City delays vote on new housing project

May 28, 2010
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An ongoing dispute between a housing developer and the city of Grand Rapids may be settled this summer and without a second trip to Kent County Circuit Court.

City commissioners agreed last week to delay their decision on whether to grant G&C Land Co. LLC a second extension and two more years to build 44 single-family homes in the Chesapeake Hills Plat on the city’s northeast side between Plymouth and Maryland.

“This is an approved project and they could develop it today,” said Elizabeth Zeller, city planner.

There isn’t enough time, though, for G&C Land to finish the project before its deadline in October, as construction hasn’t begun. So the company requested a six-year extension to complete the project, due to the current economic conditions that are suffocating the housing market.

But City Attorney Catherine Mish said the city gave G&C Land a two-year extension in 2007, back when the firm had a year left on its original timeline. The extension runs out Oct. 17, and she said city commissioners weren’t required to award another one. Still, Mish suggested that commissioners offer the company another two-year extension.

Mayor George Heartwell and 2nd Ward Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss weren’t enthusiastic about doing that because the plat contains wetlands at one edge. Heartwell said the property is considered to be an environmentally sensitive area. He pointed out that eight of the proposed building lots are too close to the wetlands and are in violation of a city zoning regulation.

“I’m concerned about that. I’m prepared to go to litigation over wetlands,” said the mayor.

“I agree with the mayor and I have great faith in the city attorney. I want them to come back and preserve the wetland,” said Bliss.

But the zoning regulation that requires a building to be set 75 feet back from a wetland went into effect after the project was approved in 2006. Assistant City Attorney Margaret Bloemers said denying G&C Land an extension could result in a lawsuit against the city.

“I’m not saying that litigation is inevitable,” she said. “There is no limit on the number of extensions they can ask for.”

Greg Holwerda said G&C Land decided not to go forward with the development when the housing market collapsed and losing eight of the 44 lots would be financially detrimental to the project. “The wetlands were not ignored and were developed around,” he said. “The wetlands were not going to be destroyed or moved to create single-family homes.”

G&C Land took the city to Kent County Circuit Court after the city ruled in 2004 that the development couldn’t go forward as designed because the street layout did not provide suitable access and the city wanted the developer to build another access point. In 2006, the city approved the project after the access issue was resolved and the court case was dropped. “I’m satisfied, personally, with the traffic situation,” said Heartwell last week.

Zeller said G&C Land can develop the plat as initially agreed upon, and that agreement includes the eight lots near the wetlands. The development first came before the city’s Planning Commission in 2003.

First Ward Commissioner Walt Gutowski felt it might not be a good time for the city to take on litigation when Mish will be reducing her staff to cut $92,000 from her office’s personnel costs for the upcoming fiscal year. “I think we have a precedent here with developers winning,” he said. “I strongly suggest we heed our attorney and grant the extension.”

Heartwell suggested the commission delay its vote on the extension until early September to give Mish and Holwerda time to talk about altering the development’s design so the project can meet the zoning regulation on wetlands. Commissioners agreed to the delay, and Holwerda agreed to meet with Mish.

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