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Escanaba boards defend continuing public hearings

ESCANABA — Members of four Escanaba city boards gathered Thursday to weigh the city’s continued status as a certified Redevelopment Ready Community despite a controversial recommendation that could lead to less public participation.

Escanaba has been RRC certified since 2017, when the city became the 10th community in the state and the first in the Upper Peninsula to earn the distinction. As an RRC city, Escanaba has access to a variety of free assistance and tools through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and is branded a friendly location for developers.

Certifications last three years, and the city has been in the early stages of recertifying for some time. However, boards have balked at a best practices recommendation by MEDC to eliminate required public hearings for permitted uses.

The recommendation primarily applies to the planning commission, which reviews site plans for future developments. MEDC argues the hearings are not legally required and can add costs, time, and uncertainty for projects that legally must be approved. The Escanaba Planning Commission, however, sees the hearings as important for encouraging public participation and addressing the concerns of citizens.

“The concern is, we are a small community and we are a tight-knit community, and people really would like to be participatory when they can be, and public hearings are really the only place that they can do that. Often times there are no community events around development. Their voice happens during public hearings,” said Planning Commission Board Chair Chris Williams.

Williams noted, unlike in large communities where hundreds of people may come to speak, public hearings in Escanaba typically don’t last long and they rarely lead to major changes.

However, changes have occurred as a result of these meetings. Paul Caswell, deputy secretary for the planning commission, noted how the hearings helped ease tensions when a local church began the development process for a new gymnasium.

“There were a number of concerns by the neighbors on issues. They got to voice their interests, the developer was able to explain things; we were able to come to an agreement between these folks on minor changes. It made the water very calm. People understood what they were doing, misconceptions were, in fact, eliminated. That’s why we feel so strongly that public hearings are so important in this vein and we would like to keep them,” he said.

Despite multiple people taking to the podium to express their support of the hearings, MEDC still had concerns.

“What gives us heartburn, to be completely honest, is when it occurs,” said Christopher Germain, senior RRC planner at MEDC, who appeared at the meeting via Skype. “So, having it occur at a meeting where theoretically, if they meet the zoning code, even if people are unhappy and angry about it we’re supposed to approve it.”

Historically, it has been the practice of Escanaba boards to hold a public hearing immediately prior to board discussion and adoption or denial of an action item, such as approving a site plan. Germain noted MEDC may be open to the hearings if they are held at a different point in the development process and don’t affect the legally required outcome. He also requested the city put their arguments for the hearings in writing and submit them to MEDC.

“We’ve pushed back pretty hard on other communities on it, to be honest, but I talked to the team and we’re willing to hear your argument in your case, and I think you certainly have some valid points to be made,” said Germain.

Despite multiple people speaking against the elimination of the hearings, no member from any of the groups present — which included the city council, planning commission, downtown development authority, historic district commission, and administrative staff — spoke against being recertified.

“The time and effort spent on this we will get back much more than what we contribute to fulfill these requirements,” said DDA Director Ed Legault.

Ultimately, the decision whether or not to continue pursuing recertification will be up to the city council.

“Council will review all the input we’ve heard today, especially from the MEDC. A decision will be made shortly,” said Mayor Marc Tall at the close of the meeting.

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