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Planning commission dominates Esky meeting

ESCANABA — The Escanaba Planning Commission was the major topic of discussion at Thursday night’s regular city council meeting, which was held virtually.

In addition to a presentation on the commission’s actions over the past year by Planning Commission Chair James Hellerman, the council introduced two potential ordinances put forward by the commission. Both ordinances will be readdressed at the March 18 city council meeting, at which time the public will be able to comment during public hearings and the council will vote whether or not to adopt the ordinances as presented.

The first ordinance offers a compromise for a long-standing dispute between the council and the commission over the role of public hearings for developments that would be permitted by right under the city’s zoning ordinance. By law, the planning commission cannot deny a use that is permitted under the zoning ordinance, but the commission has historically held public hearings as a way to get neighbors involved in the development process.

Planning commissioners have repeatedly argued both residents and developers benefit from the hearings by opening dialogue and allowing concerns from residents to be addressed early in a project. The council, however, has repeatedly pushed the commission to abolish the hearings based on recommendations from the Michigan Economic Development Commission, which manages the Redevelopment Ready Communities certification program. MEDC sees the hearings as a delay and an unnecessary obstacle for developers looking to bring projects to the city.

Ultimately, the planning commission did remove the hearing requirement, but the months-long discussion delayed the city’s ability to reapply for RRC status. In a first for the state, Escanaba voted to move back to the “engagement phase” of RRC certification, which is typically for communities seeking certification for the first time. The move gives the city access to some of the resources available through the program, but means the city cannot advertise itself to developers as RRC certified.

Despite the hearings being officially removed, the planning commission made it a goal to find a way to keep the community involvement they feared would disappear. The ordinance presented Thursday was written with that goal in mind and would require the planning commission to notify residents living within 300 feet of a proposed development.

“I’ve been listening in to the planning commission meetings and the long discussions about this issue. I think this an acceptable compromise and I’d like to keep this moving,” said Mayor Marc Tall.

Not all of the council members were on board with the ordinance, however. Council Member Ralph Blasier, who has been an outspoken critic of the public hearings, voted against considering Thursday’s meeting the first reading of the ordinance. The motion ultimately passed with the support of the rest of the council, allowing the ordinance to continue moving through the legal process towards possible adoption.

“I’m the liaison to that committee, and what I saw at the meetings were the majority of people were trying to replace the hearing with a hearing. This is slightly less than that, but it’s the same idea,” said Blasier of the ordinance.

Once concern raised by the council about the proposed ordinance was whether or not the notifications would unnecessarily delay developments from moving forward. While mailings do take time, Escanaba Zoning Administrator Roxanne Spencer assured the council it would take less time than meeting the legal requirements of posting a public hearing.

The second ordinance proposed makes adjustments to the city’s sign ordinance, particularly with regards to electronic signage that broadcasts a series of messages on LED panels. The new rules proposed Thursday would allow for signs to be located within 300 feet of residential areas — a concern for many of the signs located along the North Lincoln Road corridor — but limits the brightness of signs so as not to cause a nuisance.

The council also voted during the meeting to expand the influence of the city’s planning commission by approving Commissioner Mark Hannemann to serve as a liaison to the Delta County Planning Commission. The city’s planning commission had already voted to support Hannemann’s appointment to the role.

In other business, the council:

– Held the second of five planned public hearings seeking citizen input on the city’s budget. Only one resident spoke during the hearing, raising the question of whether or not a utility rate hike was on the horizon. The council did not respond to the question, as public hearings are not conversational forums and dialogue is discouraged for procedural reasons.

– Approved awarding the annual contract for line clearing and tree trimming services for the electric department to Bugle Contracting of Gladstone for an amount not to exceed $25,000. This is a budgeted item and the contract has been awarded to Bugle Contracting in past years.

– Approved an agreement with U.P. Engineers and Architects to perform the city’s next three bridge inspections. The inspections are budgeted items, but the agreement comes in underbudget at $7,200 for U.P. Engineers and Architects’s services.

– Postponed a discussion of a proposed long-term water contract to provide water services to a portion of Wells Township residents until the council can have a workshop on the city’s water rates for all of its consumers.

The city’s last contract for services with the township ran from 1991 to 2011 and has been expired ever since despite the city continuing to provide water to the township. Currently, township residents on city water pay double what city residents pay for both water usage and and the availability charge. The agreement put forth by the township would reduce the availability charge to be equal with city residents but continue the doubled water rate.

– Approved a service agreement between the city of Escanaba and Delta County to allow Escanaba Public Safety to access the county’s software server.

– Approved a $5,000 service agreement with the William Bonifas Fine Arts Center. The agreement, which is renewed annually, give the Bonifas the funds in exchange for a certain amount of guaranteed fine arts programming.

– Entered into closed session to discuss legal actions on two matters with the city’s attorney and the city’s human resources director and treasurer.

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