City to look at key development ordinance
Grand Rapids city commissioners are expected to make a decision next week on a setback provision that could have a profound effect on future developments in the city. They also are expected to decide next Tuesday if they should make a related zoning change to allow a restaurant to be built on East Beltline Avenue.
The issue before the commission is whether to alter a zoning ordinance that currently requires a 75-foot setback from wetlands, rivers, streams, stormwater detention and retention facilities, or other sensitive environmental areas that affect water quality and stormwater discharge rates.
The new proposal would keep the 75-foot setback in general, but would allow for a 50-foot setback if the Planning and the Environmental Protection Services departments approve a project. A setback could also be reduced to 25 feet if a project is approved by the Planning Commission as a Special Land Use development. A setback could even be reduced to zero feet when improvements are offered to public recreational sites when it’s determined that no environmental harm would be done.
Planning Director Suzanne Schulz told commissioners at their last meeting that the Planning Commission has fully vetted and supports the new ordinance, so a public hearing isn’t necessary. She also said the change would give developers some clarity on the setback issue because the new ordinance would treat all types of “water bodies” the same.
But Mayor George Heartwell said he wanted to hear from an independent agency that deals with environmental issues before the commission votes on amending the ordinance. City Manager Greg Sundstrom said his office would contact the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and ask the agency to have an expert at next week’s meeting to give an opinion on whether the commission should make the change.
Karie Schulanbarg represented WMEAC at the Planning Commission’s October meeting and told board members then that the agency opposed the proposal change, saying it wouldn’t protect water quality sufficiently and was weaker than the current ordinance.
“WMEAC was fundamentally opposed to this move,” said Heartwell. But Schulz said the group’s opposition was to an earlier version of the ordinance, which has gone through some language changes since then.
“We have some scary water issues,” said Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss. She said those issues arose from projects built before regulations were in place. Schulz said there weren’t any environmental regulations in the old ordinance; it wasn’t until 2007 that the city included those requirements in its zoning rules.
The commission also will decide whether to amend the ordinance that regulates developments for a mixed-use commercial center at Knapp’s Corner, at the southwest corner of Knapp Street and the East Beltline. Brann’s Sizzling Steaks and Sports Grille wants to put up a one-story, 7,900-square-foot building for a new restaurant and space for a retail tenant. One of the issues the commission will tackle is that the design has part of the building and a portion of the parking lot within 75 feet of a wetland, which violates the existing zoning ordinance.
A city stormwater engineer, however, reported proper procedures were used in the design process that mitigated negative effects to the wetland as much as possible. The Planning Commission approved the amendment in October and gave the project a Special Land Use designation. The Brann family, led by Johnny Brann Jr., needed approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals to go ahead with the project, but they asked the board to table their request until city commissioners vote on amending the setback ordinance.
Schulz said the Brann’s project has nothing to do with the request for an ordinance change.
The property on which the Branns want to build their restaurant is adjacent to the site the Fhalen family has set aside for a new Arnie’s Restaurant & Bakery, which also is partially within 75 feet of the wetland. The zoning board gave the Fhalens a variance for the wetland, and city commissioners approved the project in February.
“I appreciate the amount of modifications that were made,” said Bliss then of the flagship Arnie’s project. Bliss was speaking of the design changes that were made to ensure that the wetland wouldn’t be destroyed by construction, and any stormwater runoff would be properly managed. “We have a buffer around the wetlands to protect them,” Schulz said then.
Commissioner Walt Gutowski said the Branns took over a site the Planning Commission had wanted a new Hardee’s restaurant to occupy. “It’s hard to run a business,” said Gutowski, who owns and runs Swift Printing and Communications. He noted that the city shouldn’t pick winners and losers, meaning that every project should be treated the same and the Branns should get the same consideration the Fhalens received.
“I certainly understand that we don’t want to hold this project up and have it cost more,” said Commissioner Ruth Kelly of the project the Branns call Kitchen 67. “But, like the mayor, I’d like more information.”