2014-05-17 / Letters

Let’s Not Repeat Downtown

Development Mistakes

To the Editor:

I was stunned when I read the Mackinac Island Town Crier’s report on Silver Birches recent developments. The developer is now asking for rezoning from its present low density residential use (R-1) to an exact opposite use. A very high density business use, hotel boarding house (HB) use. Apparently the developer is now asking for many more bedrooms, more occupants for an employee boarding house, and three separate family dwelling units. This change to high density commercial use is clearly not compatible with surrounding State Park and R-1 use.

Here is my analysis of the matter. The Planning Commission is the body primarily responsible for providing guidance for land use and development of the city. The Planning Commission makes recommendations to the City Council.

The Planning Commission has the following powers and responsibilities:

1. The safety and convenience of carriage, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic on city streets.

2. The satisfactory and harmonious relations between the development of the site and the existing and prospective development of the contiguous land in the surrounding neighborhood.

3. The adequacy of essential facilities and services such as water, electrical, sewer, drainage, and refuse disposal; and

4. The desirability and stability of the proposed developers’ project in order to ensure the contiguous property owners will not be unreasonably affected. The Planning Commission can also consider whether there is a need for the proposed development.

The city’s primary duty is to protect the public health, safety, and welfare of its residents and visitors. Although bicycle traffic is heavy in high season in front of Silver Birches, it is not as dangerous as downtown congestion. I don’t believe this is a valid reason to deny developer’s application.

The second standard (compatibility) alone is cause for denial. Pte. Aux Pins, so aptly named, on the north side of the island, is miles away from downtown. It is special, unique, quiet, peaceful, and beautiful. It has the sense and feeling of classic “up north” Mackinac Island. It is the exact opposite of the dense, loud, and congested hotel-centric downtown located on the south side of the Island. You can see a zillion stars at night and hear the water softly break against the pebbly shore. There are typically two or three loon families living off Pte. Aux Pins. These are the reasons why the neighboring property owners have the right to object to this non-residential use. Many of them are several generational property owners. The reason why they purchased their properties is the fact that there were no hotels located nearby, or any other businesses, for that matter. Further, if the Planning Commission recommended to the City Council approval of the hotel rezoning, this would constitute “spot rezoning.” “Spot rezoning” is prohibited under Michigan rezoning law.

The third standard should also be viewed as a negative. Our fragile, small 3.8-square-mile Island’s infrastructure is overburdened. Downtown has a large new hotel. Another hotel directly across Main Street is about to be built. It looks like the new owner of the Arnold dock head, not the city, is in control. There could be a third new hotel. It appears that all of the REUs are taken. We, the taxpayers, are going to have to pay for a costly major enlargement of our sewer facility capacity.

Hotels couldn’t exist without our residents’ tax dollars. We supply hotel guests with streets, police and fire protection, the medical center, electric, water, and sewer. Property owners of 100-year-plus-old historic homes, cottages, and buildings spend small fortunes to purchase and maintain their property. That’s what the hotel guests come to see. Thank goodness 83% of the Island is State Park. The State Park Commission has been true, steady stewards of our heritage.

With respect to our limited REUs, I’ve never understood why they continue to be given to hotels. Why not single family residences?

The fourth standard also preempts the requested zoning change to hotel use. The Planning Commission should also consider whether there is a need for the proposed development. I claim the answer is no! We already have 11 hotels. Plus, we have a number of B and Bs. If the Planning Commission says “yes,” it should be located in an area with other hotels and B and Bs.

Apparently if the zoning change is made, the historic buildings can be torn down. According to the Town Crier, the developer reports, incredibly, that this drastic change was not the developer’s idea.

The suggested change was made by a Planning Commissioner’s suggestion that the developer should try for “conditional rezoning” as a way to mitigate potential public concern. Planning Commission members (if this is really true) should never provide any assurances or inferences to developers prior to a final vote by the Planning Commission and a final vote on the issue by the City Council.

The developer now states that the reason for rezoning is that the developer is going to lose money on the developer’s investment unless the city (and therefore its taxpayers) rescues the developer from the developer’s purchase of the property, or bad investment. This is not a valid reason for rezoning. Indeed, developers who wish to seek rezoning always provide in their purchase agreement with the seller that a precondition to the developer’s purchase is contingent upon the city’ approval of the developer’s requested zoning change.

Let’s not replicate downtown’s zoning fiasco at Pte. Aux Pins and then blame the developer. How naïve we were to delay for years the establishment of the downtown Historic Development District. Developers are developers. They are in the business of making money. It’s their job to maximize every inch of the project site. The downtown developer was just more sophisticated and smarter. Everything he did appears to be legal. His acquisition of the Arnold dockhead was brilliant. Am I upset? Yes. I’m really upset that the city (therefore the taxpayers) are going to have to apparently: (1) pay a $250,000 plus annual CPI factor fee to access the Arnold dock; (2) go into the business of buying and owning the Coal dock. Let’s not make the same mistakes on the north side of the Island. Let’s be better stewards of our heritage, unique character, and tradition.

John J. Davey,
East Bluff

Editor’s Note: Silver Birches owner Liz Ware has said she intends to preserve the historic buildings properties before embarking on any additional development. Conditional rezoning provides a conduit for the buildings to be saved, while a change to unrestricted commercial zoning would not protect the structures.

When Ms. Ware approached the Planning Commission in late 2012 and early 2013 to rezone the property, commissioners explained the conditional rezoning process, which was added to the zoning ordinance last fall. Commissioners suggested that a conditional rezoning request might be better received by the public, but never said the request would be approved. The commission did not encourage Ms. Ware to develop the property.

The Planning Commission can only make recommendations to the Zoning Board of Appeals (the City Council), which has final decision-making authority.

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