No on Chalmers Parking, Maple Cove Delayed

Also: Medical marijuana zoning change rejected; annual CIP OK'd

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (May 1, 2012): A nearly 3.5-hour meeting was devoted in large part to public commentary – hearings on two projects drew two dozen speakers.

Len Nadolski, Tony Derezinski

Len Nadolski, left, talks with city councilmember Tony Derezinski before the start of the May 1, 2012 Ann Arbor planning commission meeting. Nadolski owns the Chalmers Place Retail Center on Washtenaw Avenue and hopes to add a parking lot behind the center. The proposal was rejected by the planning commission, on which Derezinski serves. (Photos by the writer.)

About half of those speakers came out to oppose a parking project for the Chalmers Place Retail Center on Washtenaw Avenue, located next to Paesano restaurant in the former Arbor Dodge lot. The owner – Len Nadolski of Howell – asked to rezone a vacant parcel behind the center to P (parking), from its current single-family residential zoning. He said the center has been unable to lease all of its stores because tenants are concerned about a lack of parking.

Commissioners expressed sympathy for the owner, but voted against recommending the rezoning. The majority of commissioners did not feel that the situation warranted overriding the master plan, which calls for that property to be zoned residential. Erica Briggs said the situation added urgency to plans to make the Washtenaw Avenue corridor more safe and amenable to walking and biking.

Eric Mahler cast the lone vote in favor of rezoning. He said he normally wouldn’t support a proposal that was essentially “spot zoning,” but in this case he voted for the plan because he didn’t see any viable alternatives for the owner.

Another project that drew public commentary had previously been recommended for approval by the commission: Maple Cove Apartments & Village development, located on North Maple near Miller Road. The commission had approved the project at its March 20, 2012 meeting. But that vote was rescinded when it was discovered that Scio Township residents on Calvin Street had not been included in an original public notice mailed out for the commission’s March meeting.

Nearby residents voiced several concerns about the project – including density, flooding, aesthetics, traffic and a lack of sidewalks from North Maple back to the seven houses. Those issues were echoed by some of the commissioners, who also complained about the lack of responsiveness from the property owner, Muayad Kasham of Dynasty Enterprises. He has not attended the commission’s meetings to address concerns.

But it was the two proposed entrances off of North Maple – separate entrances for the apartments and the single-family homes – that prompted the most discussion among commissioners, and ultimately the move to postpone. Wendy Woods pointed out that the city’s traffic engineer had advised that a single entrance would be preferable. The city code allows for two entrances, however, based on the property’s lineal frontage. The owner has indicated a commitment to two entrances in order to market the apartments and single-family homes separately, and the city code allows for two entrances based on the property’s lineal frontage.

No date has been set for when the project will next appear on the planning commission agenda.

The commission also approved the city’s 2013-2018 capital improvements plan (CIP), with only minor modifications from the previous year. But commissioners voted to postpone action on a master plan update – they’re expected to discuss it at a retreat set for Tuesday, May 29.

The final item of the meeting was dispatched quickly, as commissioners recommended rejecting a proposed revision to the city’s medical marijuana zoning ordinance. The proposal – recommended by the medical marijuana licensing board – was to strike one sentence from the zoning ordinance: “Medical marijuana dispensaries and medical marijuana cultivation facilities shall be operated in compliance with the MMMA (Michigan Medical Marijuana Act).” Commissioners expressed caution about the implications of eliminating the sentence, with Mahler stating that the change would authorize illegal uses, and would have severe consequences for the city.

Maple Cove Apartments & Village

The planning commission rescinded its previous action regarding a site plan for the Maple Cove Apartments & Village development and reconsidered the proposal at its May 1 meeting.

The commission had previously approved the project at its March 20, 2012 meeting. But that vote was rescinded because Scio Township residents on Calvin Street had not been included in an original public notice mailed out for the commission’s March meeting. There were no changes to the plan in the interim period.

The project is located on 2.96 acres at 1649 N. Maple, north of Miller Road between North Maple and Calvin Street on the city’s west side. At the March 20 meeting, Bonnie Bona and Eric Mahler had voted against the project. Bona was absent from the May 1 meeting.

Project area for Maple Cove

Project area for Maple Cove is showed outlined in black. (Image links to higher resolution .pdf file)

The plan calls for combining two sites – 1649 N. Maple and 1718 Calvin – and demolishing an existing single-family home and detached garages there. Two 3-story apartment buildings would be built with a 64-space parking lot and eight bike spaces. The project also includes building a private street to serve seven new single-family houses near Calvin Street, but with an entrance off of North Maple. According to a staff memo, there will be no access to Calvin Street, which “is a private street with a checkered history regarding access rights.” The apartment complex would have a separate entrance, also off of North Maple.

Each apartment building would contain a total of 18 one-and two-bedroom apartments ranging from 745 to 1,057 square feet. The plan calls for each apartment building to have a rooftop patio for use by residents, with the possibility of a vegetated cover (green roof) for the remainder of the roof surface. The staff memo noted that the city has requested a $26,660 parks contribution, but the developer has declined to make that contribution.

The site has two zoning designations, which the project accommodates. The eastern half of the parcel, adjacent to North Maple, is zoned O (office), but residential uses are permitted as long as the project conforms to the area, height and placement regulations of office zoning. The maximum height allowed is 55 feet, and the proposed apartment buildings would be 44 feet tall. The western half of the site, where the single-family homes are planned, is zoned R1C (single-family residential).

Site plans for two previous projects had been approved by the city (in 2005 and 2008) but neither project was built. Planning staff had recommended approval of this current project.

Maple Cove Apartments & Village: Public Hearing

Several neighbors attended the May 1 meeting and six people spoke against the project for a variety of reasons, including density, flooding, aesthetics and traffic.

Alice Boss told commissioners that she lives on Calvin, directly across the street from the proposed development – she’s lived there 10 years. This is the second time that she’s come to the commission for a project that’s been proposed for the land, which she described as beautiful green space. It’s a flood zone that’s used by migratory birds, and she’s concerned about what would happen to those birds. The existing homes along Calvin are small, she said, and the larger homes proposed for Maple Cove would be incongruous with the neighborhood. In general, she’s concerned about over-density, noise, light, and crime. The development would substantially degrade her quality of life, she concluded.

Carole Starnes said her property abuts the part of the Maple Cove project that’s next to Calvin. She’s concerned about the density of the apartments, but said she’s more familiar with the situation on Calvin. The soil in that area is clay, and there’s always water – she doesn’t want to see more flooding. What guarantees do they have that the problem won’t worsen? She noted that most homes in that area are built on lots that are more than one acre, but the seven Maple Cove homes will all be built on less than two acres total. She was concerned about density. Will there be any buffer between the development’s back yards and existing homes – and is there any guarantee about it, or will it be left up to the developer? Starnes said she’d hate to be looking out her living room window and see a house right there. Most people who live in that area now chose the location because of its rural character, she said.

Cheryl Brown criticized the commission and planning staff, saying “shame on you” for not initially notifying all neighbors about the project and for infringing on their right to due process. She pointed out that Calvin is a private street, so people would need permission to use it as an entrance or exit. [There are no plans by the developer to connect the project to Calvin.] She said she’d prefer some type of fence between the existing homes and the development, and she wondered where the property’s easement was located. It seemed like it was all take and no give by the developer – she didn’t see that the developer was willing to do anything in exchange for the project. Brown suggested that instead of building one of the houses, a park could be added.

Pete Miller said he’s lived on Calvin Street for 25 years, and the sump pump in his basement runs continuously. There’s a huge water problem in the area, and when the developer starts digging, even more problems will be caused, he said. It scared him to know that the county is responsible for drainage in that area, because the county hasn’t done anything to address the problem in years, he said.

Residents who spoke during public commentary against the Maple Cove development

Some of the residents who spoke during public commentary against the Maple Cove development on Ann Arbor's west side.

Stephanie Raupp reminded commissioners that she had spoken at the project’s public hearing in March – she had been the only person representing neighbors at that hearing. She’s a homeowner who lives directly across North Maple from the proposed development, on Enclave Lane, and had presented a petition on behalf of other residents who were concerned about the apartments. Based on feedback at this meeting, though, she said it seems like people are concerned about the apartments and the houses.

The main issue is that it feels like a bait and switch, Raupp said. When the property was rezoned based on a previous proposal by a different developer, that project had been significantly different than the one that’s now proposed, she said. It had been mostly offices, with a lot of green space and just a few loft apartments. The rezoning was approved based on that plan, but the current plan is nothing like that. She pointed out that many homes in the area have families with children who attend Skyline High, but the developer refuses to put in sidewalks. He at least owes the neighborhood sidewalks and more green space, she said. The parking lot is huge, and water runoff is a problem. The project needs to be reexamined, she said.

Brian Biggs was the last speaker, and said he lived on Woodrow Street near Calvin. He urged commissioners to go out to North Maple in the morning between 6:45-8:45 a.m. and then tell him how that road would accommodate 100 more cars. There are already backups at the roundabouts north of the proposed development, he said – where are the extra cars going to go? Kids have to cross North Maple to get to Skyline High or the elementary schools, he noted. Biggs also told commissioners that the soil on the property, where a salvage yard was previously located, is still contaminated. The developer wants to make a buck, he said, but “we need to think past the dollar.”

Maple Cove: Commission Discussion

Commissioners spent about an hour discussing the Maple Cove project. This report organizes the discussion thematically.

Maple Cove: Commission Discussion – Site Contamination

Jamie Gorenflo with Midwestern Consulting was the only representative of the developer at the meeting. He said a phase 1 environmental assessment had been completed, and that remediation was done on the site – it’s been cleaned up, he said. This prompted several people from the audience to shout “No way!”

Wendy Woods observed that the neighbors seem to think the site hasn’t been cleaned up. She asked Gorenflo for more details. He replied that a phase 1 and phase 2 environmental study had been done as part of a requirement in the sale of the property to the current owner. However, he said he hadn’t been privy to the recommendations from those studies. Woods said that concerned her.

Kirk Westphal asked whether the city could get a copy of the environmental study results. City planner Matt Kowalski said he wasn’t sure if the information was confidential, but he would ask for it. Is it required by the city? Westphal asked. Planning manager Wendy Rampson said the only time the city requires that kind of information is if the developer is seeking brownfield status. Otherwise, it’s handled at the county or state level. The city has no regulatory authority, she said. The private sector typically deals with this kind of issue prior to a property sale, to determine who has responsibility in case there’s any litigation.

Westphal asked who the neighbors could contact for more information. Rampson pointed to the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), and said the planning staff would also follow up with the developer.

Maple Cove: Commission Discussion – Drainage, Flooding

Queried by commissioners, city planner Matt Kowalski confirmed that the project’s site plan must manage water on-site, and not allow runoff. He said the city staff and county water resources commissioner have reviewed the plan and given it preliminary approval. Excess water would be directed to an underground detention basin.

In response to a question from Evan Pratt, Jamie Gorenflo with Midwestern Consulting indicated that there’s no problem anticipated with groundwater. Pratt said it sounds like the site is wet, but that the project won’t make things worse. He noted that if there’s water on the surface, that usually means there’s water underground. It’s never a good idea to put basements in an area where there’s groundwater – you’ll end up with sump pumps that run continuously, he said.

Responding to another question, Gorenflo said he wasn’t sure if the single-family homes will have basements. The apartment buildings will have a small basement for mechanicals, but it won’t extend under the entire building.

Wendy Woods asked to clarify the term groundwater – she noted that groundwater is the term used to refer to underground water that’s been contaminated by Pall/Gelman Sciences with 1,4 dioxane. Gorenflo said he had been using the term only to refer to surface water – water that was on the ground.

Maple Cove: Commission Discussion – Developer Responsiveness

Several commissioners complained about the attitude of the developer. Wendy Woods said she was glad that more neighbors had come to raise their issues, and it seemed the project would cause a lot of concerns in the future. Even though she had previously voted in favor of the project, she said she didn’t think she could support it now. Hearing from the neighbors and seeing the unwillingness of the developer to address these issues were a big concern for her.

Erica Briggs observed that the developer was just coming in and doing what he wanted. The project isn’t consistent with the surrounding area, and there’s no discussion about meeting the basic needs of even the residents who’ll live in the new development, she said. Briggs noted that the developer hadn’t attended any planning commission meetings. The project reflects a problem with the city’s code, she said, or with the rezoning. Residents supported that previous project there, which was mostly offices, but this current development is nothing like that, she noted.

Briggs wondered if some of the minor issues could be addressed, at the least. ”Is there any way for these grievances to be answered?”

City planner Matt Kowalski replied that the planning staff had raised some of the same concerns as the neighbors and commissioners, but the project met the city’s regulations and code, so there was nothing the staff could do.

Briggs asked if there was any advice that could be provided to the neighbors. Nothing beyond speaking to the city council, Kowalski said. Planning manager Wendy Rampson suggested that neighbors could contact the developer directly and try to work something out.

Eric Mahler, the commission’s chair, pointed out that it’s not the staff’s role to be an advocate for the developer or anyone else.

Maple Cove: Commission Discussion – Density, Traffic, Sidewalks

Kirk Westphal observed that when people buy a home, they typically don’t look at the zoning of property around them – it usually only comes up when a project is proposed, like Maple Cove. He said there’s not much consolation for people who are debating the density of a project like this, other than to keep an eye on the process and contact their city council representative. But once the code is in place and follows the city’s master plan, there’s not much recourse. ”If code is something we want to change, we can always change that in the future,” he said.

Wendy Woods said she had raised concerns about a lack of sidewalks at the March 20 meeting, and she’s still not comfortable with that. Jamie Gorenflo with Midwestern Consulting said he couldn’t speak for the developer, but that the plan called for posting signs with a speed limit of 5 mph – a comment that prompted laughs from the residents. Other traffic-calming strategies would also be deployed, he said. Even if there were sidewalks from the single-family homes to North Maple, he said, there isn’t a sidewalk along North Maple to connect with. There will be a sidewalk in front of the development, but nothing on either side of it.

Tony Derezinski asked whether sidewalks can be required. Matt Kowalski clarified that sidewalks are required in the front of the development, along North Maple. Beyond that, sidewalks are only required for drives leading to developments with eight or more houses – this one had only seven houses. What about curbcuts? Derezinski asked. The developer is entitled to two curbcuts, Kowalski said, based on the project’s lineal frontage.

Derezinski said the problem is that a lot of people don’t like the city code, in this case – it’s a dilemma. The fact is, people are in a bind, but the city needs to follow the law, he said.

Westphal asked for clarification about why the decision was made that developments with less than eight houses did not require sidewalks. Kowalski said he didn’t know why the code was written that way, but that the planning staff had recommended sidewalks for this project. He noted that city code requires a sidewalk along the front of the property, along North Maple, but not on the drive leading back to the houses.

Maple Cove: Commission Discussion – Postponement

Evan Pratt noted that the city’s traffic engineer has stated that one driveway is preferable – there’s a reason for making that determination, he said. Pratt said he looked at it from a health, safety and welfare perspective, and he had concerns about two driveways onto North Maple. Pratt said he’d like to propose an amendment to approve the project contingent on it having only a single driveway. Otherwise, he said he’d like to postpone action until the developer could respond. He moved the amendment, which was seconded by Wendy Woods.

Tony Derezinski wondered whether such an action would violate the city’s zoning code. Wendy Rampson said the developer is entitled to two curbcuts, but the traffic engineer does have a certain amount of discretion. Pat Cawley was the city traffic engineer who prepared a report for this project.

Derezinski said the only hook for the city would be if the two driveways created a threat to public health, safety and welfare. That’s a fairly high standard, he noted, and the city is on tentative ground. For that reason, he said he’d prefer a postponement, not an amendment making the approval contingent on a single driveway.

Woods pointed to the summary of the traffic engineer’s report, as provided in the staff memo on the project:

The City Traffic Engineer has requested a consolidation of access points for the development in accordance with The City of Ann Arbor Transportation Plan Update, May 2009. In order to minimize potential conflicts along Maple Road, it is advised that the single-family and apartment buildings utilize the same access point.

“That speaks volumes to me,” she said. The access points – the two driveways – are close, Woods said, and create potential points of conflict. Citing the comments from neighbors and proximity of Skyline High, she said she’d like to take another look at requiring a single driveway. Woods joked that she was looking at the attorney across the room to get his response, but he wasn’t making eye contact. [Kevin McDonald of the city attorney's office was at the meeting, but did not comment on this issue.]

Wendy Woods

Planning commissioner Wendy Woods.

Eric Mahler pointed out that if the commission amended the resolution, they’d be amending the developer’s site plan, and the developer hasn’t had a chance to rebut. He said it was more procedurally tasteful to vote down the project, ask the developer to revise the site plan, then reconsider it at a future meeting.

Derezinski agreed, saying the commission was on “very tender ground.” If commissioners amended the agreement because of the threat to public health, safety and welfare, that’s a high threshold and they need to ensure that there’s documentation to support it, he said. Derezinski said he’d vote for postponement in order to get that documentation, but otherwise, “we shouldn’t do it.”

Kirk Westphal also weighed in to support postponement, saying it was unfortunate that the developer wasn’t there to respond. Erica Briggs said she wouldn’t give too much sympathy to the developer, pointing out that he had just as much opportunity to attend the meeting as the neighbors did.

Pratt withdrew his motion to amend, and said he’d also support postponement.

Mahler noted that the developer is under no obligation to consider any changes to his proposal. Commissioners need to recognize that a postponement might not move the needle on this project. “We can only request it,” he said.

Jamie Gorenflo with Midwestern Consulting told commissioners that the owner was committed to two entrances in order to market the apartments and single-family homes separately. Gorenflo said he was 90% sure the owner wouldn’t change his mind on this issue.

Diane Giannola said she supported postponement in order to hear from the traffic engineer regarding how big of a concern the two curbcuts are. Woods again pointed to the summary in the staff report, and argued that if even one child could get hurt, that’s a big concern. She said her blood pressure was rising, and that if Gorenflo had indicated there was no need to postpone because the owner wouldn’t change his mind, then she would feel vindicated in voting against the project.

Pratt then formally moved to postpone in order to get clarification from the city’s traffic engineer. The motion was seconded by Eleanore Adenekan.

Derezinski noted that the postponement related only to the curbcut issue – all of the other issues that had been raised weren’t part of the postponement. Woods replied that there might be other issues that would cause a commissioner to vote against the project. She asked whether there would be another public hearing on the project.

Mahler indicated that the commission would re-open the public hearing when the project is taken up again.

Westphal asked whether having a single curbcut would eliminate the sidewalk issue. Rampson responded that the planning staff couldn’t make code reviews on the fly, but they could look at that.

Outcome: Commissioners voted to postpone action on Maple Cove, to get more information from the traffic engineer about whether the proposed two separate entrances to the property created a health, safety and welfare hazard. The vote to postpone was 7-1, with dissent from commission chair Eric Mahler. Bonnie Bona was absent. No date has been set for when the project will next appear on the planning commission agenda.

Chalmers Place Parking

Planning commissioners were asked to vote on three resolutions related to a proposal for Chalmers Place, at 2090 Chalmers Drive near the intersection with Washtenaw Avenue: (1) rezoning a vacant lot from R1B (single-family residential) to P (parking); (2) authorizing the disturbance of a 25-foot natural features open space; and (3) a site plan for the parking lot. The site is west of Arborland Mall.

Map of Chalmers Place parking proposal

Aerial map of the lot (outlined in black) that was proposed to be rezoned from residential to parking. The lot is located directly north of the Chalmers Place retail center at 3365 Washtenaw Ave. (Links to higher resolution .pdf file)

Chris Cheng gave the report of planning staff, which recommended denial of the proposal. Reasons for denial included the fact that the proposal did not conform to the city’s master plan for that area, and because a parking lot would cause greater disturbance to the site’s natural features than a single-family residential development would.

The plan called for building a 43-space parking lot on the .92-acre site, which is now vacant. Most of the parking would be used by employees of the Chalmers Place Retail Center at 3365 Washtenaw Ave., located south of this site. Len Nadolski, the owner of both the retail center and the vacant parcel, and his representatives argued that they can’t fully lease the stores at the center without additional parking. Ten to twelve spots would also be set aside for park-and-ride commuters using the AATA bus stop on Washtenaw Avenue.

Chalmers Place Parking: Public Hearing

There were 18 people who spoke during a public hearing on the project, which lasted about an hour. A summary of their remarks is presented in this report. The majority of speakers were residents from the neighborhood who opposed the project, but the first three speakers were affiliated with the owner.

Jeff Smith of Professional Engineering Associates in Howell told commissioners that the owner’s team had worked very hard over the past year. This parking project is a last resort to help the struggling retail center. It’s a plan that could be approved, he said, and there’s a desperate need for parking. One of the primary concerns that people have cited is the removal of trees, and there seems to be a perception that this property contains high-quality woodland. But it’s really an overgrown residential lot, Smith said, and 42% of the trees are invasive. It’s not pristine in terms of natural features.

Smith said they knew that the master plan would be a challenge, but their justification for the project is that parking provides a natural transition between the retail center and the residential neighborhood, and is not out of character. It’s a unique project because a portion of the spaces are dedicated for an AATA park-and-ride lot. That can be pointed to as a special use, he said, so it doesn’t set a precedent for other projects. Traffic won’t be increased as a result of the lot, Smith contended. And the topography – a steep incline – is such that the lot will be 18 feet below Chalmers. Combining that with the evergreens to be planted as screening, and residents won’t be able to see the lot, he said. Smith concluded by asking commissioners for their approval: “We really hope you can keep this retail center going.”

Len Nadowski, Kevin Travers, David Sharp

From left: Len Nadolski, owner of Chalmers Place retail center; property manager Kevin Travers; and David Sharp, manager of the Verizon store at the center.

Kevin Travers, the center’s property manager, noted that the first tenants moved into the center in 2006. So it’s not like this approach to parking was the first thing they tried – in fact, it’s the last thing they wanted to do, he said. They’ve struggled to make the center viable and fill the stores, but there’s still 7,200 square feet with dirt floors, and a total of 9,800 square feet of vacant space. He said the property has been shown to more than 100 potential tenants, but parking is always an issue. The owner is ready to spend $250,000 on this new lot – it’s absolutely needed to survive, he said. This business has paid taxes, improved the side road, kept the area neat and clean. They’ve been good neighbors, he said. The city owes it to taxpayers to stabilize the tax base now and in the future, he concluded.

Matt Berke, a principal with Keystone Commercial Real Estate, told commissioners that he didn’t have much to add, but he wanted to attest that he’s the third broker for the property. He’s handled the property for over a year, and virtually every potential tenant voices the same concerns over parking. He said he knows of at least two tenants who’ve leased at other locations in this market.

Michael Roddy, owner of Paesano at 3411 Washtenaw, noted that his restaurant is directly across Chalmers from the retail center – he remembers when Arbor Dodge was located there. Roddy said he’d previously spoken to the city council and planning commission members about other issues on behalf of his neighbors, and he was here to do the same again. Unlike the Maple Cove developer, Roddy said, the owner of Chalmers Place had met several times with neighbors and others in the area. It’s a wonderful development that has increased the value of property, improved the sidewalks and done everything a good neighbor should do. Roddy said they don’t need more vacant lots or stores along Washtenaw. He also has seen people park in the Paesano parking lot and walk over to Chalmers Place. There are two businesses there that have customers and employees who fill the retail center’s parking lot. Roddy said the parking project would beautify the area, and he urged commissioners to support it.

Michael Homel, a resident of Wooddale Court, identified himself as a board member of the Woodcreek Homeowners Association, and noted that several other people who live in the Woodcreek development were at the meeting. Homel said he supported the staff recommendation of denial for this project. The main issue is zoning, he said – keep the commercial activity on Washtenaw Avenue, and the residential on Chalmers. Nothing has changed since the owner built the retail center, Homel observed, and perhaps better planning would have been a better approach. Homel noted that the owner says the retail center is struggling because of parking – that assertion can’t be proven or disproven, yet there are many other vacant stores in the area. There are probably a lot of reasons for those vacancies, and it’s not the role of others to plumb into that, he said.

Homel reminded commissioners that the owner had previously tried to rezone the property on Chalmers from single-family to multi-family residential. He also noted that the decision to allocate spaces for AATA park-and-ride was not an AATA initiative, and if there are spaces to spare for AATA, it seems to disprove the assertion that parking is needed for employees and customers. Finally, Homel said that although it’s true that the owner held a neighborhood meeting and did other outreach, the residents don’t support it. The Woodcreek Homeowners Association board had voted unanimously against the project, he reported. They support the planning staff’s findings, and he hoped the commission would deny the rezoning.

Amir Mortazawi, who lives on Woodcreek, said that he and his wife both oppose the project. He held up photos of the current parking lot, when there was plenty of parking. Parking should have been part of the business plan when the project was built, he said. Asking for the zoning change seemed like a way to circumvent the rules. He hoped that wasn’t the case. Mortazawi said he and his wife moved there 10 years ago hoping that they could walk to the shops along Washtenaw. That’s what the city should promote, he said. But they no longer walk along Chalmers – that would be risking their lives. The drivers for Jimmy John’s – one of the Chalmers Place tenants – drive fast along Chalmers. “We don’t need more businesses like that,” he said. Mortazawi urged commissioners not to make a bad situation worse by adding more traffic and fast drivers.

Lois Kamoi, a resident of Chalmers, said her daughter lives in the house adjacent to the proposed parking lot. Her property was purchased from Nadolski and she knew at that time that the adjacent land was also zoned residential. She was concerned that strangers in the parking lot could look down and see her grandchildren playing outside. Kamoi noted that at the neighborhood meeting that Nadolski held, the neighbors were told that the parking lot would be for employees. But later, the spots for AATA riders were added. Kamoi also disputed the need for more parking, saying that she walks her dog past there every day and she’s never seen the employee spaces full. The Jimmy John’s drivers take up several spaces in front, so perhaps they could park in the lot behind the center, she suggested. She also raised concerns about adding 43 more vehicles exiting onto Chalmers, if the new lot were built.

Gwen Nystuen, a member of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission, pointed to the master plan, which calls for that property to be residential. It’s appropriately zoned now, and keeping it that way would better protect the site’s natural features and the Mallets Creek watershed, she said. Nystuen also didn’t think it would be smart to add more traffic to that area, and she hoped commissioners would reject the rezoning.

Jane Heineken of Brian Court said there are already a lot of near misses as people pull out of Chalmers onto Washtenaw Avenue, as well as when people try to get in and out of Paesano, Chalmers Place and stores on the south side of Washtenaw. She’s a frequent AATA rider, and would applaud a park-and-ride lot in the area. But that would need to be accompanied by a crosswalk across Washtenaw. Currently, people try to dart across five lanes of traffic – it’s already a problem. As much as residents would like to see all the shopping centers along Washtenaw be successful, it’s important to look at the bigger picture, she said.

Danielle Gonzalez and her mother Madeline Gonzalez, who live across the street on Chalmers from the proposed parking lot, both spoke against it. The people who park behind the center now are loud, Danielle Gonzalez said, and a new lot would increase noise, traffic, and lights. It’s already difficult to turn onto Washtenaw, she said. Madeline Gonzalez asked commissioners to follow the planning staff recommendation, based on the issue of safety. Residents have the right for children to play in a safe area, but there are no sidewalks there and the cars drive fast. She also noted that residents weren’t told about the AATA park-and-ride spaces when they met with the owner, adding that AATA brings in “different elements.” She observed that Roddy likely supports the project because his customers use parking at Chalmers when the Paesano’s lot is full. Gonzalez said she wants the shops to succeed, but not to impact the quality of life in the neighborhood.

Jan Ulrich, an Oakwood resident, talked about the traffic along Washtenaw Avenue between Carpenter and Huron Parkway – “it’s a mess.” She had concerns about how the development got approved in the first place, given the traffic. It’s quite dangerous there, and she was pleased to see the planning staff’s recommendation for denial. Ulrich also raised environmental concerns for the project’s impact on Mallets Creek, and about the quality of life for residents. Pointing to the addition of parking for AATA, she noted there was an aspect of deception involved, too.

Two managers of tenants at the center spoke in support of the new lot. David Sharp, Verizon store manager, said there’s no one better than him to attest to the need for parking. He spends most of his day standing near the window that overlooks the lot. Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. there are few available spaces – he’s seen customers drive up and then leave because they can’t find parking. When tenants move into the four vacant stores, the problem will be even worse. He also noted that the types of businesses are a factor, too. Customers for some stores – like Verizon, and the nail salon – spend a long time at the business, so there’s not frequent turnover in parking. He strongly encouraged approval of the rezoning.

The manager of LUV Manicures & Pedicures also spoke in support of rezoning. She said the front parking lot is frequently full, and customers complain. She’d like to see more businesses in the center, which would help all the stores, but when that happens the parking will be worse. Customers will start to go elsewhere. Approving the project would benefit the entire center, she said.

Michael Homel, Amir Mortazawi

From left: Michael Homel and Amir Mortazawi, residents of the Woodcreek subdivision, at the public hearing for the Chalmers Place parking project. Homel is a board member of the Woodcreek Homeowners Association. They were among the 10 residents who spoke in opposition to the project at the May 1 hearing.

Jim Sweetnam said there are people who are beloved to him that live in the neighborhood. It seemed that the most contentious issue relates to where the employees park. He said he’s in favor of park-and-ride – just not at that location. He suggested that employees could park elsewhere and take the bus to the center, which would save a lot of money and grief.

Marsha Brashears lives on Chalmers and said her biggest concern is the AATA park-and-ride. She couldn’t imagine the large AATA buses going up and down Chalmers, with families there. [The parking lot project would not entail any changes to AATA routes.]

Len Nadolski made a final plea for the project. He said he and the project team respect the watershed and don’t want to degrade or pollute it. The property is unique, and their plan is designed to reduce the impact on the neighborhood. He pointed to aspects of the plan that he said would improve the area and make it safer – including fencing, lighting, and security cameras. Vehicles would be towed if they don’t belong to employees, he said.

He argued that they haven’t been able to attract tenants because of the parking concern. Now, the project isn’t meeting the ratios required by its lending institution, he said. [Nadolski didn't specific what those ratios entailed. Common ratios are loan-to-value ratio, debt ratio, and debt service coverage ratio.] Nadolski said he wouldn’t invest in the parking lot unless he had to, but “we’re at a crossroads right now.” The center is at a desirable location, but parking is the problem. Referring to the city’s master plan, he said that every plan has the opportunity for exceptions, and he hoped the commission would take that into consideration.

Chalmers Place Parking: Commission Discussion

Erica Briggs said she felt for the petitioners, because the issue they’re facing is real. But the issues that planning staff raised are real, too, she said. It’s important to respect the fact that this proposal isn’t consistent with the city’s master plan or with the needs of the neighbors. Transportation demand management provides solutions beyond just the addition of parking space, Briggs noted, and a lot of TDM strategies are being deployed downtown. Washtenaw Avenue has been facing these challenges a long time, she said, and businesses should work together to find solutions. One possibility is to find another way to get employees to their work sites. Discounted bus passes would be one example, she said. This is a really significant issue that needs to be solved, but a parking lot isn’t the answer.

Kirk Westphal clarified with city planner Chris Cheng that it wouldn’t be a hardship to develop the property as it’s currently zoned – that is, it would be possible to develop the land for residential use. That’s correct, Cheng said. Westphal noted that unlike the Maple Cove site, this is a case where the zoning of the property meets the neighbors’ expectations, either as vacant property or as single-family residential. To him, that was a compelling reason to keep the zoning as it is. He said it’s not the planning commission’s place to speculate on why the retail center isn’t able to lease its stores.

Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal

From left: planning commissioners Evan Pratt and Kirk Westphal.

Wendy Woods agreed with Briggs and Westphal. She urged the owners to look for creative alternatives – perhaps an AATA shuttle from a remote parking lot. But that’s obviously not an issue that commissioners can solve now, she said. Woods expressed sympathy to the parking issue, but said it doesn’t rise to the level of rezoning.

Woods then smiled and said, “Let me just speak for the trees,” a remark that elicited laughter from her colleagues. Even though the trees are considered invasive or non-native, she said, “they still need to be respected.”

Tony Derezinski also spoke about possible parking alternatives, pointing to the large parking lot on the other side of Washtenaw Avenue where he said there always appears to be plenty of available parking. He alluded to the Reimagine Washtenaw Avenue project, saying that he hoped it would eventually improve walkability along that corridor. It was a tough situation, but he felt that deference should be give to the planning staff’s assessment.

Diane Giannola wondered if the retail center’s parking lot was used by commuters who parked there and then took a bus into town. Kevin Travers, the center’s property manager, noted that there was an AATA bus stop in front but that he didn’t think commuters parked there.

Giannola asked whether the planning staff had looked at other areas for parking. Cheng said it might be possible to restripe the existing lot for smaller spaces, and maybe reduce the setback along Chalmers. They might be able to gain at most 10 additional spaces by doing that.

Briggs noted that both the owner and the neighbors describe Washtenaw Avenue as uncomfortable for biking and walking, and it’s unsafe to cross the street. The city needs to work rapidly to improve that area, she said. If this owner is willing to invest $250,000 to build a parking lot, Briggs wondered how many other businesses would invest in improvements, like pedestrian-activated crossing signals (HAWK) or other changes to make it more pedestrian friendly. Instead of leaving it entirely up to the owners, perhaps the city could partner with them to find solutions, she said.

Eric Mahler said it comes down to a case of spot zoning against the master plan. The commission has been consistent in not doing that, he said, nor is it their place to look at financial data or forecasts. However, Mahler said he empathized with the owner, and had to give him the benefit of the doubt that potential tenants are being chased away because of the parking situation. It’s one thing to generalize and say that people should work together to come up with a solution, he said. But he had to assume that if there was another solution, the owner would have pursued it. Mahler said he had to support the project because he didn’t see any other option for the property owner.

Outcome: In three separate votes, planning commissioners voted 1-7 to recommend denial of the Chalmers Place proposal. Commission chair Eric Mahler cast the only votes in support of the resolutions. Neighbors in the audience applauded after the final vote was taken.

Medical Marijuana Zoning Revision

The planning commission was asked to weigh in on a proposed change to the city’s zoning code for medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities.

Earlier this year, the city’s medical marijuana licensing board had recommended one change – to strike the following sentence from the zoning ordinance: “Medical marijuana dispensaries and medical marijuana cultivation facilities shall be operated in compliance with the MMMA (Michigan Medical Marijuana Act).” [.pdf of the recommended zoning ordinance change]

The board’s recommendation had been sent to Ann Arbor city council. But at their April 2, 2012 meeting, councilmembers voted 9-1 instead to direct the planning commission to review the medical marijuana zoning ordinance. The councilmember voting against that direction was Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), who also serves as a planning commissioner.

In a staff memo to planning commissioners, planning staff had recommended denial of the ordinance change. From the memo:

Without this provision in the City’s ordinance, there would be no way for staff to distinguish between a use legally allowed under the MMMA and a clearly illegal one. For instance, if the provision is removed, an applicant claiming to be a medical marijuana dispensary could comply with zoning, but actually be an illegal drug operation. Finally, keeping this provision in the list of requirements for the establishments for a medical marijuana dispensary or cultivation facility serves to clarify for potential applicants that the City will not approve a facility that is inconsistent with state law.

At the May 1 meeting, planning manager Wendy Rampson reviewed this history of the ordinance and the staff’s position. She noted that Kevin McDonald of the city attorney’s staff was present at the meeting and available to answer questions.

This proposed zoning ordinance change was one of three medical marijuana-related items that city council considered at its April 2 meeting. The other items were (1) revisions to the city’s medical marijuana licensing ordinance; and (2) direction to the city attorney to delay enforcement action against those dispensaries for which the city’s medical marijuana licensing board has recommended licenses. The council had unanimously postponed consideration of the licensing ordinance revisions until the council’s June 18 meeting.

And on a 6-4 vote, the council had tabled the resolution directing the city attorney to delay enforcement activities until the revisions to the local ordinances have been either adopted or rejected. A tabled resolution will demise if it’s not brought back off the table in six months.

For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: “Tension Grows in Medical Marijuana Debate,” and “Ann Arbor Marijuana Licenses: Who Decides?

Medical Marijuana Zoning Revision: Public Hearing

The only speaker during a public hearing on the proposed zoning revision was Dennis Hayes. He began by noting that he had submitted a letter to the commission on behalf of a group of dispensaries operating in Ann Arbor. [.pdf of Hayes' letter]

Chuck Ream, Dennis Hayes

Chuck Ream and Dennis Hayes pick up agendas prior to the start of the May 1 planning commission meeting. Hayes later spoke during a public hearing for the proposed changing to a zoning ordinance for medical marijuana dispensaries.

He asked that the sentence be removed from the zoning ordinance. He argued that McQueen decision was very narrow, and the case is literally up in the air, he said. [This was a reference to the lawsuit Michigan v. McQueen (Compassionate Apothecary). An Aug. 23, 2011 court of appeals ruling on the case has been interpreted by many authorities to mean that no medical marijuana dispensaries are legal. The McQueen case has been accepted for review by the Michigan Supreme Court, which means that it’s not yet settled case law.]

Hayes noted that nine dispensaries in Ann Arbor have been recommended for licenses. As part of that process, the dispensaries are required to get zoning compliance permits. That’s been done, he said. [Rampson later clarified that zoning compliance permits have not, in fact, been issued yet.]

The issue, Hayes said, is that the city desires to interpret the zoning ordinance in a way that’s inappropriate and unnecessary. The medical marijuana dispensaries are already zoning compliant, he argued, and have business models that they believe are compliant with state law.

When the three minutes allotted to speakers during public commentary elapsed, Hayes indicated that because he was speaking on behalf of a group, he should be given a five-minute speaking turn. Rampson replied that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of a recognized group, such as a homeowners association, so his speaking turn was limited to three minutes.

Medical Marijuana Zoning Revision: Commission Discussion

There was only brief discussion of the resolution, and all commissioners seemed in agreement.

Diane Giannola noted that if she were asked to insert the sentence, she’d argue that it wouldn’t be necessary – it’s implied that state law should be followed. But deleting the sentence would indicate that people don’t have to comply with state law, she said, and that bothered her.

Giannola also observed that it’s difficult to talk about zoning for medical marijuana dispensaries when the issue is so political. Should the city remove the sentence from its zoning ordinance so that someone can get a license from the city for something that’s illegal? she asked. The McQueen ruling might be overturned, but does that mean the city should remove the sentence? It bothered her, she said, and she didn’t think the commission should have been asked to make a recommendation on this. She didn’t see how she could ever support it.

Tony Derezinski said he had similar thoughts. This zoning change was one of three resolutions that had been brought forward to city council, he said, to ameliorate the medical marijuana ordinances that had recently been passed after a hard-fought debate. He had a real problem procedurally with putting a burden on the planning commission to act. He didn’t like the process, and would vote against the resolution.

Evan Pratt said he didn’t think there was any dispute that state law must be followed. When the city wants to make that clear, then it is stated explicitly. If they want to be ambiguous, they would take it out. So leaving the sentence in place makes the ordinance less ambiguous, he said, and that speaks for keeping it in.

Kirk Westphal also opposed changing the ordinance, and said he echoed the staff report’s comment that removing the sentence would make it more difficult to differentiate between legal and illegal operations.

Erica Briggs pointed out that this zoning change is a separate issue from the one regarding whether zoning compliance permits should be issued. It may be that the city is denying permits unnecessarily, she said, but that’s unrelated.

Eric Mahler said he’d be extremely uncomfortable recommending the proposed change. That would result in authorizing illegal uses, and it would have severe consequences for the city, he said. Mahler said he wouldn’t want to explain to the state’s attorney general or anyone else why the city had taken out that sentence.

Outcome: Commissioners voted unanimously against recommending the proposed zoning ordinance revision.

Capital Improvements Plan

Cresson Slotten, manager for the city’s systems planning unit, was on hand to brief commissioners about proposed adjustments to the capital improvements plan, known as the CIP. The city code requires that the CIP be developed and updated each year, looking ahead at a six-year period, to help with financial planning. It’s intended to reflect the city’s priorities and needs, and serves as a guide to discern what projects are on the horizon.

Slotten noted that the CIP process mirrors the city’s two-year budget process. Last year, the city developed a CIP covering the fiscal years 2012-2017 – planning commissioners had approved it at their Jan. 4, 2011 meeting. It included a list of major capital projects, those that were funded as well as for those for which funding hadn’t yet been identified.

This is the second year of the two-year cycle, and Slotten described the changes as tweaks based on getting more information about a project’s scope, cost, schedule or other details. A more major effort will get underway later this year, as city staff prepare a new six-year CIP.

According to a staff memo, there are 345 projects or needs in the current CIP, including 131 for fiscal 2012 and/or 2013. For the update, there are 20 new projects that are proposed to be added and 17 projects deleted from the plan, resulting in a net total of 134 projects for fiscal 2013. [.pdf of proposed FY2013-2018 CIP]

Funding needs for fiscal 2013 – which begins July 1, 2012 – total $108,038,780. Of that total, 85.3% ($92,110,480) are projects for which funding is identified. The total funding need is roughly $16.637 million more than what was included in the FY 2012 CIP, an increase of 18.2%. The major adjustments summarized in the memo are:

1. Adjusting project schedules in city-owned buildings and the municipal airport from FY 2012 to FY 2013 (approximately $2.3 million shifted from FY 2012 to FY 2013)

2. Delaying the Washtenaw Avenue/US-23 underpass shared use path to FY 2013 – a delay due to the Michigan Dept. of Transportation ($2.8 million)

3. Shifting some new street projects related to private development from FY 2012 to FY 2013 ($1.5 million)

4. Adjusting the other street project schedules: resurfacing/reconstruction of the Ann Arbor-Saline Road from Eisenhower to the city limits ($1.05 million) and a new project for the South State Street/Ellsworth intersection roundabout ($1 million)

5. Increasing the funding schedule for renovation at the city’s wastewater treatment plant (approximately $4 million)

Slotten also introduced Devorah Gosselin, a recent hire as systems planning engineer who would be handling oversight of the CIP process in the future.

Commissioners held a public hearing on the plan, but no one from the public spoke during the hearing.

Capital Improvements Plan: Commission Discussion

Diane Giannola said it was her understanding that the CIP is a list of all possible projects, not just those that are approved. Yet when the city council removed the airport runway project from the CIP last year before approving the plan, that made it seem as though approving the plan was the same as approving all of the projects. She asked Slotten to clarify.

Slotten explained that the CIP is a list of identified needs, funded and unfunded. Technically, he said, the airport runway wasn’t removed from the CIP but was eliminated from the city’s capital budget. [The project – called the "runway safety extension" – remains in the proposed CIP, with funding in FY 2013 at $1.667 million.]

Giannola ventured that it’s not standard practice to remove items that are politically controversial. That’s right, Slotten replied, adding that the CIP is a list of key needs. Giannola noted that just because a project is included in the CIP doesn’t mean that it will be undertaken. That’s correct, Slotten said.

Tony Derezinski observed that there had been a lot of opportunity for public input. Slotten said that the proposed CIP had been posted on the city’s website for about a month, and sent to representatives of homeowner associations in the city. Derezinski confirmed with Slotten that to date, no public comment had been received on the CIP.

Wendy Woods asked about the roundabout at South State and Ellsworth. Many people were surprised when the project came up and a roundabout was proposed, she said. Now it seems that the project is funded and on a fast track.

Slotten noted that the intersection is at the city’s boundary with Pittsfield Township, and the Washtenaw County road commission is responsible for the portion of South State that’s south of the intersection, and for Ellsworth west of the intersection. The project is also keyed to the Costco project, which is expected to increase traffic to that area. The store is expected to open this summer.

Responding to a query from Woods, Slotten explained that the city was responsible only for a portion of the $2.6 million in funding listed in the CIP, but he wasn’t sure how much the city would pay. [The Ann Arbor city council subsequently approved that project at its May 7, 2012 meeting. The city will pay $350,000 for a water main improvement it wants to do anyway, and contribute an additional $135,000 to the intersection improvement.]

Erica Briggs noted that 90% of the unfunded projects were in the category of alternative transportation. Why is that percentage so high? she wondered. Slotten said that until recent years, the budget and the CIP were linked, and the CIP included only projects that had a funding source. It eventually evolved that for planning purposes, the CIP should include all projects that are identified as a need – funded and unfunded.

A lot of the alternative transportation projects are long-term and expensive, he noted. At this point, the major implementation expenses are unfunded. [Some of the major alternative transportation projects in the CIP are construction of a transit connector ($300 million) and the Fuller Road Station Phase II ($43.277 million).]

Eric Mahler asked about the 18.2% increase in total funding needed for the CIP, and noted that one of the main items related to the renovation of the wastewater treatment plant. He asked for more details about that $4 million increase.

Slotten said he couldn’t provide much more detail on the costs for that project. He noted that it’s the largest capital project the city has ever undertaken, at $136 million. [The city council approved award of the major construction contract for that project at its Feb. 6, 2012 meeting.] As it has evolved, $4 million as a percentage of the total isn’t very much, Slotten said. One key piece of that project was the city’s ability to obtain funding through the state’s revolving fund loan program. So instead of bonding, the city can get low-interest loans, which will save millions in financing expenses, he said.

Mahler said he was glad to see the wind project at the drop-off station on the list. [The funded needed for that project in FY 2013 is $250,000 with an additional $260,000 in FY 2014.]

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved adjustments to the city’s capital improvements plan for FY 2013-2018.

Master Plan Review

The planning commission’s bylaws require that the commission review the city’s master plan each May.

The resolution considered by commissioners affirmed the existing master plan, which consists of (1) Land Use Element (2009); (2) Downtown Plan (2009); (3) Transportation Plan Update (2009); (4) Non-motorized Transportation Plan (2007); (5) Parks and Recreation Open Space Plan (2011); and (6) Natural Features Master Plan (2004). These documents can be downloaded from the city’s master plan website.

Planning manager Wendy Rampson said the staff likes to keep the master plan fresh. She hoped that commissioners would spend some time reviewing the elements of the master plan to identify anything they’d like to add to the official master plan that state law requires.

The resolution presented to the commission stated that the group will continue to develop comprehensive plans for the Washtenaw Avenue and South State Street corridors. In addition, three minor changes were proposed:

  • Adding the city’s park advisory commission, housing commission, and housing & human services board to the list of groups that are developing a sustainability framework for the city. Initially, only the planning, energy and environmental commissions had been involved.
  • Stating that the planning commission will assist in updating the Non-motorized Transportation Plan, which was adopted in 2007; and
  • Stating that the planning commission will update the land use element of the city’s master plan to include land use recommendations from the Huron River and Impoundments Management Plan (HRIMP). This had been discussed at a March 2012 meeting of the commission’s master plan revisions committee.

No one spoke during a public hearing on the proposed revisions, nor did commissioners have any commentary.

The planning staff had recommended postponing the resolution until the commission holds its annual retreat on May 29. Evan Pratt made a motion to postpone.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to postpone action on the master plan review.

Present: Eleanore Adenekan, Erica Briggs, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.

Absent: Bonnie Bona

Next regular meeting: The planning commission next meets on Tuesday, May 15, 2012 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]

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