2012-12-15 / Top News

Island Faces Another Sewer Moratorium as Capacity Dwindles

Historic Districts Back on Table

Two issues smoldering for some time on Mackinac Island will see some light next Wednesday, December 19, when the city council entertains a new moratorium for sewer hook-ups and moves closer to a vote on two downtown historic districts. To address the sewer problem, Mayor Margaret Doud has appointed an emergency committee of all members of the city council and board of public works and some members of the city’s planning commission to plan a new strategy for rationing new construction.

“We need to meet ASAP,” she said at the city council meeting Wednesday, December 12.

City attorney Tom Evashevski was asked to return in a week with two resolutions to quell the drain on rationed sewer service, one that will stop only the allocation of the dwindling supply of REUs (residential equivalent units) and one that would stop all zoning and planning reviews for any project needing new REUs. He was also asked to bring to that meeting his legal review of the two downtown historic districts that a special committee has recommended the city adopt.

The council is meeting two weeks in a row, instead of every other week, to accommodate the December holiday season.

Sewage Treatment Capacity

Mackinac Island’s sewerage problem stems from the city’s reluctance to expand its wastewater treatment facility, primarily because residents have said they want to limit the commercial growth on the Island. But the plant is nearing its capacity, and the number of REUs available could run out in three or four years.

An REU is a unit of wastewater treatment capacity, defined by the city as 5,000 gallons a month, or the average water use of a single-family home. Applied to restaurants, it equals 250 square feet of space, and one REU can accommodate 2.8 hotel rooms.

A spike in new commercial development in the downtown area this fall, with one new hotel due to open next summer and three more ready to go in the fall of 2013, plus expansion of other businesses that are in the works, is eating the treatment plant’s capacity. If all projects are able to get the required REUs, only about six REUs would be left.

The latest discussion of the problem began at a meeting of the Mackinac Island Board of Public Works (BPW) Friday, November 30, and the BPW sent Public Works Director Bruce Zimmerman to the planning commission’s Tuesday, December 11, meeting with their latest analysis of demand. The planning commission, in turn, recommended to the city council that it address not only the near-capacity of the plant, but an apparent lack of protection for new home construction.

In 2009, the BPW set aside 150 REUs for undeveloped subdivision lots at Stonebrook, Forrest Brook, Trillium Heights, the Stonecliffe subdivisions, and Edgewood. It also set aside 10 REUs for public use, leaving 70 REUs for new residential construction outside the subdivisions and for all commercial development. To prolong the capacity of the plant, the board also reduced the number of REUs it would ration each year, from 15 to 10, with two of those reserved for residential use.

REUs are earmarked for a project once it receives zoning approval by the building department, on a first-come, firstserved basis, and the building department reviews plans also on a first-come basis. But with only eight commercial REUs handed out each year, a hotel that needs more than eight REUs may not get them all in one year. Construction can commence and water and sewer can be installed without all REUs in hand, but there can be no occupancy until all needed REUs are allocated.

At both the planning commission and city council meetings, Mr. Zimmerman mapped out the anticipated commercial demand for the remaining 36.398 REUs that are not allocated to the subdivisions, listing six projects that will take all but 5.636 of the capacity. Two of the six projects are already underway, the Bicycle Street Inn and its restaurant, and the remaining REUs they will need in 2013 (5.318) are committed, Mr. Zimmerman said. A third project, the Bicycle Inn across the street, has been told it can have 4.550 REUs over the next two years, but that project has not been started. On deck are Mr. B’s Restaurant expansion (3.5 REUs slated for allocation in 2014), Lilac Tree Hotel expansion over the old Orpheum Theatre (4.9 REUs earmarked for distribution in 2014 and 2015), the Benser and Nephew bed and breakfast on Market Street (4.19 REUs slated for 2015), and the Main Dock Inn at the Arnold Dock (8.304 REUs scheduled for 2015 and 2016).

None of these REUs are in the hands of the developers, but, under the first-come process, they are first in line at the beginning of each year to purchase the number they have been allotted, until the eight are rationed.

Discussed at the BPW meeting but not on the list presented to the council are two other projects. Grand Hotel’s conversion of its flower shop to an ice cream parlor may be able to use REU capacity that it removed by tearing down much of its old stable. Like with all other projects, this is allowable, the DPW has said, if the REUs are transferred from the same property and are used within 12 months. Also, the city is discussing construction of two new efficiency apartments on the second floor of the Medical Center, to be used for visiting staff, and these may be able to be taken from the 10 REUs reserved for “public use,” depending on the definition of public use.

Not all of the projects have been submitted, and some are in the process of architectural review, but city council members noted that a moratorium for six months, as proposed by Mayor Doud, could still allow projects to get underway next fall. That might depend, however, on whether developers can get their plans approved without getting a commitment for an REU from the city.

City attorney Tom Evashevski suggested the process could be allowed to continue, as it has since 2008, except for the commitment of REUs, as it has, with the understanding that REUs might not be available. Planning Commissioner Mary Dufina and City Councilwoman Anneke Myers, however, said that ensuring that utility services are available to a project is a requirement that needs to be met before zoning and plans can be approved.

So Mr. Evashevski was asked to bring back legislation to cover both suggestions, presumably, with the legal background to support either.

Of most concern to the city council is the disappearance of residential REUs from the tally. Mr. Zimmerman said that the two available residential REUs, if not needed, are rolled back into the general total and, thus, become available the next year for commercial.

Few homes have been built outside the earmarked subdivisions, and, in fact, only seven in the last five years.

But Mayor Doud said rolling residential credits back into the mix wasn’t the intent of the city.

“The intent was to encourage single families” to build homes here, she said.

Kay Hoppenrath, who was a council member when the REU distribution policies were discussed, said the city council stipulated the residential REUs would not be rolled back into the pot. She suggested that part of the discussion about a moratorium include ideas about how to promote better communication between city departments.

Councilman Armin Porter said he thinks the city needs to prepare, also, for septic system failures in Harrisonville.

Outside the earmarked subdivisions, there are plenty of buildable residential lots, including Harrisonville and the Annex, which mostly rely on septic systems, the Woodbluff subdivision, and cottages on state park land, which, according to Mr. Zimmerman, don’t always apply for REUs, anyway, another problem to be addressed.

He was asked to inventory all potential residential construction sites, including those now on septic, for the next meeting.

“I’m not comfortable with the way we’re dealing with residential,” said Mrs. Myers, who asked that the council implement an immediate moratorium to stop the drain of residential REUs, and Councilman Dan Musser III added, “I tend to agree with Anneke and should strongly consider a moratorium.”

Councilman Sam Barnwell suggested the city first get a legal opinion as to whether such action might trigger legal action from developers who already have their site plans submitted and are expecting REUs, and Mr. Evashevski said he needed some time to review the matter.

Mayor Doud gave him a week, adding, “I think we’ve got a crisis with REUs.”

Developer Ira Green noted that his REUs for his projects “have been promised, in the sense that you had a system of expectations.”

Mrs. Myers characterized the process as issuing REUs as gentlemen’s agreements, but said that with so few REUs left, the city could not stand on such a system.

At the BPW meeting, Chairman Steve Moskwa said he believes the motivation for so much building activity now is a fear of anticipated historic districts and concern that demolition of existing buildings will not be allowed, among other restrictions. At the council meeting, Council member Jason St. Onge echoed the sentiment.

Of the proposed projects, about six existing buildings will be demolished.

Historic Districts

Discussion of the two pending historic districts, one encompassing Main and Market streets and the other on Cadotte and the lake shore to the school, was stimulated by Mrs. Myers, who asked why the council was not moving forward on a study committee recommendation to adopt them.

She said she was prepared to introduce a motion at the next meeting to adopt them, but Mr. Barnwell cautioned that a premature vote could lead to defeat, and that would require that the city begin the tedious process all over again. He said he still has questions about the proposal that he is seeking to answer.

Mr. St. Onge said a public hearing is required before a vote, anyway.

Mr. Evashevski told Mayor Doud that his research on legal questions concerning the matter is done, and he was directed by her to bring them to the next meeting.

“Then we can move forward on it,” Mr. Musser said.

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