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Apartment complex plan moves forward in split vote

ESCANABA — Despite reservations from some members of the Escanaba Planning Commission, the commission voted to move forward with a planned apartment complex development on North 26th Street in Escanaba.

The Bay de Noc Apartments would be a four-story, 70 unit complex located at 500 N. 26th St., north of Aldi and adjacent to Walmart’s southeast retaining pond. Currently, the location is zoned F – Light Manufacturing, but the city’s master plan has identified the area for future big box retail.

“I’m usually not that guy, but I’m kind of the stick in the mud here, where this does not fit this commercial district considering the big box store nature of the surrounding properties,” said Planning Commission Vice Chair James Hellerman.

In an effort to avoid spot zoning — the practice of zoning a single parcel differently than the surrounding parcels, which can be illegal in some circumstances — the planning commission is considering rezoning the property as C-2 – Residential Planned Unit Development. This ties the zoning to the specific development, meaning if the project fails to come to fruition, the property will remain a light manufacturing district.

Whether or not using the C-2 zoning would avoid the pitfalls of spot zoning was unknown Thursday, and multiple commissioners raised their concerns over the zoning designation.

“I’m going to say this, ‘a rose by any other name still smells as sweet,’ spot zoning by any other name, it still is,” said Commissioner Stephen Davis. “If it wasn’t for the spot zoning, because if anybody looks at this — I don’t care what you call it, that’s what it is — what happens?”

Planning and Zoning Administrator Roxanne Spencer noted if the zoning were to be challenged, it would go through the court system. However, it was noted there were no responses to the required notification of neighboring property owners to indicate those property owners objected to the proposal.

“Nobody’s sent any letters, nobody’s had any phone calls; nobody’s made any comments this evening,” said Spencer.

In order to ensure all aspects of a Residential Planned Unit Development district work for the specific project, the process to approve a C-2 district is significantly more complicated than simply rezoning a parcel to multifamily residential or another standard zoning district designation. The project must come before the planning commission two times for public hearings before being sent to the city council to approve rezoning the land to C-2. If that happens, the project is then sent back to the planning commission for a final site plan review. The city council then has one more chance to review the entire project. If at that time the council approves the project, the C-2 zoning takes effect and the development can move forward.

Only developer Craig Patterson, senior vice president of Woda Cooper Companies, Inc., took to the podium during the first public hearing on whether or not the city should move forward with the proposed development that challenges all previous ideas about the land’s future.

“The question that you ponder tonight is whether or not it should stay the way it is per the master plan or whether or not there’s a greater opportunity under the proposed change to get families closer to the entrepenures who have established the workplace, to allow those hard working families and singles and possibly seniors — it’s open to all — the ability to walk to work instead of drive to work, and to be the first probably to put some sidewalks in the area, to stimulate something that could be continued in the future,” said Patterson.

Ultimately, the commission voted to approve the concept of the development and rezoning so the project could move forward in a split vote with Hellerman and Planning Commission Secretary Craig Gierke voting against the measure.

Two other issues related to the planned apartment complex were also addressed by the commission Thursday. The board approved recommending an ordinance amendment to the city council that would change the maximum height of buildings in C-2 districts to 50 feet. The change brings the height in line with other zoning designations and allows Woda Cooper to construct a four-story complex instead of a three-story complex.

The commission also exercised its discretion to allow a greater residential density than typically allowed by the zoning. The change was approved based on the commission’s assessment that the plan was “extraordinary” in its design and compatibility with style of existing local structures.

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