By BETH ALTENA
Sale of contaminated half-acre of city property included
Passionate, even tearful comments against approving a 51-unit condominium development were heard by Rockford Planning Commissioners on Thursday, March 26 before the board voted five to one to recommend Rockford City Council give the final go-ahead to the project. Developer Marcell Burger and two associates were present to answer questions
The public comment session was almost entirely taken up by residents of the stretch of Monroe between Courtland and Lewis streets, although several non-residents spoke, both for and against the development. City attorney Dick Wendt was present, along with City Manager Michael Young, Clerk Chris Bedford and commissioners Tammy Bergstrom, Cliff Hill, Chair Jim Scales, Tom Sturr, Dave Rasmussen and Jon Minor.
Young opened the meeting with a summary of the process of approving the Tamarack Run development, explaining what steps have been taken since the development plan was submitted to the city in October of 2014. He outlined the public meetings held since, including a two-and-a-half hour City Council meeting on February 9. Many of the same people who spoke at previous Council and Planning Commission meetings spoke at the Thursday meeting, voicing mostly the same objections to the development.
New to the discussion was an explanation of steps necessary to sell to the developer a parcel of property belonging to the City within the boundaries of the development. Young said a piece of land approximately 212 feet by 100 feet was identified as city land, although it has been used as part of the former inhabitant Burch Body Works for over 100 years.
The parcel, just under a half-acre, has been identified as including one of several contaminated areas on the entire seven-acre plat. As part of the development all contaminated lands will be removed and disposed of in an appropriate landfill at the developer’s expense. The Tamarack Run condominiums will occupy about half of the seven acres with wetlands on the other half being preserved.
Burger spoke before the public comment session began and told commissioners that more room for snow removal had been added to the project by adding more space between homes. He said more parking had been added in response to residents’ concerns about parking on Monroe Street and that the size of the individual units had all been slightly increased. Ranch home plans increased from 1,400 square feet to 1,888. The townhomes will be bigger, up from 1.100 square feet to 1,357 and the ????fc will be larger from 900 square feet to 1,018. He said interest in purchasing the properties has continued.
“I can tell you in the last two to eight weeks we’ve gotten a lot of calls from people who want to live here. He gave as an example a former Rockford resident who now lives in a northern Michigan home overlooking Sleeping Bear Dunes. “What I really want to do is come home to Rockford,” he said she told him.
Interested residents, Burger stated, are not just older people and not just empty nesters, but also people like a single mom who wants a safe place to live close to the school system.
Chair Jim Scales set the tone for the evening, admonishing people against repetitive remarks and asking for people to not jeer or heckle.
Robert Stegmeier was the first public commenter, and said he is against the development on the banks of Rum Creek. Not a resident of Monroe Street, Stegmeier warned against continuing a “degradation that began in our county in the 1800s with the timbering industry.” He said record floods of the Grand River would continue if we continue to build on the banks of creeks. He faulted the developer’s plan for rainwater control and suggested the former Burch Body Works be used as a botanical garden where school children can study native Michigan vegetation.
A resident whose home is across the street from the planned road through the development said she anticipated problems with traffic and people parking in front of her house. She also expressed concern about the ability of the sewer system to accommodate 51 more residential units. She stated that she is not opposed to the development but feels it should have fewer units.
The next speaker said he felt compelled to correct City Manager Michael Young about his understanding of the city’s Master Plan. He stated that unattached covered parking is forbidden and that the condominium project is not consistent with the character of Monroe Street and therefore does not meet the requirements of the Master Plan. He questioned the traffic study, and noted traffic on nearby streets was not included in the study. He also said land dedicated to the public as parks cannot be sold or transferred. Finally he thanked Chair Jim Scales for not watching his watch while speakers talked, instead letting them speak as long as they wanted. “That is a point of respect,” he told Scales.
Another speaker stated that the development undermines the small-town atmosphere of Rockford and does not preserve the integrity and character of a residential neighborhood. He called it “a good plan, but not for this location.”
The Rockford Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Linda Southwick spoke, noting she is a city resident but not on Monroe Street. She praised the development’s economic impact on the city. “I get calls five or six times a week from people who want to move here,” she stated. “This will be good for those people. I feel the developer and the city have done a good job with due diligence on this project.”
Jeff Lewis, the Rockford Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors President also spoke in favor of the development and noted he will soon be a near neighbor to the property. He said people in the 49341 zip code have a median income of $53,000 per year. Given the price of these homes are selling, the twenty percent people spend in disposable income on things like food will be about $700,000 annually, some of which will likely be spent in downtown Rockford.
He said the home he is purchasing on Main Street is 75 years old. “It used to have a rail road line behind it. Down the road there used to be a tannery. This seems to be a high value development by a respectable builder. I believe we have an opportunity to see continuing growth in the City of Rockford.”
Two more Monroe residents spoke against the development and a third brought up the historic value of the property the City would sell to the developer.
The next speaker said she felt morally the people in the audience should be allowed to make the decision about whether the development was approved. Another person, who identified herself as a realtor, questioned increasing the size of the units without raising the asking price. She said Rockford does need more housing but wondered about the design of the units in establishing the feel of a neighborhood community.
Another resident wondered if selling land designated as park would set a precedent. “Is the city going to sell me a half acre so I can develop it?” he asked.
A woman speaking with obvious emotion described the investment she and her husband put into their home, a new roof, landscaping and more and said the thought of the development made her sick to her stomach. “It’s unfathomable. We are going to change this neighborhood so drastically.”
A man identifying himself as an attorney representing some of the residents said the Planned Unit Development document was incomplete and had “a lot of blanks in it.” He said there are too many questions left unanswered and any approval of the project was premature. He stated that approval of the sale of city land would require a “super-majority” of city council to rezone the parcel.
Another emotional speaker stood, saying, “It is really difficult when you invest in your home and something comes along that wasn’t there when I moved in.” She ended by saying the whole situation just wasn’t fair. Several more people spoke against the project, including a man who said if the City Council’s duty was to do what residents wanted, then their choice was pretty clear. No other residents stood after Scales repeatedly asked if there were more comments and closed the public hearing.
Mark Miller from ? addressed concerns about snow removal in the development, assuring residents that snow from the development would not end up plowed onto Monroe Street. “It’s a street like any other street,” he said.
City Manager Michael Young addressed councilmembers and the audience about the history behind the half-acre in question. He said Burch Body Works used to generate energy from Rum Creek and built the millpond as a way to drain off water. The parcel in question was used by Burch Body Works and “clearly has never been enjoyed by the public.” He said it is significantly contaminated. “Now that we are aware that the city owns it, it is clearly a liability. We would need to remediate. It is a landlocked, contaminated, former industrial site.” He said he didn’t see sale of this parcel as setting a precedent unless there was another piece of land in the city with this exact background.
Commissioner Cliff Hill spoke, also addressing concerns about snow removal. “Snow goes where everyone’s snow goes. You deal with it.” He said the road will obviously have to be plowed for emergency access. “It doesn’t get pushed out into a city street. If there is too much you haul it away.”
Young spoke to residents who questioned the traffic study and noted the results are online at the city’s website, so hopefully everyone had a chance to review the data. He said the results show that at full build-out in a worse case scenario the development would add one car every two minutes.
Commissioner David Rasmussen reminded the audience that Lewis Street used to be the location of the school football field, and during games traffic was parked all over area streets. He said Burch Body Works has been unsightly for at least 20 years. “On that property something is going to happen,” he said. He identified other future sites in the city.
“On the former county garage something is going to happen, on the tannery something is going to happen, on the Colonial Motel property something is going to happen. It may not be in my lifetime but it’s going to happen. If you don’t like change I don’t know where to send you.” He said he remembers when on the intersection of Ten Mile and Northland Drive there was only a McDonald’s. “Is that change not good?”
He said the commission is tasked with looking at growth overall in the city. “I won’t sit here and tell you we are one-hundred percent right. It’s not an easy thing to sit on this side of the table.”
Commissioner Tammy Bergstrom stated, “I agree there’s change, but it doesn’t have to be this change.” She stated she believes a three-story building is out of character for the area. “People have suggested we make this a park. That’s not our choice. I don’t think the city has to sell property. I’m opposed to that.”
Cliff Hill noted there are other condominiums in the City of Rockford and the density at Tamarack Run is not high compared to those.
Young said he wanted to respond to the attorney’s accusation that there are blanks in the PUD. “One of those blanks is the date this is approved.” He said another blank was the number of phases the project will be built, which will be known prior to council approval. “I find nothing deficient or lacking in the PUD agreement.”
Rasmussen clarified that the city has sold property before. “The Promenade was city property. The land where Parkside Elementary and the Rockford Public School administration building and ballfield were city property.” He said the land where Independent Bank is located was owned by the Downtown Development Authority at one time.
Tom Sturr said he had questions about the character of the front façade of the ranch homes that would be visible on Monroe Street. Jim Scales agreed and suggested improvement to the look, perhaps shutters.
Jon Minor said he saw four big issues in this discussion. “Number one is the contamination. I’m happy to see it cleaned up.” The second was traffic, which he felt was adequately addressed. His third point was the issue of character. “As for charm I think it’s going to be great. From Monroe Street you will see two new, well-designed homes. You won’t see the three-story building from the street at all.”
He said he agreed with Bob Stegmeier that the stream needs to be protected and urged the developer to use rain gardens as much as possible.
Young addressed Minor’s comments and noted the developer radically changed original plans, which used concrete pipes to collect the rain water and direct it to Rum Creek, which is permitable and would have been approved by the Department of Environmental Quality. The current rainwater collection plan was the result of collaboration between three stormwater experts who consider the current plan very environmentally friendly.
Motions were made and approved to begin the process of removing the half-acre parcel from the city’s Master Plan as park. A 42-day comment period must take place before further action can take place. The commission also voted five to one with Bergstrom opposing, to recommend City Council approve the final development plan for the condominium project. Council meets the second Monday of every month at 7 p.m. at City Hall.