February, 2014 - so different!
First Ward, City Council
Coffee wakes some of us up
I hold office hours 7:30 to 9 am on most Mondays at the Northside Grill.
The folks at the Northside put up with political talk early in the morning. If you see me there, please wave, and if you have time, please, join me for coffee and a chat.
Caucus is held at 3:30 pm on the Sunday prior to each Council meeting.
The City Council holds a caucus meeting each Sunday prior to a Council meeting. This meeting is an opportunity for members of Council to discuss agenda items -- and pending issues -- with each other in public view. Members of the public are welcome to attend to bring issues to the attention of Council members.
It doesn't really bother me that we are suddenly having winter. Nope.
You can imagine an insincere smile, right there.
So, I've spent much of the past few days more inside than out. Even as I've noticed the brighter mornings, I've not lingered while heading between meetings, and I haven't taken a walk just for the pleasure. The long-range forecast implies that March will come in like a lamb, however. I can hold out another week.
(Note the photo, above. I took that on Feb. 20, 2014. Just a reminder of how great this winter has been.)
The deer cull will continue through to 7 am on Saturday, February 27. I do not know whether any culling activities will occur on Monday, February 29th - the last day of the cull by the DNR's permit.
I've received several articles pointing out that USDA-APHIS wildlife services kills animals - and sometimes kills animals they weren't intending to kill. I believe this to be true. In Ann Arbor, USDA-APHIS wildlife services have - as of February 6th - killed 36 deer. I don't have any data for the week ending at 7 am on February 13. No dogs or other animals have been injured in this cull, to the best of the information I've received.
The Council sees the same information as the public.
Several people continue to question the role of Food Gatherers in the cull. The City is not providing venison to Food Gatherers out of the goodness of its heart; any deer meat that results from a cull must be donated to a food pantry. Our local food pantry - the best in the region, in my view - is Food Gatherers. But if Food Gatherers didn't accept this donation for any reason, food pantries from Detroit to Battle Creek and beyond might be the beneficiaries. I'm grateful to Food Gatherers for the role it plays in our community, and continue to support them.
In a conversation I recently held with a City staff member, he asserted that he'd been told using immuno-contraception is 'not a solution.' That brings up what the problem is, and what a solution looks like. The City defined the problem as 'too many deer,' and 'too many negative human-deer interactions.' So success (if this is the problem) would mean fewer deer and fewer negative human-deer interactions. Neither culling nor using immuno-contraception would result in 'no deer' or 'no negative human-deer interactions.' Both are tools for deer population maintenance. And both tools would need to be used year after year. I'll continue to challenge this perception that immune-contraception or sterilization would not work to address the problem; an argument over the cost of immuno-contraception could be valid, of course.
Several people have recommended that the City take a pause and become serious about documenting the need for deer management. Several have suggested that hard evidence of damage from deer is needed in order to justify the impact this cull has. These are things that the Council may discuss after the cull is completed.
In response to questions that constituents asked me, I posed several simple yes/no questions to the City staff about the deer cull. Here are the questions and the responses from the City:
QUESTION: Have all bullets fired by USDA-APHIS been accounted for?
RESPONSE: This is a USDA operational protocol question, which city staff can’t answer. City staff have confirmed that all deer shot by USDA marksmen have been removed from designated parks.
QUESTION: Do the contractors wear plainly visible orange gear?
RESPONSE: The contract and MDNR permit do not specify what type of clothing USDA staff must wear. However, the permit does specify that USDA vehicles must be clearly marked and marksmen must have personal picture identification on them at all times as well as a copy of the damage control permit.
QUESTION: Are the contractors firing from parking lots?
RESPONSE: Per the MDNR permit, shooting from a vehicle is allowed.
QUESTION: Are the contractors firing from raised platforms?
RESPONSE: Per the MDNR permit, shooting from a platform or deer blind is allowed.
QUESTION: Is someone searching the parks before any gun fire begins?
RESPONSE: Yes. Visual inspections at designated parks are conducted by USDA staff. In addition, USDA marksmen utilize night-vision and thermal-imaging scopes.
The Library Lot, the Y Lot, and the downtown
At the January 20th Council meeting, City Council passed a resolution to have the staff begin negotiating for the sale of development rights on the Library Lot. The vote was 7-3, with one member absent. I voted in opposition to the resolution.
Before doing that, I brought to the table an amendment to the resolution that required the City to add some elements to the negotiation: 10% of residential units should be maintained below market rate and affordable to those earning between 60% and 80% of AMI (in 2014, this was between $35K and $47K, or with a monthly maximum rent of between $875 and $1175); the building ought to be constructed to Platinum LEED standard or the equivalent; clear and safe pedestrian connections should be designed into the site plan - linking Liberty Plaza and Blake Transit Center.
I did not ask that the building be smaller. Please see my comments in the ZONING section, below.
There's a rumor floating around that the Y lot - which the City sold to Dennis Dahlmann in 2014 - is about to be developed. Mr. Dahlmann agreed to build a large, public plaza on the corner of 5th Ave. and William, and to not seek the maximum density for this site. He also agreed to give the City the right of first refusal (we could buy the land back) in the event he decided to sell before building. The rumor, however, is that a different developer is interested in building on this site, and that the property could be sold. If that occurs, the City retains some leverage - because of that right of first refusal - and will, I hope, use it to keep the density less than the maximum allowed on this site. (See the ZONING section, below.)
Several projects are in the ‘approval’ stage downtown, including a new residential building on Main near Madison (this one would demolish the building that currently houses By The Pound), a residential building aimed at student renters on Church and E. University (fronting on both streets, running through the block), and a residential building on E. Huron (between the Campus Inn and Sloan Plaza). Several property owners are thinking about developing additional buildings in the downtown – including on Main Street and South University.
Zoning (see below) allows buildings in D1 to be as tall as 180 feet, (on South University, 150 feet; on E. Huron, 120 feet); buildings may be no shorter than two stories. In most of D2, building height is capped at 60 feet (one parcel has a maximum height of 100 feet). Projects on privately-owned parcels that successfully meet all the requirements of the zoning and other ordinances are considered ‘by right’ and are generally approved. The opportunity to change a developer’s ideas about what to build is frequently early in the process rather than at the end. If you are concerned about the downtown and new development, I encourage you to remain involved in the process.
Zoning, Master Plans, and us
Development - what it means and what the tools in use by the City can be - seems always on my mind these days. Here is a simple set of explanations that I hope will be useful to others.
ZONING is a set of rules that control how privately-owned land can be used. For many, this means how close to the property line their neighbor can build, or how tall a building can be, or how many people can live or work in that building. Zoning controls the impact a neighbor can have on a neighbor.
Zoning is not imposed by some group of people on another group of helpless property owners. Changes in zoning require extensive public input opportunities, and must go through a significant public process - especially when the definition of an area, rather than a single lot, might change. Zoning changes are recommended by the Planning Commission, but must be approved by the City Council. Each body holds at least one public hearing on each zoning change - and sometimes, multiple public hearings are held before a decision is reached.
Once the zoning definitions are established, they become law. Whether I like the zoning definition - or I believe it ought to change - it remains the law until and unless it changes. If some developer proposes a project that fits the zoning, the City Council is significantly limited in its ability to reject or change the design.
Some development proposals are less restricted. When a developer asks for a change in the zoning on a property s/he owns, the Council can and may refuse to make a change. When a developer asks the City to annex property and then establish zoning, the Council can and may refuse to annex or refuse to establish the zoning requested by the developer. When a developer is seeking a zoning change or that zoning be established, Council as a whole or individual Council members may use the situation to leverage what they see as a better outcome for the community.
An exception to the private property discussion is, of course, when the property is owned by the public. As the owner of the property, the City can establish specific expectations and limitations on its future sale and use. In the case of the Old Y Lot, the City determined that the goal was to pay off the debt on the property; it sold to the highest bidder. Any other considerations - the size of a building, the location of a building, the use of a building - were secondary issues that did not enter into the sales discussion. In the case of the Library Lot, the City did not establish any restrictions as to use or size. It did make recommendations about possible uses, but stated throughout the process that this was a parcel zoned at D1, with a maximum height of 180 feet. All bids received were based on these particulars. Whether I agree with them, they are the terms of sale.
MASTER PLANS and other tools also help guide development and redevelopment. Some of these tools are:
Natural Features: The City’s Natural Features Master Plan (2004) makes a number of recommendations about natural features and development. However, like all master plans, those recommendations need not result in action. There are no ordinances that would prevent development on privately owned land. Current policies encourage the creation of green connections between neighborhoods and parks, and the establishment and preservation of natural areas, natural plant species, and natural wetlands.
The City’s natural features ordinance was last amended in 2006; right now, members of the natural features subcommittee of the Environmental Commission are working with staff to update the ordinance. This ordinance will not, of course, prevent development on privately owned land. It may affect where and under what circumstances new structures can be placed.
The City has had an expectation that a floodplain ordinance will be developed; right now, the City Council has not prioritized the development of such an ordinance, although both staff and planning commissioners have discussed the need to move this forward.
The City’s Master Plan (Land Use Element) is re-adopted every year, but it has not been refreshed since 2009, when a combined document was developed. The elements of this master plan were individually adopted (South Area Plan in 1990, the Central Area Plan in1992, West Area Plan in 1995, and the Northeast Area Plan in 2006) and – when combined – were evaluated for conflicting terms and concepts. Whether recommended uses and development intensities ought to be changed to reflect a new development landscape was not part of the process.
The City may budget to conduct a review of the Master Plan for the 2017 budget year. The City could also budget for a deeper, longer look, with the appointment of a Master Plan Study Committee, significantly dedicated staff time, and even an outside consultant to make certain all aspects of the Master Plan are reviewed.
This is my goal.
On the Agenda
City Council meets on Tuesday, February 16th at 7 pm. Planning Commission meets on Wednesday, February 17th at 7 pm in the Council Chambers.
There are several items on the agenda that require 8 affirmative votes. This is worth noting as at least two Council members will be absent.
As part of its adopted rules (December, 2015) the Council waived the budgetary ceiling for which items could be placed in the consent agenda. The expected outcome was that the Staff would not be required to remain until the early morning hours only to have the Council approve without comment or question an infrastructure item, and that Council meetings would be easier to complete in a timely manner – with a focus of Council attention on those items that are particularly important or controversial. These staff-sponsored items don’t deal with development; Council members also continue to introduce their own items on the agenda.
Ordinances take two readings – and a public hearing – before the Council votes. On the agenda is an ordinance amendment that changes a number of costs to individual property owners who add or change water services. It also makes changes to the way infrastructure improvement charges are calculated. This is a complex series of changes – I recommend those interested in the costs of development (both large-scale and individual new buildings) review before the public hearing. Because this isn’t a zoning item, it’s likely this ordinance will have a public hearing on March 7.
The City Council placed a high priority on developing an Allan Creek Greenway Master Plan, and allocated $200,000 toward this. On the agenda is a contract approval with SmithGroup-JJR to develop this master plan.
Several years ago, a developer began the process of designing a new subdivision off Pontiac Trail. Named NorthSky, this subdivision has undergone many changes – and still has not been started, except for some clearing of the land in 2007. On the agenda is an ordinance to amend the current zoning for this site (R4A), establishing it instead as three separate zoning districts (R1D & R1E as well as R4B).
If this ordinance change is approved at First Reading, the City Council will hold a public hearing and vote on both the revised site plan and the proposed ordinance change. Although the agenda is not yet set, these public hearings will not occur before the Council meeting on March 14.
The changes in zoning reduce the maximum number of dwelling units for this site by 20 units. The total number of proposed new homes is 195.
The City Administrator has recommended that the City appoint James Baird, the interim police chief, as the new police chief. If approved, Chief Baird would take his position on February 22.
The Council will consider a number of resolutions relating to the courts and the fire department.
There are resolutions to establish a service contract with Home of New Vision to provide mental health treatment services to defendants in the Mental Health Court and Veterans Treatment Court. There’s also a contract with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office to provide drug abuse screening services to the 15th District Court specialty court defendants.
The Council will consider approving funding for new training and equipment for the fire department: mobile tablets – which will help with coordinating and collecting data, RIT – rapid intervention crew training to rescue disoriented fire fighters, and SCBA (replacements for the supplied air breathing apparatus).
For many years, and with changing membership on Council, the Council has decided that it is unwilling to expand the capacity for planes at the Ann Arbor Airport – primarily by rejecting opportunities to lengthen the runway. Most recently, the Council has considered a resolution that would require City officials to work with Pittsfield Township to find a mutually acceptable solution to airport safety. This resolution has been repeatedly postponed. At the last Council working session, members of the Airport Advisory Commission presented their proposal for airport runway expansion again – this presentation is essentially unchanged since 2008.
While the City Council searches for a new city administrator, the City is confronting rapidly changing expectations. Recent contacts with prospective candidates indicate that the City needs to be a good deal more flexible with its salary range in order to attract the best possible candidates for this, our diverse, complicated, challenging community. On the agenda is a resolution to lift the salary ceiling for this position.
By now, you probably know that I consider historic preservation as a potential community benefit, and historic districts as a form of overlay zoning. It should not surprise you to learn that I was quite concerned when a pair of bills (SB720 and HB5232) were introduced into the State of Michigan legislature that would – if enacted as written – put all historic districts at risk. On the agenda is a resolution opposing these bills. Resolutions supporting similar positions have already been approved by several other communities across Michigan, and the Michigan Association of Planning and CEDAM (Community Economic Development Association of Michigan) have voiced their concerns about the economic and development impacts.
There are always other items on the agenda. If you have questions or concerns about any item, please let me know.
The Planning Commission will hold public hearings on two potentially interesting developments on March 1:
603 E. Huron (a 12-story, 124 unit apartment building between Sloan Plaza and the Campus Inn) and
Kingsley Condominiums (221 W. Kingsley), a 51-unit, 5 story building with covered and surface parking. Kingsley Condominiums requires a rezoning from M1 (limited industrial) to R4D (multi-family residential). This would be a planned project.
Both of these sites are in the First Ward.
The Ann Arbor Connector – an idea for a transportation system that would run from Plymouth and US23 to Briarwood – is back in discussion.
Wednesday, February 17
7 pm, Planning Commission
On the agenda is a public hearing and vote on a petition to recommend for Council approval a new subdivision near Arborland. This project – South Pond Village – has previously been to Planning Commission and to City Council. City Council decided to send it back to the Planning Commission when it asked for a different design for access – one that would allow a new street to be added to the project, with an entrance on Huron River Drive. The amount of damage this revised design would do to the wetlands and natural features is sufficiently significant that the City planning staff have recommended a rejection of the plan. If this plan is recommended for rejection, the developer could still bring the revised design to City Council; City Council would then vote on the revised design, not the original one.
It could get complicated.
Also on the agenda is a public hearing on an amendment to the Bais Jewish Resource Center (1335 Hill Street) and a public hearing on a special exception use for a proposed re-establishment of a church in a residentially zoned neighborhood ( Calvary Chapel at 3311 Nordman Road).
Thursday, February 18
The County Board of Commissioners will hold a special meeting to discuss 1,4 dioxane. Representatives from the State Attorney General’s office and MDEQ have been invited to speak, as have State Senator Rebekah Warren and State Representatives Zemke and Irwin. This meeting will be held at the County Commission meeting room at 220 N. Main.
Friday, February 19
5 pm, deadline for submitting an application to the Citizens’ Police, Fire and Courts Academy.
Citizens often wish they had a better way to voice concerns and ask questions about the public safety system. In turn, the Ann Arbor police and fire department staff and the 15th District Court members wish the public had a better understanding of the challenges facing police officers, firefighters, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys and judges. Now, all of these goals and more can be accomplished with the Ann Arbor Citizens' Police, Fire and Courts Academy, which provides an opportunity for citizens to learn about the public safety system.
First of its kind in the state of Michigan, the academy educates citizens about the public safety system and ways to avoid and prevent fire and crime. The academy also provides interpersonal communication between citizens, police officers, firefighters, attorneys and judges in the 15th District Court.
The Citizens' Police, Fire and Courts Academy is a 10-week program that will be held at the Ann Arbor police and fire departments, Washtenaw Community College and the 15th District Court. Classes take place weekly 6:30–9:30 p.m. on Tuesdays beginning March 8 and ending May 10, 2016. Topics will include: police, fire and 15th District Court organizational structure; K-9 unit; F.A.T.S. (fire arms training system); traffic stop scenarios; emergency management; National Incident Management Systems; fire behavior; personal protection equipment; fire safety and prevention; hazardous materials; technical rescue; the criminal justice system; court processes and court programs; and more.
For additional information about this program or to download an application (PDF), visit the City of Ann Arbor website at www.a2gov.org/police or contact PSS Amy Jones with the Ann Arbor Police Department at 734.794.6900, ext. 49340 / email@example.com. All applications are due by 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, 2016. A background review will be conducted on all applicants; applicants will be notified if accepted into the program.
Tuesday, Feb. 23
The City of Ann Arbor will hold a public meeting at Larcom City Hall, sixth floor conference room (301 E. Huron St.) to discuss creating a dog park at Broadway Park. In addition, a brief survey is available to gather input.
The City of Ann Arbor Natural Area Preservation (NAP) will be conducting controlled ecological burns in local natural areas between Feb. 29 and May 27. Burns are only conducted on weekdays between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., weather permitting. On the day of a controlled burn, signs will be posted around the park, and staff will be available onsite for questions. The fire will be under control at all times.
A Q & A and public meeting on controlled burns will be held Tuesday, Feb. 23, 7–8:30 p.m., at the Natural Area Preservation office, 3875 East Huron River Drive. If you are unable to attend and would like to learn more, contact NAP at 734.794.6627, email NAP@a2gov.org, or visit www.a2gov.org/NAPburn.
All persons are encouraged to participate in public meetings. Accommodations, including sign language interpreters, may be arranged by contacting the city clerk's office at 734.794.6140; via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org; or by written request addressed and mailed or delivered to: City Clerk's Office, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor, MI 48104. Requests need to be received at least two business days in advance of the meeting.
Where will we burn?
During the spring 2016 season, NAP has permits to burn at the following city-owned sites: Argo Nature Area, Bandemer Park, Barton Nature Area, Belize Park rain garden, Bird Hills Nature Area, Bluffs Nature Area, Briarcliff rain garden, Buhr Park wet meadows, Cedar Bend Nature Area, Dolph Nature Area, Glacier Highlands Park rain garden, Huron Hills Golf Course, Hunt Park rain garden, Kuebler Langford Nature Area, Marshall Nature Area, Miller Nature Area, Oakridge Nature Area, Olson Park, Ruthven Nature Area, Scarlett Mitchell Nature Area, South Pond Nature Area, Sugarbush Park and West Park.
Monday, February 29
City Council will hold a special working session on 1,4 dioxane. Invited to address the Council are representatives of the State Attorney General’s office, MDEQ, the County and City staff members who have been working on this issue, and our legislative contingent. The County will hold a similar public meeting on February 18 at 6:30 pm.
I read a lot – and most of the books I read are very dry and compelling only to a few of us. My reading list continues to grow, of course, but sometimes I need a break from the heavy stuff.
I’ve been reminded that it’s 100 years since the rising in Ireland (1916) that had such a large ripple effect. My few Irish ancestors left Ireland decades before the Irish Potato Famine, but a bit of history is always welcome. I’ve chosen to read a book about memory, family narrative, and the truth. A Woven Silence, Memory, History and Remembrance, by Felicity Hayes-McCoy.