2017-10-19 / News

St. Ignace Planning Commission Wants More Public Input in Development Discussions

More Workforce Housing Is Sought Every Day in St. Ignace; City Wants To Turn Attention to 3 Main Areas for Development
By Kevin R. Hess

After the St. Ignace City Council followed the recommendation of the St. Ignace Planning Commission and rejected Dean Baker’s request to have his property on Paro Street rezoned from single-family residential housing to multiple-family housing, the commission went back to work to determine areas of St. Ignace that could be designated as developmentready for affordable housing to be built. The planning commission also reviewed its procedures to gather input from the public in cases like this, as the commission would like to encourage more people to participate. More public hearings are coming up this fall to consider three sections of the city and how development might be encouraged in them.

The commission evaluates rezoning requests and makes recommendations to city council based on provisions of the city zoning ordinance.

In September, the commission had held a public hearing to hear from Mr. Baker and his neighbors concerning his Paro Street project. Besides Mr. Baker, only two neighbors attended the hearing and both were opposed to rezoning. The master plan shows his property as one that would be designated R-3, or multifamily residences, in the future.

A motion to recommend rezoning was defeated 4-3. Commission Chairperson Betsy Dayrell-Hart, Mayor Connie Litzner, and Kayla Pelter voted in favor, while Diggy Clement, Rick Perry, Mike Lilliquist, and Nick Adams were opposed.

Chairperson Dayrell-Hart later reported that some residents were disappointed with the 9 a.m. time slot for the public hearing, stating that it was not fair to people who have day jobs and could not attend. It was also noted that comments could have been made in writing, but were not.

Mayor Litzner said that with so few members of the public participating, it is hard to determine what the majority of people want. She said that there could have been many in the area who might have favored rezoning the property, but did not attend, assuming that the hearing was intended more for people who opposed the measure.

Chairperson Dayrell-Hart told commissioners afterward that when city council members asked if anyone from the public besides Mr. Baker spoke in favor of the request at the hearing, she had to say no.

“We have to find a way to reach out to people and see what they are wanting,” she said. “If we want to designate certain areas, we need public outreach to gauge the thoughts and desires of the residents.”

Part of the commission’s discussion centered around defining the term “affordable housing,” as Dr. Dayrell-Hart said it means different things to different people. She said Michigan defines affordable housing as “workforce housing,” and government assisted housing as supplemental housing. Workforce housing is what St. Ignace needs most, she said, and it should not be confused with low-income housing.

The state average for workforce housing is $800/month, she said, and would mean a person would need a job paying approximately $16/hour to afford that. She said that amount is too high for St. Ignace, as wages are commonly much less than $16/hour.

Mayor Litzner noted that there is a connotation around the term “lowincome” that unfairly labels people as apathetic or lacking concern.

Many jobs in the city pay minimum wage, said Mayor Litzner.

“When we exclude low-income, we are excluding a lot of our residents. They are our workforce. They work hard, but many are unemployed for a season because of the lack of year around jobs, or have to work multiple jobs.”

Cheryl Schlehuber, a real estate broker, was invited to the planning commission meeting and asked if she fields many calls for workforce housing.

“I get calls all day long for long term, workforce housing,” she said. “We miss out on many people, young people, entrepreneurs [who would move here] because we simply don’t have enough housing. I believe anything we could build, we would fill quickly. We need these [R- 3 developments] because nobody is building homes here.”

Mrs. Schlehuber said she understands the need for public input in this process but wonders how much weight it should be given.

“When do we respectfully say to the neighbors that [development] is needed and what is best for our community?”

Dr. Dayrell-Hart pointed out that any decision to rezone ultimately lies with the city council, but acknowledged that the planning commission’s recommendations can carry a lot of weight in the decision.

In this case, the council decision hinged, in part, on the fact there were no development plans to be considered, and no interested developer coming forward. The request was made to make the property more marketable, but no further plans were proposed for how it might ultimately be used, once rezoned. The request to rezone could be made again later, along with plans to be considered for the property.

Because of city council’s rejection of the recent request, Dr. Dayrell- Hart said that the R-3 zones in the Ferry Lane corridor on the master plan must be reconsidered, but she believes the zoning needs to be changed.

“Having areas like that zoned as R-1 is restrictive to growth,” she said. “We need community education, but we need people to come” to the meetings and feedback sessions.

She noted that images help people to see a vision for those areas and cited the recent Sustainable Built Environment Initiative (SBEI) visioning meeting downtown as an example. Designers and planners presented a set of images of Ojibwa Trail as it is and a set of images overlaid with potential renovations to give residents an idea of what the area could look like [see The St. Ignace News, September 20, 2017]. Between 40 and 50 people attended and the comments were overwhelmingly positive. People could offer comments in writing until October 6. The next step in that process will be for the design team to evaluate the comments, make adjustments to the design, and schedule another public meeting in the late fall or early winter.

With the SBEI presentation so well attended, Dr. Dayrell-Hart said a similar process might be beneficial in regard to rezoning areas of St. Ignace for workforce housing. The cost of the SBEI design was $7,500 and was paid with grants. If the commission wanted to do something similar for housing plans, it could cost $7,500 for each area. The commission has marked three sections as development-ready areas – Ferry Lane, downtown, and the waterfront.

“Nothing works better than pictures,” she said. “While it is not our decision to rezone, it is our job to get people on board and then make recommendations to the city council.”

Mrs. Schlehuber said that some buildings along the water have been purchased and are used for nothing more than storage and some of them are not maintained very well. She asked if there was any way to change that. Dr. Dayrell-Hart said that there are ordinances in place in regard to upkeep of properties, and it is a matter of city enforcement.

“We can’t legally make a business owner use their property the way we want them to,” she said.

Commissioner Diggy Clement was one of the dissenting votes for rezoning Mr. Baker’s property. She said she opposed it because there was no detailed plan for it.

Dr. Dayrell-Hart said that even if a detailed plan was proposed and the property was rezoned, the owner could build anything permitted in R- 3 and would not be required to stick to the plan they initially presented. Mr. Baker did not have plans to develop anything on his property. He wanted it rezoned to make it easier to sell for another person to develop it.

Even though the council turned down the current request for variance, it could be requested again at a later date and the council could approve it.

With an R-1 designation, however, Mrs. Schlehuber said the property is not as enticing for potential buyers as it would be if it were an R-3. Dr. Dayrell-Hart also said that requiring a detailed plan was a lot to ask of someone applying for a variance and may prevent potential development buyers from pursuing an R-1 property.

“If we make it too complicated, no one will buy,” she said.

There is a potential compromise with the zoning process. Instead of seeking R-3 designations, the commission could seek to designate certain properties as Planned Unit Developments (PUD). PUDs are communities of homes that can include single-family homes or multifamily dwellings like condos and apartments. The difference between a PUD and an R-3 property is that PUDs give the seller a little more control over what can be built by including certain rules and regulations on things such as height and window size.

Mayor Litzner commented that a PUD could be a good middle ground that would benefit owners, neighbors, and the city. A PUD might limit a property’s appeal to potential buyers more than an R-3 designation, but it would be more appealing than a property zoned as R-1.

Dr. Dayrell-Hart plans to share the idea with the Eastern Upper Peninsula Regional Planning and Development Commission to receive their suggestions. The St. Ignace Planning Commission will then hold a public outreach session for each of the three areas they have designated as development ready before making any changes to the master plan. The first session will pertain to Ferry Lane, and residents of that neighborhood in particular are encouraged to attend. It will be held Tuesday, November 28, at 7 p.m. at the St. Ignace Public Library. Notices will be placed in The St. Ignace News and sent to residents of the area. Commissioners also plan to go door to door to personally invite residents in hopes of gathering a larger crowd.

“It is a lot of work to be creative and rezone, but it may be what we need to do,” said Dr. Dayrell-Hart.

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