Proposed East Bay Housing Projects Raise Zoning Questions

Two proposed housing developments in East Bay Township are raising questions about whether the township’s zoning rules – including its planned unit development (PUD) process – inadvertently hinder building the type of housing desired in the community. A PUD, or a zoning plan tailored to a specific property, is intended to offer flexibility to accommodate mixed-use developments, properties with challenging topography, or projects on land that exhibits difficult and costly development problems. But so many developers are now turning to PUDs that East Bay Township Director of Planning & Zoning Claire Karner says updating zoning rules could be required to better accommodate housing construction, with the township seeking bids for a firm to lead an ordinance rewrite.

East Bay Township planning commissioners reviewed two proposals last week from developers seeking early feedback on the possibility of obtaining a PUD. The first project, called Blue Water Vue, is proposed on a six-acre parcel at the intersection of Hammond and Four Mile roads. Developer Ron Wilmes is seeking to build 23 single-family homes in phase one of construction and 7 units – which could be either residential or commercial – directly fronting Hammond in a future phase two.

The property is zoned moderate density residential (MDR), which allows up to 30 units on 6 acres – the number proposed by Wilmes. However, the proposed lot widths and areas of the homes in Blue Water Vue do not meet the minimums required in a MDR district. The developer is therefore interested in using a PUD to create a plan that would allow the project to move forward. According to Karner, having commercial units in the project would qualify it for a PUD, but it’s uncertain if that’s the intent for phase two – particularly since the property is located on a roundabout, which would make commercial access nearly prohibitive (residential access would likely be provided just off Four Mile Road).

Other qualifications for a PUD are murkier. “The parcels do not necessarily exhibit unique or costly development problems as they are fairly flat without unique natural features,” Karner wrote in a memo to planning commissioners. “However, the zoning ordinance does present barriers to achieve the proposed housing type. While the density proposed is allowed by right as a multi-family development (with 6 acres the developer could put in 30 multi-family units), the proposed lot sizes are not permitted in MDR. The developer is proposing amenities including sidewalks, public access to a public trailside pocket park, and open space with a gazebo for residents.”

The question is whether a PUD is an appropriate tool for Wilmes to use to develop single-family homes offering neighborhood and public amenities – a category of housing that is highly in demand and desired by the township – or to require the developer to pursue an alternative, such as building fewer homes or building multi-family residential, because that’s what the current rules stipulate. Wilmes was absent from last week’s meeting, so planning commissioners ultimately tabled the review until he could appear for more in-depth discussion at a future meeting. But similar questions arose regarding another proposal on the planning commission’s agenda, a planned expansion by Eastwood Custom Homes of the Holiday Forest neighborhood off Yorkshire and Winchester drives.

The first phase of Holiday Forest was developed more than two decades ago, according to Bill Clous of Eastwood Custom Homes. In September 2021, the development group received approval to build another 25-unit residential condominium subdivision, which would serve as phase two of Holiday Forest. But due to “topographical challenges and market forces,” according to Karner, developers are now seeking feedback on using a PUD to add nine more units, bringing the total to 34 instead of 25. Though the proposed density meets the township’s zoning requirements, a number of the proposed lots don’t meet the minimum size or width requirements – hence the PUD interest. As with Blue Water Vue, the Hickory Forest expansion is planned to have public amenities including street trees and a future connection to Holiday Woodlands Natural Area.

Planning commissioners agreed that the project was likely a better fit for a PUD than Blue Water Vue, particularly because the property has steep elevations that make it difficult to develop. Karner said the township engineer acknowledged “there’s a reason the site hasn’t been developed yet,” with Planning Commission Acting Chair Dan Leonard agreeing “the property is very challenging.” Clous said the “the fewer lots we have the less likely it is to be developed,” saying he was trying to make the project and its required infrastructure – like sewer and road connections – financially feasible while also adding more housing stock. A PUD would “cause (the project) to make economic sense,” he said.

Planning commissioners gave feedback on several issues they’d like to see Clous address if he returns with a formal PUD request, including showing a variety of potential housing options for the site. Several planning commissioners said they wanted to see the project happen, but worried the PUD route might require so many deviations from zoning rules that it would be opening “Pandora’s box,” in the words of Leonard. “Are we going to have to go so far away from the zoning for that district to make this fit that this doesn’t make sense?” wondered Planning Commissioner Mindy Walters.

Their questions point to a larger issue facing the township, which is that a PUD is intended to be “unique development tool” used only in select circumstances, Karner says. Mirroring conversations the City of Traverse City is having about the prevalence of zoning variance requests and whether that demonstrates a need to update the entire zoning code, East Bay Township may need to update its own zoning ordinance to better encourage the type of housing – notably single-family homes – it desires in the community, Karner tells The Ticker.

“Having lots of PUDs is not the answer,” she says. “The best solution is to change our zoning ordinance so we can facilitate the type of housing we want.” East Bay Township has issued a request-for-proposals (RFP) to hire a firm to undertake a complete rewrite of the township’s zoning ordinance. “Residential housing, the mix of uses and housing formats, will be part of that conversation,” Karner says, adding that a zoning rewrite will likely be the best “long-term solution” to address regulatory barriers to building housing in the township.