There wasn’t much on the agenda for last night’s Lowell City Council meeting, but members still found plenty to discuss. They started the evening with a special Committee of the Whole to review plans for the new Showboat and then went into a regular meeting that featured numerous public comments, a split vote and more.
Showboat Will Be “American Classic”
At the Committee of the Whole, city council members heard an update on progress being made by the Rebuild the Showboat Committee. Bid packages for the project are expected to go out in the next two weeks with responses likely received by mid-summer.
While it was originally expected that the boat would be made in a Southern state and shipped to Lowell, the group is now hoping a Michigan shipbuilder can be found.
Shannon Parnofiello of Hearthstone Design Studio was also on-hand to display some of the interior designs concept for the boat. Three options were presented: American Classic, Vintage Eclectic and Main Street Historic.
After discussion, the American Classic was selected by consensus.
Building Inspection Concerns Still Loom
The other main point of discussion last night was about whether to renew the building inspection contract with Cascade Township.
Previously, concerns had been raised about whether Cascade Township was the right fit for the City of Lowell. In particular, it was noted that Cascade Township – which works with several municipalities – doesn’t serve any community with a historic downtown like the one in Lowell.
What’s more, Lowell’s First Look has heard from several business owners who say officials with Cascade Township have declined to help them understand how to meet code requirements at a minimal cost. Instead, they have been directed to hire an architect for assistance.
To this latter point, Cascade Township seems to acknowledge that it does not provide any guidance on meeting code requirements. During an April Committee of the Whole, Director of Inspections Brian Wilson stated that his staff are not designers and not responsible for helping businesses draw up plans.
During that April meeting, the Lowell City Council seemed to back off on a request for quotes for new building inspection services and rally around Cascade Township. However, last night, there were additional comments about inspection services and opinion seemed to sway back to finding a new inspector for the city.
Questions about Code Interpretation
The discussion on the issue kicked off with City Manager Mike Burns presenting City Council with a contract that would allow ongoing building inspection services from Cascade Township. The contract had been prepared at the request of the council after their April Committee of the Whole meeting.
However, Councilmember Greg Canfield, who had recused himself during the April discussion, said he didn’t think enough due diligence had been done to warrant an extension of the contract at this time. He noted that Cascade interprets the building code in a way that other code inspectors may not.
“We couldn’t put up two sheets of drywall without a building permit,” Canfield noted. “Everyone else considers it a wall covering.”
Resident Perry Beachum approached the podium and added that while Grattan and Vergennes Townships don’t require permits to re-roof a house, Cascade requires them for projects in Lowell. Beachum also said that Cascade insisted building permits were needed to put up tents for the Pink Arrow Community Day last year. The event had previously never been required to get permits for its tents.
“You just feel like you’re getting nickel and dimed to death,” Beachum said. “It’s permit after permit after permit to do what I consider minor things.”
Wilson, who was on-hand, defended his office’s decisions. “It comes down to drawing the line somewhere,” he said. Wilson said that only a handful of projects each year were as small as hanging a few pieces of drywall, but by requiring permits for smaller projects, it ensures his office is able to see whether they morph into a major renovation. “In drawing the line, it catches the larger projects,” he said.
Council Requests Other Company Presentations
Eric Bartkus, who owns Ability Weavers, was also on-hand to share his experience trying to renovate the upstairs of his downtown building.
While he did not fault Cascade Township, he mentioned it had been a difficult experience. His cost to hire an architect familiar with the rehabilitation code would be $11,000, which seemed like a significant expense for the relatively minor work he was proposing. “I’m not doing any major renovations,” Bartkus said. “I’m just trying to rebuild it with new walls and new plumbing.”
After comments had been received, Councilmember Jim Salzwedel moved to approve the new contract with Cascade Township. That motion was seconded by Mayor Mike DeVore. However, the council split on the vote with Salzwedel and DeVore saying aye and Canfield and Councilmember Marty Chambers saying nay. Councilmember Jeff Phillips was absent.
Without a majority, the motion failed. Canfield then moved to have Burns reach out to three local building inspection services and ask them to present their services to the Lowell City Council. That motion passed with Canfield, Chambers and Salzwedel voting aye and DeVore voting nay.
Budget, Fee Schedule and Redevelopment Ready Resolution Passed
In other business, the Lowell City Council passed the Fiscal Year 2019 Budget unanimously. A public hearing was held, but no members of the public submitted comments. The budget appropriates nearly $3 million in General Fund dollars along with $227,000 for the Major Street Fund and $215,000 for the Local Street Fund.
The council also unanimously approved the Fiscal Year 2019 Schedule of Rates and Fees which is largely unchanged from last year. Finally, they unanimously approved a resolution for the Redevelopment Ready Communities program. This voluntary, no-cost certification program is intended to help cities adopt effective redevelopment strategies.
Citizen Comments and Other Issues
At the start of the meeting, three individuals provided public comments.
Laura Huth-Rhoades was presented information about the upcoming Business Brew series, and Curt Benson introduced himself as a candidate for the Kent County Circuit Court judgeship.
Beachum thanked the council for agreeing to put sidewalks on S. Broadway to Ottawa Street but shared his belief that the sidewalk should extend to Bowes Road. He noted that the city’s response was that there wasn’t money in the budget for the extended sidewalk. He hoped the city would, therefore, be understanding when a resident or business owner also didn’t have money in their budget for a new sidewalk.
During his manager’s report, Burns noted smoke testing would be completed next week in the sanitary sewer system. He also said the recent walking audit of the city was successful, and a final report of recommendations should be arriving within 60 days.
Finally, there is a movement afoot in the Treasury Department to create regional Boards of Review for property assessing. The department would also like to make changes to assessor qualifications. However, these proposals have been met with resistance, most notably because they remove an element of local control from the assessment process.
The next Lowell City Council meeting will be held on Monday, June 4, at 7pm in Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall.