2005-08-11 / Front Page

Brevort Twp. Residents Circulate Zoning Petitions

Campers Used as Dwellings, Master Plan at Issue
By Stephen Underwood


Ongoing differences among Brevort Township officials and residents in planning and zoning philosophies have resulted in four petitions circulating the township and the resignation of the township’s planning commission chairman.

The petitions, two developed by township resident Ray Lowetz in recent weeks and presented to the Brevort Township Board of Trustees at its Tuesday, August 2, meeting, and two more from former planning commission chairman Bill Kemeny drawn up the following day, involve zoning ordinance questions regarding temporary dwellings on properties and similar regulations with trailer coaches, as well as whether the township should continue to have its nine-member planning commission or revert to a three-person zoning board.

Mr. Lowetz wants to see Section 4.8 “Temporary Dwellings” and Section 9.2 “Regulations” eliminated, with no replacement wording, despite the fact that the planning commission has worked for several months this year to amend Section 4.8. He also wants to see the planning commission canceled and the zoning board reinstated. He claimed, as of August 8, to have 100 and 80 signatures on his petitions, respectively.

Mr. Kemeny, who told the township board at its July 5 meeting that he was resigning from the commission, wants to see the planning commission and at least an amended version of Section 4.8 kept in place. In his resignation letter, he cited the “controversy and adversarial atmosphere” these philosophical differences have created, “erroneous personal attacks” from letters to the editor appearing in The St. Ignace News , and the township being “unwilling or unable to take on the difficult task of effectively enforcing the current zoning and blight ordinances.”

The broader issues, however, are the present-day effectiveness of a 1982 master plan and a 1984 zoning ordinance, if and when the planning commission or another body can revise them, and how well the diverse populace of the township can work together to come up with regulations everyone can live with.

“You’ve got people who are saying, ‘Why can’t I do this on my property,’ and others who say, ‘I’ve got an investment here. Why is this thing next door to me allowed,’” said Township Supervisor Ed Serwach.

The intensity of the debate has risen and fallen, starting when the planning commission was formed in early 2003 and began enforcing sections of an ordinance which those on both sides of the debate agree had been all but ignored for nearly 20 years. The original Section 4.8 addresses a wide variety of temporary dwellings, from cabins to tents, and that their establishment on properties and use for dwelling purposes must be limited by time, the presence of proper water and toilet facilities to comply with safety, health, and public welfare, and their effect on surrounding property values.

The section became the focal point as a variety of complaints were made and notices given to property owners beginning in 2003, mainly concerning the use of trailers or motorhomes as long-term or permanent dwellings on their property.

Ideas on the issue were exchanged in a series of letters in The St. Ignace News in July, 2004. In January 2005, Mr. Serwach asked the commission to create an amendment to Section 4.8 for purposes of clarity and compromise. The commission labored at great length to do so, only to present this amendment at a public meeting June 15 to an audience that turned out to be primarily comprised of those opposed to the old version and not accepting of the new. Those who had pushed for enforcement were not in force.

“The planning commission has worked very hard to try and come up with something that everyone can be happy with,” said Mr. Serwach.

The commission has called for another meeting August 17, for more public input and refinement of the amendment.

Mr. Lowetz feels that the way of life that he was looking for when he returned to the township for retirement has been threatened, starting when the planning commission was formed and enforcement was stepped up.

“We want Brevort Township to stay Brevort Township,” he said. “We don’t want it to be Livonia. I don’t want to see people hassled. It’s like living in the city.”

Mr. Lowetz wants people to be able to bring up their campers to their property for hunting and other recreational purposes. He said he’s not against health regulations, and also has said he supports township annual cleanup efforts.

Mr. Kemeny and the planning commission agreed that the old Section 4.8 was “very strict,” however, and tried to address concerns about campers being allowed temporarily for such purposes, provided they have healthful water and sewage sources. An exception for stays up to 21 days, for example, is part of the new amendment.

While both the old and new versions include “tents” as temporary dwellings, he said they aren’t at all to discourage something like children camping out in their backyards, as some have interpreted.

“We drafted an amendment that has verbiage about short stays and, under certain conditions, allows for permanent placement,” he said. “We even brought in a facilitator to help us work on this. But when we held the June 15 public hearing, there was a lot of negativity.

“I don’t want to say derogatory things about anyone,” he added. “I’m not out to make enemies. But we seem to have people who are against zoning in general. We can’t have uncontrolled proliferation of campers. The reason this is in there is for everyone’s health, safety, and welfare. And not all of this amendment is set in stone. There’s stuff in here that can still be revised.”

Mr. Lowetz called the amendment “more complicated and restrictive,” and said that the township should not have the right to regulate a given number of days.

“It’s no one else’s business,” he contends.

The amendment isn’t focused on additional restrictions, however, but on more detail to cover the various scenarios.

As to the future of the planning commission, a zoning board of appeals, Mr. Kemeny said, would not have the authority to update a master plan and the state recommends communities do so every five years.

“Some people don’t think of what the results would be if we eliminated these,” he said.

“I’m only a private citizen now, but I’ve got to do something,” he added. “We shouldn’t go backwards. We should do what’s right for the township.”

Mr. Kemeny pointed out that the commission’s mission and vision statements are clearly meant to preserve the rural character of the township. He has also collected similar ordinances from two other rural eastern U.P. townships, Bruce and Kinross Charter, as well as Zeeland Township downstate to illustrate similar measures others have taken.

Not all townships have zoning ordinances. Kurt Schindler, Michigan State University Extension Director for Wexford County and a land-use specialist, said a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1926 (Village of Euclid vs. Amber Realty) permits communities to zone and says that such regulations must be followed if established, but doesn’t require them to zone.

Mr. Lowetz, for one, would be fine with “almost no zoning,” he said. Yet he added that he’d be the first one to call for cleaning up “the mess in Moran.”

There isn’t a single, statewide answer, said Mr. Schindler.

“It’s a difficult issue,” he said. “You’re not going to find anyone who can tell you what is the norm or the trend. I can tell you it’s a very local decision. What different communities find is politically palatable to accomplish public safety objectives is all over the board. There isn’t a single statewide answer.”

On the other hand, it’s communities with little development pressure or land divisions that usually eschew zoning, he added. That’s not the case with Brevort Township.

When the master plan and zoning ordinance were put together more than 20 years ago, said trustee Mark Peterson, it was done in a hurry and someone from another township came in to help, using that other township as a model.

“The planning commission has said, if it’s on the books, it should be enforced,” he said. “And they’re probably right. But when it came to light, the people went into an uprising.”

He added that the zoning ordinance “can’t just be thrown out. Some more tweaking needs to be done. It’s going in the right direction (with the amendment), it just needs to go further. I don’t see why people can’t bring up their trailers or campers. But the board should oversee it and they should be maintaining it and not dumping sewage.

“But you can’t please everybody.”

Mr. Schindler said the biggest issue with temporary dwellings is the sewage, and whether it gets pumped out or is dumped illegally. He added that campers aren’t generally built to withstand winter conditions and get dilapidated if set year-around.

“People don’t have a right to pollute,” he said. “Some townships ban them, others develop a system of maximum days they can be up. Most have some kind of regulation.

“Unfortunately, in some places, people have dug in their heels when it would be more productive to sit down together and reach a compromise.”

Ironically, Mr. Lowetz and Mr. Kemeny continue to work together as president and vice-president, respectively, of the Brevoort Lake Association. “We have a common interest in that,” said Mr. Kemeny. “We don’t want to see it fall apart.”

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