City Council Recap: Changes to Fire Ordinance Discussed

With Monday being the Fourth of July holiday, the first regular meeting of the month for Lowell City Council was moved to Tuesday night. All councilmembers were present for the meeting which ran just over an hour and included five pieces of new and old business.

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Citizen Comment: Not Happy About Car Sale at Fairgrounds

In May, the Lowell Planning Commission approved a special land use permit for West Michigan Auto Xchange to hold an automobile sale at Recreation Park. The Kent County Youth Fair, which leases the park from the city, had apparently also signed off on the sale.

During the citizen comments portion of Tuesday’s meeting, resident Perry Beachum expressed his disappointment that the sale was approved. He noted that the city and Lowell Charter Township have established dealerships that contribute to the community, and he thought it was unfortunate that an outside company was allowed to come in and compete with them.

“I would say I agree with Perry,” said Mayor Mike DeVore. “I was very disappointed to see them down there.”

At the end of the meeting, during his final comments of the night, Councilmember Cliff Yankovich added that he too hoped the city would deny any future permit request such as this.

“I don’t know if we can,” City Manager Mike Burns replied. “If they meet the requirements of the special use, you can’t deny them…You can’t deny it because you don’t like it.”

City Attorney Jessica Wood said she had not reviewed this particular application but agreed that denying an application that met the objective standards set forth in the ordinance could open the door to legal trouble.

Fire Ordinance Up for Review

Fire Chief Shannon Witherell was present during the meeting to discuss possible changes to the city’s fire ordinance. Some of the language pertaining to the fire department is now outdated, and Witherell and Burns have also talked about updating the section regarding open fires in the city.

The current ordinance prohibits open fires within the city. However, the law also includes an exemption for “the preparing of food in any form.” As a result, residents have long known that so long as they have hot dogs or marshmallows handy, they can have bonfires and remain within the letter of the law.

Witherell provided councilmembers with an ordinance from Muskegon Heights to review. He suggested the creation of a permit system in which the fire department would inspect fire pits annually to ensure they met setback and other safety requirements.

According to the suggested permit application supplied by Witherell, fire pits could be no larger than 3×3 feet and would need to be at least 20 feet away from any structure, combustible material or the lot line. The permit application listed an annual fee of $40, but Witherell said another option would be to skip the fee and use the city’s cost recovery ordinance to recoup any expenses related to an unpermitted fire that resulted in the fire department being called.

“I have a burner. It’s all metal. It has a top. I would need a permit for that?” Councilmember Marty Chambers asked.

“Yes,” Witherell replied.

Councilmembers held an extended discussion on the proposal with most appearing to believe that it would be better to forego the fee.

“I think people are going to avoid a fee at any cost,” Councilmember Leah Groves said. Her preference would be to not charge a fee if it meant more properties would apply for permits and go through the inspection process.

Meanwhile, Yankovich said he was not a fan of smelling smoke when he opened his windows. “I don’t like breathing smoke,” he explained. As for the permit fee, he said to Witherell: “I thought you were collecting a permit fee to pay for your time.”

Beachum approached the podium to share his concern about the 20-foot setback. He noted that he had a Solo Stove which was designed to be used on decks.

At the end of an extensive conversation, councilmembers thanked Witherell for his time but did not give any indication on what, if anything, happens next for the ordinance.

Water Restrictions Discussed

During his city manager’s report, Burns mentioned that the recently enacted odd/even outdoor watering restriction seems to be having the desired effect.

He noted that when the restrictions went into effect, the city was pumping about 1.2 million gallons of water a day with 680,000 gallons going to Lowell Charter Township. The recent peak day was 1.3 million gallons with more than 700,000 going to the township. Since enacting the restrictions, water usage has dropped to 500,000-600,000 gallons a day to the township and 300,000-500,000 gallons to city customers.

DeVore asked Burns to discuss why the city was subject to water restrictions when the high water use was concentrated in the township. Burns said that the city’s water agreement with the township required that if water usage was ever restricted in the township, the city must follow a similar restriction.

Burns added that the water plant’s capacity is only 1.5 million gallons a day so not restricting water usage could create serious problem. “We’re running a risk, especially if we have a fire, [that] we don’t have water,” Burns said.

“I just want it said that it’s an antiquated agreement that we have no way out of for 11 more years,” DeVore added.

This sparked additional conversation among councilmembers about the restrictions, its impact on gardens and homeowners association rules about hydroseeding. Yankovich recently visited the western United States, and comments were also made about odd/even watering being a relatively minor inconvenience compared to the drought conditions being endured elsewhere in the country.

“You have to consider other humans in other states are up against blazing fires, losing their houses, droughts that you can’t control,” Groves said. “I think we just need to check our privilege a little bit.”

At the end of the conversation, Burns noted that the city would likely need to soon look at expanding its water plant capacity.

Other Meeting Items

Councilmembers also took the following action during their Tuesday meeting:

  • Voted unanimously to pay Williams & Works $43,800 for engineering services for 2022 road construction projects.
  • Voted unanimously to approve changes to the employee handbook.
  • Voted unanimously to pay $8,300 to Inbody Tree Service to remove dying trees at three locations in the street right-of-way. Department of Public Works Director Dan Czarnecki said he had been in touch with Lowell Light & Power to see if they could remove the trees, but they do not have personnel available right now.
  • After substantial discussion, councilmembers agreed that they would be willing to review a proposal to create a Renaissance Zone at the I-96 interchange. A developer has been working for years to build out the area with a hotel and other businesses, and he approached the Michigan Economic Development Corporation about assistance. The state has suggested creating a Renaissance Zone, but since it is expected that the development will require city services and a 425 agreement, the city needs to sign off on any proposal.

Lowell City Council adjourned at 8:11pm, and its next regular meeting will be at 7pm on Monday, July 18.

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