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Planning Commission approves zoning ordinance after contentious public comment


Mount Pleasant residents attend the Mount Pleasant Planning Commission meeting on Oct. 19 in Mount Pleasant City Hall.

Mount Pleasant Planning Commission members looked stunned following a contentious two-hour-long public hearing regarding the city’s new zoning ordinance. 

Of the 38 people who spoke at the commission’s Oct. 19 meeting — only three were in favor of approving the plan. Despite objections from those in attendance, the commission voted 7-1 to recommend the ordinance to the City Commission. 

Commissioner Glen Irwin cast the only no vote. Commissioner Tim Driessnack recused himself due to his ownership of property he felt represented a conflict of interest. 

“I think it’s a little rich for people to say ‘this is crap, you should pull this and we need to get rid of it,’” said Commissioner William Dailey. “But I want to remain sensitive to a community that has obviously organized itself — a little late in the game, thank you.” 

The zoning ordinance was drafted over the past two years with a large amount of input from community members. However, plans to re-zone Lansing and Franklin streets and University Avenue from multiple-resident to single-family housing have started to receive pushback from some people in the area. 

With Thursday’s recommendation, the ordinance has reached the final phase of implementation — approval from the City Commission — which will have a public hearing on the issue Nov. 13.

Members of the Planning Commission were conflicted on how they should vote. 

Commissioner Michael Kostrzewa proposed a motion to amend the plan and keep the area north of campus a multiple-resident zone. The amendment failed in a tied 4-4 vote.

Ultimately, commissioners did agree to include a recommendation that the City Commission strongly look at the area north of campus before making its decision.

“This is a beautiful, wonderful, hard-worked-on document that has one major faux pas,” Kostrzewa said. “Person, after person, after person (who are) knowledgeable, professional and from every walk of life has told us we have a faux pas in this document and I want to fix it.” 

Many of those who spoke during the hearing were developers and realtors, noted Commissioner Lesley Hoenig, and they had plenty of time to give input. 

Commissioner Sue Horgan told the audience the new ordinance was not a secret and received plenty of advertising. She said she wished those in attendance had voiced their opinions sooner. 

“I loved everything you said, but there were plenty of groups that said equally compelling things about wanting to build their life in this town,” Horgan said. 

Someone in the crowd yelled back — “Where are they?” 

The public hearing

Spenser Robinson, the director of real estate at Central Michigan University's Department of Finance and Law, described himself as an objective observer. He clarified he did not speak on behalf of CMU or own property in the area.

Robinson said many parts of the ordinance would improve the city, preserve the area's character and bring opportunities for economic opportunity. However, he disagreed with the proposed changes to University Avenue and Franklin and Lansing streets. 

The changes would “undoubtedly reduce economic value” in the short term, Robinson said. He acknowledged zoning is not solely about taxes, but he felt the city’s vision for the area prioritized families over students. 

“I’ve long proposed that economic development programs designed to keep even a small percentage of students in the area would transform our region into one of Michigan’s most vibrant,” he said. “Right now, students can enjoy the character we have. If our long-term goal is economic vibrancy and we want students to stay, let’s let them enjoy that character as well.” 

Roger Fultz, a former Planning Commissioner and the landlord of 1000 S. University Ave., spoke about his frustration dealing with the city. He said he kept quiet when the city told him to pay for repaving his alleyway, improving his sidewalks and installing streetlights on his property.

“I can’t remain quiet anymore,” Fultz said. “What is happening is crazy. I bought that house for my retirement and now they’re making rules that could easily become punitive toward myself and other landlords. The word 'landlord' is not a swear word. (We’re) people who work hard.” 

Steve Stressman, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker Mount Pleasant Realty & Associates, has spoken candidly about his feelings toward various commissions in the past. He accused the planning and city commissions of already making their decisions and said the public hearings are a formality.

“It’s been interesting to learn how the sausage is being made,” Stressman said during public comment. “I suspect you all came here with a pre-acceptance. The City Commission has been counting on this, and has put a lot of time and money into this. You’re seeing the local community is starting to become aware of one of the best kept secrets in Mount Pleasant.”

One of the three supporters for the ordinance, Kristin LaLonde, is also running for a seat on the City Commission. She said the ordinance will open Mount Pleasant to a growth boom. 

Student on-campus living is going down, LaLonde said, because more students are taking classes online. She added no one will want to live in a boarding-style apartment when that population declines. 

“We really need to focus on diversifying our economic base and we need to make changes now if that’s going to happen," LaLonde said. “We can’t make changes when we’re absolutely forced to do it. We need to do it now to prepare for the future.” 

After the vote

Stressman said the decision-making process was deplorable and he is certain the City Commission will approve the ordinance without discussion. 

“They didn’t think they were going to hear that kind of response from the citizenry and they are shocked,” Stressman said. “As far as they’re concerned, there wasn’t supposed to be this much discussion. This was supposed to be an easy vote where they could punt it up to Mayor (Kathy) Ling and the ‘Ling dynasty.’” 

City Planner Jacob Kain said the meeting went as expected. 

“We anticipated there would be a lot of public interest and I’m glad to see that folks came out and gave their input,” Kain said. “We knew this would be a point of conversation. That area has been a point of conversation for decades. 

“I didn’t expect this to be an easy decision and it shouldn’t be. It’s a complicated issue and there are pros and cons to both approaches. The Planning Commission made the right choice to suggest this needs to be considered closely by the City Commission before they make their final decision.”