Council Debates Enforcement Versus “Forgiveness” Before Approving Frat’s Request
East Lansing’s City Council has approved a Special Use Permit application and Site Plan on June 22 to allow a fraternity to continue living in what had been a 13-unit apartment building at 128 Collingwood Dr.
The requests were approved on June 22 after Council members debated whether failure to follow the City’s zoning laws should result in enforcement, rejection of an after-the-fact application, or forgiveness once compliance is sought.
The motion to approve passed 4-1, with Council member Lisa Babcock voting no.
On May 12, the Planning Commission had unanimously recommended Council approve this request with a series of conditions that must be met, including the installation of bike racks for at least 28 bikes, trash and recycling containers established in accordance will local laws, and the purchase of eight parking permits in the City’s parking system. Council did include those conditions as part of the approval.
A Special Use Permit (SUP) is required by the City of East Lansing because the building is being used as a fraternity house by Alpha Sigma Phi. The frat established itself in the apartment building with a five-year lease without the necessary City approval in 2020. A different fraternity had previously rented out the apartment building until 2010.
The building management eliminated one apartment so that Alpha Sigma Phi would have a central gathering space. Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg asked about whether they had obtained a permit for this renovation, and Darcy Schmitt, Senior Planner for the City, said the process to approve that permit is underway.
Babcock, the only no vote, was concerned that the fraternity had functioned for the entire school year without the required SUP, following the violation notice issued in September of 2020 when the City had discovered the problem.
She said she believes it should be the property owners’ or developers’ responsibility to understand what local permits are required and to obtain them in advance of use. She referred to the building management as being connected to a billion-dollar, California-based corporation.
In response to Babcock, Mayor Aaron Stephens said these kinds of zoning-violation issues have also existed in the past, and said that he believes the goal should be, “as crappy as it sounds, forgiveness and compliance.”
City Manager George Lahanas agreed with Stephens that it was important to take into consideration that the applicants sought out the SUP to correct the violation.
Babcock argued in response that the City needs to find a better way to address violations and to be more alert.
“It doesn’t matter what organization is moving in. We have a history in the City of Special Use Permits being either not applied for or ignored or broken, and enforcement not happening,” Babcock said, alluding to what happened at Newman Lofts, a case in which she was also the lone dissenting vote. “Instead, we do forgiveness, which is fine, but we’re not necessarily getting compliance.”
Babcock indicated she is partly concerned about safety and having residences occupied without the proper inspections.
Gregg noted that there is nothing that prevents a fraternity from renting a whole building’s worth of apartments, but that the SUP system applies when the apartment is used for chapter gatherings and events related to the fraternity. Gregg said she does not see this as a great situation, but an approved permit does provide a sense of the necessary compliance.
Also discussed were issues of parking and noise.
Gregg acknowledged that there have been concerns about fraternity members parking in nearby private parking lots, including a nearby church’s parking lot, as was mentioned at a Planning Commission meeting. Gregg suggested that the established gathering space now in the building could result in many people visiting and needing parking.
Responding to this concern, Schmitt said the fraternity will be directly leasing spots to its members, and they were told extra parking is available on either Orchard Street or in a nearby public parking structure. The parking lot at the building provides parking for 30 cars and the frat will be required to lease at least 8 spots per year in the City’s parking system.
As for noise, Babcock recounted that members of the previous fraternity taunted and urinated on the property of a neighboring homeowner, and she said she is concerned the same behavior could occur. That homeowner built a makeshift wall along his property to keep the frat members out, and subsequently went to jail for 10 days for a zoning violation over the wall, after being prosecuted by former City Attorney Tom Yeadon.
“I think any of us being perfectly honest know that anytime you move a fraternity into your backyard, it’s gonna get noisy, it’s gonna get loud and it’s gonna interfere with your enjoyment of your home,” Babcock said.
The three-story apartment building, located in the Bailey Historic District, is on the east edge of central downtown and in an area that contains a mix of residential and non-residential properties, including single-family homes and apartment buildings.
The motion to approve the SUP request and site plan was made by Stephens and seconded by Gregg. Council members Dana Watson and Ron Bacon voted with Stephens and Gregg in favor.
To read other news out of East Lansing City Council on Tuesday, June 22, see Eli’s Andrew Graham’s report on Council’s final June meeting.