Traverse City News and Events

Housing-Friendly Zoning, Riparian Rules, Mobility/Master Plans Top 2023 City Planning Goals

By Beth Milligan | Jan. 19, 2023

Three Traverse City planning commission goals for 2022 are carrying over into 2023, with commissioners expressing a desire Wednesday to move forward with zoning changes that will create more residential density and remove barriers to building housing, to finish a years-long effort to create a riparian buffer zone ordinance to protect local waterways, and to complete the city’s new master plan and mobility action plan this year.

Housing, riparian buffer zones, and the master and mobility plan were also on the city’s to-do list in 2022. But while significant steps were taken in some categories, more work still remains to be done over the next 12 months, according to City Planning Director Shawn Winter. The “greatest success” occurred last year on creating a new master plan and mobility action plan, he said. Staff secured funding in the city’s annual budget, landed grants from multiple organizations, hired multiple consulting firms to assist with developing the two plans, and hosted numerous public engagement forums and surveys to gather input.

“Both planning processes kicked (off) near the halfway point of the calendar year and have been moving along at an aggressive pace,” Winter wrote in a memo to planning commissioners. “For comparison, the last master plan took four years to complete. With the help of the consultant teams and staff's dedication, we are aiming to have both planning efforts completed in 18 months and adopted by the end of 2023.”

Creating a riparian buffer zone ordinance (RBZO) – a set of rules that would regulate how development can occur along rivers and other waterways – has been in the works for several years. A draft came to the planning commission last spring, but City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht completed a legal review of the ordinance and noted “many red flags,” according to Winter.

“Notably, many of the elements and design components in the ordinance were triggered by a land use permit to be compliant,” Winter wrote. “However, in a lot of cases, those items do not require a land use permit. Other concerns by the city attorney included the need to evaluate all waterfront properties because given some lots' dimensions the strict requirements of the RBZO could create a takins claim by rendering the property undevelopable. There were also concerns from other department heads that impact utilities, the transportation network, and park operations that will need to be addressed.”

Winter said the draft ordinance essentially needs to be rewritten by staff to ensure its language is compliant with other city ordinances. He also said that “no community outreach has occurred to date with any of the waterfront property owners,” adding that task “must occur to be compliant with the city’s public participation strategy.” Several planning commissioners Wednesday expressed impatience with the delays and an eagerness to finish the ordinance, noting that public feedback recently shared for the new master plan indicates that protecting natural resources and planning for climate change impacts are among the community’s top priorities. Planning Commissioner Heather Shaw said the city needs to “build climate resiliency into our zoning” and make finishing the RBZO a priority this year alongside the new master plan.

Climate also came up in discussions about expanding housing opportunities, the third goal for 2023. Planning commissioners hope to tackle a package of zoning changes in the coming months that will reduce barriers to building housing and allow for increased density – which Winter and Planning Commission Chair David Hassing both said is crucial to combatting climate change. Among the proposed changes are eliminating the cap on accessory dwelling units (there’s now an annual citywide cap of 15 new ADUs annually), allowing ADUs on lots with duplexes, and no longer requiring owner occupancy on ADU properties. That could allow multiple long-term renters to be on a property, in both the main house and the ADU (ADUs already require a minimum lease of at least three months, so they can’t be used as vacation rentals).

Other proposed changes include: allowing duplexes and/or triplexes on corner lots in the R-1a/b districts that are 1.5 times the minimum lot size, or simply allowing duplexes by right in the districts; permitting two principal dwellings on lots that are twice the minimum lot size with requiring the lots to be divided and with appropriate setbacks; reducing the minimum lot width and area, with a corresponding incremental increase in impervious surface, in the R-1a/b districts; and amending cluster housing options to be an administrative special land use permit as opposed to a city commission SLUP, as well as reducing the minimum lot size from five acres to one acre.

The most contentious proposed change – which raised the ire of some residents when previously discussed by the planning commission – would allow up to four total dwelling units on properties in the R-2 district. Residents and some planning commissioners previously expressed concerns that could lead to overbuilt neighborhoods, with others worrying about proposed state legislation that would essentially make short-term rentals legal statewide. Some officials worried that creating more density could ultimately lead to packing neighborhoods with vacation rentals if that legislation passed. The legislation has since stalled, but planning commissioners acknowledged Wednesday the zoning change could still prove controversial when it comes up again.

Winter proposed taking an “omnibus” approach and packaging all the zoning changes together so they can move faster through planning and city commission approvals, rather than tackling them one by one on a piecemeal basis. He told The Ticker after Wednesday’s meeting that those changes could come before the planning commission this spring, as could a revised RBZO for review. Winter told planning commissioners there are other aspects of development they could also look at to address climate change. For example, consultants recently helped the city create an urban heat map as part of the new master plan, showing where the greatest heat levels build up in the city. Stores with large parking lots are one common source; Winter also said that developments like Tom’s East Bay, where the roofs are all black, exude far more heat than the downtown area, where roofs are primarily white. “Those are the type of regulations that we have a lot of control over,” he said.

Staffing shortages in the planning department – along with projects from the city manager’s office or city commission that come up throughout the year and require staff to pivot on priorities – can pose challenges to implementing planning commission goals, Winter said. But “given the urgent need” to address housing and other issues, Winter said it was important for the planning commission to continue making progress in 2023. “We're not going to see a change if we don't make a change,” he told planning commissioners.

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