations for nuisance violations might be part of the rationale to proposing the ordinance in that chapter, instead of the fire prevention chapter. But while on paper, you can show greater numbers of staff authorized to enforce nuisance violations [community standards officers, plus people like the stormwater and floodplain coordinator] as opposed to fire prevention violations, I suspect that in practice, those “extra” enforcers make little difference. Speaking with Craig Hupy — head of systems planning — last night at the working session, he said that he’d made just one code citation in all his years at the city. That was one where someone was illegally tapping into a fire hydrant.

    Fire safety officials aren’t even currently authorized to make citations for nuisances. So as a part of this proposed ordinance change, fire safety officials are being given increased authority to enforce nuisance codes.

  5. By Steve Bean
    September 26, 2010 at 3:29 pm | permalink

    Dave, what was the vote outcome on the tax abatement question? I assume that it passed, but I don’t see it in the story.

    “[Peralta] noted that there was not a lot of local “vaccine talent” in that specific area of expertise and that they had needed to hire from out of state. He indicated that the MEGA program [Michigan Economic Growth Authority] was incentivizing NanoBio to hire those employees, around 32 of them over the next five years, and bring them to Michigan.”

    “Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) spoke in support of the tax abatement, saying that by any measure NanoBio is a huge success story.”

    Granting a tax abatement–no matter how “relatively small”–to a business as a reward for being successful is an inappropriate use of city funds.

  6. By Dave Askins
    September 26, 2010 at 10:05 pm | permalink

    Re: “Dave, what was the vote outcome on the tax abatement question? I assume that it passed, but I don’t see it in the story.”

    Yes, it passed. When there are actual votes on an issue, we aspire to record the outcomes explicitly at the conclusion of the relevant section [Outcome: The council voted to approve XYZ with dissent from so and so.] – which we did not achieve in this instance. I’ve inserted the fact of the vote in favor in the text.