Delta County may pass zoning to townships

ESCANABA — Representatives from Delta County’s townships were in Escanaba Monday morning to discuss a proposal to eliminate the county’s zoning ordinance and pass the responsibilities and costs of zoning and code enforcement to the townships.

Zoning in Delta County was instituted in 1976, and a handful of townships decided at that time to institute and manage their own zoning ordinances and planning commissions, with some launching their zoning programs the same year. However, any community that did not implement its own zoning was automatically under the county’s auspice, and the majority of the county’s communities are still zoned by the county itself.

The county’s zoning ordinance lays out how properties can be used, sets zone-specific building requirements, and outlines restrictions for developments that could be considered nuisances or environmental hazards, such as wind farms, commercial dog kennels, and gas stations. If the ordinance were to be repealed, communities now under the county’s rules would have to develop their own zoning or accept that development would happen organically and without any protection for residents against the actions of their neighbors.

“Your question is can anybody do anything they want within that jurisdiction, and I’d agree, yes they can. They can also do it right on the border of a township that is being zoned. So your townships that you’ve got that are zoned right now? I could put a building right on your property line. And that … zoning that you have (that says), say, a 50-foot setback, is tough. It’s out of luck. So our non-zoning could affect your zoning,” said Gregory Stevenson, Baldwin Township supervisor.

County Commissioner Bob Barron, who with Commissioner David Moyle spearheaded the look into abandoning the county’s zoning ordinance, held a more positive perspective on the lack of government interference in development and land use issues.

“I think the best use for a property should be determined by the property owner,” said Barron, who described abandoning the ordinance as a “referendum” on zoning for township residents.

Currently, ten townships receive both their building and zoning permits through the county: Baldwin, Bay de Noc, Brampton, Cornell, Ensign, Fairbanks, Garden, Maple Ridge, Nahma and Wells. The remaining townships, Escanaba, Gladstone and the Village of Garden all maintain their own zoning and operate their own planning commissions. Those communities will soon be joined by Garden Township, which has indicated it intends to start managing its own zoning, regardless of the county’s decision.

Two major issues are behind both the county’s interest in abandoning planning and zoning and the townships’ concerns about taking it up themselves: enforcement and cost.

County commissioners focused primarily on the issue of enforcement, claiming it was costly and difficult to enforce zoning violations. The usual process of enforcing zoning is to notify a property owner of the violation and then, through circuit court, impose a fine for the infraction. If the fine is upheld by the court, the property owner either pays the fine or a lean is placed against their property.

The process can be time consuming, expensive and is not guaranteed to work out in the zoning authority’s favor. At the same time, if a zoning authority does not enforce its ordinance — or does not enforce it universally and without prejudice — property owners can sue on the grounds that the authority is violating the property owners’ 14th Amendment right to equal protection.

Township supervisors in attendance Monday were concerned not just with the potential legal costs of zoning enforcement and lawsuits, but with the cost of implementing zoning in the first place. Ryan Soucy, a senior planner with the Central Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Regional Commission (CUPPAD) estimated a new zoning ordinance would cost each community between $20,000 and $30,000 plus any legal fees, as CUPPAD does not offer legal services.

As it stands, townships under county zoning are paying 75 cents per capita for the service — a number that both county officials and township supervisors admitted was too low — but offering zoning has not been a financial burden for the county. When building and zoning permits paid for by residents are figured into the equation, the county roughly breaks even any given year managing zoning.

Multiple township supervisors asked for hard numbers on what kind of financial burden they would face to implement zoning in their communities, but the county did not have that information available Monday. It was noted that a full-time zoning enforcement officer would cost somewhere between $80,000 and $90,000 annually when benefits are considered. Rough estimates of the county’s current cost to provide zoning for all of the affected townships is about $120,000.

No decisions were made on whether or not zoning should be abandoned, but county commissioners indicated the process would take about a year to complete if it decided to move forward.

“There was some thought that went into this. It wasn’t anything knee-jerk, and it’s certainly not anything we’re speeding towards a conclusion on. Input is extremely important,” said Moyle.


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