Planning Commission Approves Housing Density Changes
By Beth Milligan | June 7, 2023
Traverse City planning commissioners Tuesday approved a series of proposed zoning changes designed to create more housing density and diversity in the city, with the package now headed to city commissioners for final approval.
An overflow crowd attended a public hearing at the Governmental Center on the proposed package of zoning changes, with approximately three dozen people speaking during public comment on the proposal. As part of an effort to expand housing opportunities – one of three main board goals in 2023 – the planning commission reviewed several amendments that would allow for increased density and more housing types in residential neighborhoods. Among the changes is eliminating the annual cap on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also called granny flats or in-law suites. ADUs are currently capped at 15 annually, a number City Planning Director Shawn Winter has called “completely arbitrary.”
Another change would lift an owner occupancy requirement on ADUs, which stipulates that the property owner must live full-time in either the main house or the ADU. Winter previously said the requirement prohibits an owner from renting out both the main house and ADU to long-term renters. He noted that duplex owners don’t have the same requirement – they can rent out both units. ADUs are not allowed to be used as vacation rentals and can’t be rented out for anything less than a three-month-minimum stay.
Other changes in the package include allowing ADUs with a duplex, reducing the minimum land area for cluster housing, and allowing duplexes by right in the R-1a/b residential districts – which make up nearly 83 percent of all residential land in the city. Triplexes and quadplexes would be allowed by right in the R-2 district, with ADUs allowed with duplexes and triplexes in R-2. The proposal also reduces the minimum lot width and area in the R-1a/b districts and allows two homes to be built on a lot that is twice the minimum area without being split. The latter change would allow for “creative siting of homes on land that would otherwise remain vacant and underutilized due to the inability to split a lot,” according to an interactive story map created by city staff to detail the proposed changes and the properties/neighborhoods they would affect.
While several supporters spoke in favor of the changes during public comment – including Yarrow Brown of Housing North, who said that increasing density helps address housing demand – many commenters vocally criticized some or all of the amendments. Residents expressed concerns about the proliferation of rentals in their neighborhoods – vacation or otherwise – and worried that the changes represented an attack on single-family housing and would irreparably alter the character of their neighborhoods. “This is all an experiment...(and) there’s no evidence it makes housing cheaper,” said resident Alan Newton.
Some residents expressed support for the majority of the proposed changes, but were concerned about eliminating the owner occupancy requirement for ADUs. That emerged as one of the biggest hot-button issues of the night, including among planning commissioners. Chair David Hassing said that requiring an owner to live on-site limits the development of housing units, and bringing more housing units online is the stated goal of the planning commission. Other planning commissioners said they understood that having an owner on-site makes neighbors more comfortable and can help ensure issues with renters are addressed when they arise. But they pointed to several situations where a local owner might be off-site short-term – such as an owner traveling south for the winter or a Coast Guard family being assigned to another city for a period of time – and worried renters would be kicked off those properties or units would be required to sit vacant because the owners weren’t there temporarily.
In the end, planning commissioners voted 7-2 to recommend the entire package of amendments as proposed to city commissioners for approval. Heather Shaw was one ‘no’ vote; the other was City Commissioner Linda Koebert, who said her opposition was solely due to wanting to explore other options for the owner occupancy requirement. Koebert and City Commissioner Mitch Treadwell, who are both city commission representatives on the planning commission, were tasked with conveying the debate over the owner occupancy requirement to city commissioners for their consideration. Planning commissioners acknowledged it’s possible city commissioners will kick that specific provision back to the planning commission for further review, but left that up to city commissioners to decide.
Though Tuesday’s meeting was often heated – with angry and sometimes personal comments directed at planning commissioners by opponents – Hassing said that every member of the planning commission lives in a city neighborhood and has a “vested interest in doing right by and for Traverse City.” Creating more “incremental housing” within neighborhoods and loosening zoning restrictions is one of the tools the planning commission can use to help more people find places to live in Traverse City, he said. While the amendments won’t “solve the housing problem,” Hassing said, they can ultimately allow more housing opportunities to happen “within the traditional fabric of our neighborhoods.”Comment