Traverse City News and Events

Prop 3 Policy Proposed

March 31, 2017

Traverse City commissioners will consider adopting a new policy Monday that seeks to clarify how Proposal 3 will be implemented across the city.

City staff have wrestled with how best to interpret and apply the new charter amendment – which requires a public vote on buildings over 60 feet tall – since Proposal 3’s enactment in November. Outstanding questions have included how building height will be measured for projects, whether an election is triggered immediately when a taller building is proposed or is preceded by some type of city review, and if taller buildings that received a special land use permit (SLUP) before Proposal 3 passed are exempt or must now go to a public vote for approval.

"It offers no road map or protocols...and it's (a process) that doesn't exist anywhere else in the state," Commissioner Amy Shamroe said of Proposal 3 during a commission review of the charter amendment in November. Commissioners voted to have city staff form a committee to bring back a recommended policy on how best to implement Proposal 3. That committee, consisting of seven city department heads, will present their proposed policy to commissioners Monday.

While City Manager Marty Colburn says “it is quite possible that we did not anticipate every scenario” in attempting to flesh out Proposal 3, the detailed two-page policy reflects committee members’ efforts to address a wide range of issues raised by the charter amendment. Key recommendations include:

> Building Height: Staff previously noted that some city buildings could be under 60 feet high, but have mechanical or architectural features that put them over 60 feet (as is the case with a proposed new building at the corner of Front and Pine streets). While the city’s zoning ordinance extends leeway to such architectural features, Proposal 3 is not under the city's zoning ordinance but rather its charter. However, committee members are recommending using the zoning ordinance as the baseline for measuring height for Proposal 3 going forward. The rule would allow Pine Street and other proposed 60-foot projects – such as Thom Darga’s Warehouse Flats in the Warehouse District – that may have slightly taller architectural features to proceed without a public vote.

> Preexisting Projects: The new policy recommends exempting any projects that received a SLUP prior to the November election from Proposal 3. That will likely come as welcome news to Munson Medical Center, which received a SLUP last year for a 110-foot new building, and Great Lakes Central Properties, which has a SLUP for a 68-foot building at 124 West Front Street. However, the new policy also puts pressure on those projects to follow a timely construction schedule: If a previously approved SLUP expires, any new applications “shall be subject to (Proposal 3)."

The policy also states that owners of buildings over 60 feet lawfully constructed before Proposal 3 passed are exempt from the charter amendment, allowing them to make improvements or changes to their properties without a vote. But if a building below 60 feet is “altered in such a way to increase the height…above 60 feet,” or if a taller building - such as the Park Place Hotel or Riverview Terrace - is built up higher than its existing height or is significantly damaged or destroyed and must be rebuilt, those projects will need to go to a public vote.

> Elections: The most extensive part of the new policy relates to the process by which elections are triggered and how they will be administered. Staff recommend allowing taller building proposals to proceed as far as a city planning commission review, then pausing the process to allow a public election to take place. If voters approve a project, it would then go to the city commission for final review and approval. If voters reject the project, the city commission would not consider it. There would be “no limit on the number of times an applicant may request to place the proposal before the electorate," according to the policy.

In terms of election costs, if a tall building proposal appears on a regular election ballot, the policy states “there are negligible costs to the city and therefore no costs will be charged to the applicant.” But if an applicant requests the proposal be put on a special ballot in order to speed up the process, the applicant will pay the “incremental additional costs to the city for the special election.”

Finally, while staff noted there are a number of tangible and intangible issues voters might consider when weighing a project – everything from its design to location to scale and other factors – Proposal 3's language does not mention or address any of those criteria. Therefore, ballot questions will only be allowed to read as follows: “Shall a building with a height above 60 feet be constructed at [address/property description/tax ID number]?”

Colburn notes that in drafting the policy, committee members had “in-depth, robust and extensive discussions,” but that there was not “unanimous agreement among the working group on all aspects of the proposed policy.” He expects “there would not be on the commission either, as these questions, when critically analyzed, could be reasonably answered in different ways.” Members of the public could also interpret Proposal 3 differently than city staff, a scenario that could result in legal action down the road, acknowledges City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht.

“There’s always a possibility that the implementation (of Proposal 3) could become a point of challenge as well,” she says.

While staff anticipate lively discussion from commissioners on the policy Monday, they also hope it can be adopted the same night. Judge Thomas Power has expressed his desire to have a copy of the city’s implementation policy available at a scheduling conference next Thursday (April 6) for a lawsuit brought by developer Tom McIntyre against the city challenging the legality of Proposal 3. While Trible-Laucht says the scheduling conference is not “a hard deadline necessarily,” it would be ideal to present something substantive on the city's plan for implementing Proposal 3.

“I think the intention and hope would be to have some sort of decision or at least a direction (from the city commission),” she says.

Pictured (clockwise): Park Place Hotel, proposed Pine Street project, Tom McIntyre's proposed Peninsula Place, Warehouse Flats

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