Lot-size variance in two developments linked to action on Town Square Village PUD
by BETH ALTENA
The Cannon Township Planning Commission approved a recommendation to the regular Board of Trustees to approve an unusual proposal regarding three bankrupt developments in the township. Mr. Scott, of Pendulum Real Estate, owns two developments in the township that had gone into bankruptcy, Hidden Canyon and Settler’s Grove. He proposed approval of reducing lot size requirements from two acres to 1.8 and 1.9 acres to allow additional homes to be added to the developments.
Township Supervisor Steve Grimm suggested that the township would only approve changes required for lot sizes if it was in the best interest of the township and suggested extra consideration might be given if development of the Town Square/Village PUD at Meyers Lake Road and Belding Road be part of the equation. The Township Board of Trustees, split 4-3 over agreeing to the proposal, voted unanimously to send the issue to the Planning Commission for consideration and their recommendation. That meeting took place Tuesday, February 12.
In the meeting that stretched from 6 to nearly 11 p.m., residents expressed clearly opposing opinions about how the board should act regarding the issue of trading lot size requirements in two separate developments for purchase and development in a third development.
Commissioner Mike Warmbier began the evening’s discussion by explaining that the board had three issues before them to consider, one a Planned Unit Development (PUD) ordinance amendment and two other requests for Open Space PUD amendments that were very similar. He asked Township Planner Paul LeBlanc to describe the first item of consideration.
“The purpose of the proposed amendment is to identify projects that would have specific public benefits by tying them to changes in a different PUD,” he stated. He said economic difficulties have affected development in the township and there have been several developments that have done “virtually nothing” to the extent that the developers have had to come to the Commission and ask for timeline extensions.
The proposed changes in zoning would be limited to developments that were approved prior to December 31, 2007 where all improvements and infrastructure have been completed, yet development of the properties is at less than 30 percent. He said a condition of qualifying for the amendment would be that changes in one PUD be tied to changes in a different PUD within the township.
Township Engineer Chad Sosnowski was asked if the two developments where additional homes were being proposed could support the proposed increased homes. “The questions on how many homes for a development depend on a lot of different factors,” he answered. He said the density of septic systems, soil type and other questions apply, but he said he often recommends at least one half to one acre per home to safely accommodate a septic system. “The safest is sanitary sewer, but we don’t have that option available here,” he said.
Township Attorney Jim Scales said that the proposal would set up a multi-step process that is specific. It would be applicable only to developments that were started more than five years ago, be less than 30-percent occupied, have infrastructure completed and still maintain at least 40 percent green space within the development. Finally, the option would only be available if any proposed changes “further a significant goal of the township.” The proposed changes also have to be in accordance with the Master Plan, the Trail Plan and the Utility Plan.
Part of the agreement is that the builder cannot take any action on the approved additional home sites until there is significant action on the Town Square/Village PUD. If that deal falls through or the land continues to be vacant with the exception of the Ric’s store, the additional homes cannot be built.
Resident George Thomas stood to say he completely approves any plans that further development within the township. “I support this 110 percent. I also wish we had a Wendy’s in the township. We need not be so conservative, we need to grow.”
Andy Woodrick, owner of the Ric’s Food Center chain said he supports Mr. Scott in moving the [Town Square/Village] development forward and said the development could be a strong asset for the township and could flourish. “I do think it needs help.” Woodrick said he opened the Rockford Ric’s with the understanding it would be part of a mixed use development. He said it is an ongoing struggle to field complaints about the empty development despite the fact that he doesn’t own it. He said the empty property also fuels rumors that Ric’s is doing poorly.
“Next week is our five year anniversary,” he stated. “We have 42 employees, we are committed to our customers, committed to Cannon Township. Last week we bought the building, so we are definitely here to stay.” He also pointed out that additional properties will add to the township’s tax base.
Adam Gee, who lives in one of the developments where more homes are proposed, is against the concept of taking a separate development into consideration when deliberating changes. “You are basically saying, ‘If you do this, we will do that.’ Why tie another PUD into that? It doesn’t make sense?”
The next resident to speak noted that he was a steady customer at Ric’s. “Hypothetically what we are looking at is change, a relatively small amount of density to help a really large property we all want to see developed. To the extent that we can do something to assist Ric’s we ought to do it. It won’t have a significant impact on anyone else in the township.”
Another resident spoke, saying the people in the Settler’s Grove PUD would be negatively impacted, and said the Township should find another way to get what it wants.
Kevin Barker stood, saying he is all for the Ric’s development but said he is one of the residents that would be negatively affected. “I’m all against the Settler’s Grove changes,” he said. “I am also concerned with water issues. I’m asking you guys to protect the small people. Is he going to develop it better or worse? If he is adding seven houses, I’d say he is developing it worse.”
Commissioner Annamarie Bauer called the proposal “spot zoning” and said she heard that each additional home in the township adds ten trips a day on the township’s roads. She said people were asking where the benefit to the township is in tying two developments to a third development. “When we talk about adding density to specific places, isn’t that by definition spot zoning?”
LeBlanc countered that the density changes—from two acres minimum to 1.8 and 1.9 acres—was not significant change. He said the public benefit would be the added tax base, avoiding blight of failed, empty developments and avoiding abandoned properties. He said encouraging growth in the developments also protects neighbors to the properties.
Scales said the two-acre minimum lot size is a guideline, not a zoning ordinance, and that spot zoning is changing the proposed use of a property. He said allowing the slightly smaller lot size would be within guidelines of the township.
Wambier said the unusual proposal is “a sign of the times.” “It seems like we need to jump start this and approving this is the first step,” he stated.
Bauer said the entire discussion has been “awkward” and she characterized the plans as poorly thought out. She moved to deny the application and was seconded by Dave Potter. The two stood alone in their opinion as the board voted 4-2 against the motion.
The audience and the Commission next heard from Pendulum owner Mr. Scott. “What we are trying to do is fix what is broken in Cannon Township,” he said. He said when a development is a failure, it is more risky to take on. “Banks don’t like to participate. They don’t like to risk capitol on something that is already a failure.”
“We are in unique times. We’ve got three developments with the potential to add 200 homes. We got only seven residents that live in those developments. We’ve got Ric’s that is in a development that was supposed to have commercial property and doesn’t. I have every reason to believe that this does not set a precedent because hopefully we will never again have three developments that are owned by one company. I don’t think it will ever happen again. I don’t think we’ll ever again have development after development fail. I know residents don’t like change but I would say the change happened when the development went bankrupt.
Bonnie Blackledge said she was concerned about the residents who are already living in the two developments and suggested Pendulum offer them some improvement in exchange for changes in the development plan, such as improving abandoned pocket parks, planting trees or adding other amenities.
After additional discussion, the commission members voted to recommend to the Cannon Township Board that they approve the agreement. Voting for the recommendation was Joe Berlin, Don Peterson, Bonnie Blackledge, Mike Warmbier and Richard Rice. Voting against the recommendation was Dave Potter and Annamarie Bauer. The Board of Trustees will consider the issue at the March 7 regular board meeting.