More Forgiveness for Developers, Public Land Sale, and Food Truck “Baby Steps”: City Council’s Decisions This Week

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On Tuesday evening, Sept. 7, East Lansing’s City Council met for the first time since Shanna Draheim’s appointment to fill the seat vacated by former Mayor Aaron Stephens, churning through a straightforward but substantial agenda in about 80 minutes. 

Despite Council being back to full strength, one member was physically absent. Lisa Babcock attended the meeting virtually from a Meijer parking lot in Birch Run, Michigan, delayed in returning to East Lansing by the storms sweeping across the state. (The current state rules for meetings still allow elected officials and the public to attend remotely.)

Here’s what happened:

Council members Ron Bacon and Draheim objected to developers failing to follow an approved redevelopment plan with regard to a fence, but Council voted 5-0 to approve the change after-the-fact.

The matter in question involves a fence off Trowbridge Road behind the new SpringHill Suites, a hotel developed by the Boji Group, a Lansing-based real estate development firm. The fence is constructed of wood instead of the brick or concrete as specified in a condition attached to the Special Use Permit (SUP) for the site. 

Terri Fitzpatrick, who spoke for the Boji Group when the issue came before the Planning Commission in June, was present on Tuesday and explained the developer’s decision to Council. 

The neighboring property on the opposite side of the fence — Arbor Forest Apartments — has some manicured landscaping, Fitzpatrick said, and building a masonry wall with the necessary deep footing would have destroyed that landscaping. Arbor Forest objected to disturbing this landscaping, Fitzpatrick said. In an effort to resolve the problem, the Boji Group opted to defy the condition on the SUP and construct a wood fence like the one that had previously existed there. 

The Planning Commission voted at their July meeting to recommend that Council change the condition and allow the wood fence to remain. On Tuesday, City Council did approve the change to the condition via a unanimous vote, but not before Bacon and Draheim aired their displeasure with the way Boji Group had handled the situation. 

Draheim noted she had been on City Council when the original conditions were put in place and then took the developers to task.

“I think the fence is fine. It’s lovely. But you all — the Boji’s — have done enough work in this City, I think, to know that when changes from the Special Use Permit happens, you need to be contacting staff and you need to be working with staff on those” in advance, Draheim said. “Sort of building it and asking for forgiveness later is not a habit I think we should be in when we are doing things like this.”

Council members Shanna Draheim in 2019 (photo by Raymond Holt for ELi) and Ron Bacon in 2020 (photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi).

Saying he was “Channeling my inner Aaron Stephens on the compliance piece of it,” Bacon told the developers, “I do consider [it better to be] doing things in good faith from the beginning, rather than kind of building them out and hoping that we don’t drop the hammer. That’s a very East Lansing thing that people tend to do in business around here.”

Council members seemed to catch Bacon’s apparent reference to the after-the-fact forgiveness of Harbor Bay Real Estate’s violation of the law and legal agreements on Newman Lofts, the senior housing in the Center City District redevelopment project. In that case, Council voted 4-1 to change agreements rather than enforcing the violations, with Babcock against.

Prior to the hotel fence issue coming to Council, it also went to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), because the wood fence was built two feet taller than allowed under the zoning code. The ZBA voted 3-3 on the request from the Boji Group for a variance to keep the eight-foot fence at that height. But the ZBA’s split vote means the Boji Group was denied their request and will need to take two feet off the eight-foot tall fence, a decision Bacon called “silly.”

Council also approved measures that clear the way for the construction of a hotel at 3225 West Road.

Two agenda items, both passed unanimously, allow for the construction of a four-story extended-stay hotel with 122 rooms on the City’s northwest side. The 4.5-acre property where the hotel will be rebuilt was rezoned from RA (Residential Agricultural District) to B-5 (Community Retail Sales Business District). It will revert to RA if the deal falls apart.

Council also approved the site plan, but not before Bacon asked, “Do we need this?” He expressed concern about using up a big lot for something other than housing of a kind needed in East Lansing.

In response, developer Paul Duncan of Concord WP COL GP Holdings II, LLC, answered that they had done their due diligence on the viability of this project and are confident there is a strong market for less expensive extended-stay hotels in East Lansing. He posited that it could be a place for visiting faculty at Michigan State University, travelling nurses, or construction workers who could stay for a period of weeks or even a few months, without the need for an apartment and at a lower cost than a normal hotel.

Bacon was ultimately satisfied with Duncan’s answer, and Mayor Jessy Gregg said she believes the need exists.

Dylan Lees for ELi

George Lahanas and Jessy Gregg at the Aug. 10, 2021, meeting of City Council

Food trucks will now be allowed at Neighborhood Association events.

Food trucks have been a long-controversial issue at the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) where some worry that food trucks will take business away from brick-and-mortar businesses without paying their fair share into the taxing systems.

City Manager George Lahanas explained that the proposals before Council were aimed at regulating the appearance of food trucks in neighborhoods so that they don’t get out of control. Staff recommended allowing “recognized” neighborhood associations to apply to the City to host up to two trucks once per year.

Ultimately Council unanimously approved a law that allows “recognized” neighborhood associations to have up to two trucks up to twice a year. Bacon questioned this as a case of over-regulation, but Gregg said she agreed with it as a “baby steps” approach to introducing food trucks.

Council members also expressed interest in seeing more expansive food truck rules, to allow for more of them around the City. Gregg mentioned that she’s had requests to allow food trucks at the East Lansing Soccer Complex. The Parks & Rec Advisory Commission has also been discussing the issue.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Krystal Jackson of Krystal’s Kitchen poses near her food truck, which currently sells food in Lansing and other nearby communities.

Planning, Building and Development Director Tom Fehrenbach said that City staff is working on more, broader rules to enact regarding food trucks in the City. 

Council authorized City Manager George Lahanas to sell 0.29 acres of public land at 2773 Coleman Road to the neighboring property owner for $50,000.

According to Fehrenbach, the City acquired this land from the Clinton County Road Commission and it presents a “liability” to City maintenance crews, so they’re inclined to get rid of it. Council voted unanimously to allow that to happen, giving Lahanas the authority to execute the deal. (The City Charter allows Council to vote to sell this land because its value does not reach the threshold requiring voter approval.)

The neighboring property owner, Louis Garcia, had previously offered to buy the property, Fehrenbach said, and after the City listed it on the market and received no other offers, it was determined the City should accept his offer. 

A portion of the sale advertisement for the property at 2773 E. Colman Road, as presented in Council’s agenda packet.

Garcia made an offer of $32,000 for the property on July 26, according to the staff memo, and the City valued the parcel at $65,000, exclusive of maintenance costs. Because of the desire to offload it, Fehrenbach said, the City and Garcia settled on the $50,000 price tag. According to the staff memo on the issue, “After property research, closing costs and a 5% commission to NAI, staff expects the transaction to net the City approximately $45,000.”

A motion to correct a misnumbering in the coal-tar sealant ban passed.

City Attorney Robert Easterly, sitting in for Laura Genovich, explained that this measure was essentially some housekeeping, amending a portion of the Code adopted by Council via Ordinance 1498, which outlawed coal-tar sealants.

According to the agenda item attachment, the amendment “does not change the substance of Ord. 1498 nor does it affect the current effectiveness of the ordinance.”

Before any of this, the consent agenda passed unanimously.

There were 14 items on the consent agenda, all approved: one appointment to a commission, four symbolic resolutions, two rental license applications, six contracts that Lahanas is authorized to sign off on, and one alley closure. See the consent agenda (and Council’s full agenda) here

And keep an eye out for ELi’s other reporting from this meeting.

We will be bringing a report from Emily Joan Elliott about a presentation by newly-seated Judge Molly Hennessey Greenwalt, recently appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to fill the vacant seat in East Lansing’s 54B District Court created by Andrea Larkin’s retirement.

Correction, Sept. 11, 9 a.m.: The original version of this article did not include mention of all of the costs associated with the land sale, thereby creating an error when referring to the commission received by NAI. The line has now been corrected by quoting the staff memo about the costs. ELi thanks a reader for pointing out this error.

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