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Downtown zoning laws addressed during public hearing on master plan process

Editor’s Note: Paragraphs 13 and 14 of this story were updated at 11:13 p.m. on June 5.

Mount Pleasant’s Planning Commission held a public hearing to gain community input on the city’s draft of its master plan during its regular meeting on Thursday.

However, only one resident, Joe Olivieri, shared his concerns with the commission, and it had less to do with the plan than it did the zoning laws of downtown Mount Pleasant.

As the owner of multiple housing properties in the city through his company, Olivieri Management, his chief complaint was that the current city law regarding the allowed density, square footage and parking lot size of his properties prevented him from expanding and improving on them.

With the influx of newer rental housing developments being built elsewhere in the city, Olivieri was concerned that his properties on Main Street – largely fraternity and sorority housing – are becoming less competitive. He also worries about the needs of his tenants.

“If they’d like to expand their parking lots, they can’t,” Olivieri said of the dilemma facing him and other property owners. “If they’d like to give everyone their own bedroom and avoid the setbacks, they can’t. Obviously, since we’re talking about the master plan, this is something that should be addressed.”

Olivieri asked if the planning commission would consider a request to the City Commission – which is spearheading the master plan process – asking if the current zoning laws can be changed.

Namely, Olivieri mentioned the displacement of his student housing tenants.

“Some people might say, ‘well, good. Let’s keep it that way so they can’t improve on their property and maybe the’ll all leave,’” he said. “They’ve all been there a long time. They’re not going anywhere. They’re there because they want to be there, but they’re there because they have nowhere else to go.”

Although Olivieri’s request has much to do with the look, feel and operation of the houses down Main Street, changing the zoning law is not a process that can be addressed by the master plan process, said Mark Ranzenberger, a Central Michigan University journalism professor and member of the planning commission.

The master plan, Ranzenberger said, does call for Main Street to remain multi-family residences, and with restrictions on improving his property, it will force the city and planning commissions to deal with the “reality of Main and Washington streets – the heart of student housing – and how it transitions into single-family neighborhoods.”

“There is a process, a deeply involved one, that would permit Joe to improve his fraternity house,” he said. “I’m not sure the city wants to abandon that process entirely. It’s worked pretty well, I think, but it could be changed. How? We don’t know that yet.”

Shaun Holtgreive, CMU’s associate director of Residence Life, also serves on the planning commission. He asked Olivieri to draft questions regarding the zoning law so the commission could present those ideas to the city, along with their recommendations for the master plan.

The idea is to draft a proposal for Main Street and surrounding areas during their June 26 work session, which will specifically address the comments gathered from the public and the planning commission. Whether that proposal will be finished or take root during the work session is unclear, Ranzenberger said.

Commissioners acknowledged the need to make their recommendations soon, opting to tackle the master plan recommendations on July 10. Depending on the number of cases they’ll have on July 10, the group could have a separate special meeting at a later date.

Commissioner Allison Lents wondered if pushing the date back would put the planning board in a bind for time, adding that by pushing it off, they wouldn’t give it the attention it needed.

Holtgreive said the attention on the master plan revisions shouldn’t be an issue, and that he was optimistic commissioners could move through the process “quicker than we think.”

Ranzenberger made a motion to call the potential extra work session a “special meeting” to avoid any perceived breach in procedure.

“If we’re going to do this session outside one of our regular meetings, it is of course of extreme importance that when we do recommend approval of the master plan, it should be posted as a special meeting of the planning commission,” Ranzenberger said. “We don’t want someone coming back in six months from now saying ‘no, you didn’t do it right.’”

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