City Council Recap: Variance Approved, Social District & Water System Discussed

Lowell City Council met for two hours last night on the Zoom videoconferencing platform. The first 50 minutes were devoted to discussing a variance request as councilmembers convened as the Zoning Board of Appeals. The remainder of the time was spent on the council’s first regular meeting of the month. All councilmembers were present for both sessions.

Variance Approved for Property Setback

The city’s zoning ordinance outlines out how properties can be used and how buildings can be constructed in various districts. If someone wants to be exempt from a provision of the zoning ordinance, they must request a variance.

Variance requests require a public hearing and must be approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals. In Lowell, the city council serves as the ZBA, and Councilmember Marty Chambers is the board’s chair.

At its meeting last night, the ZBA considered a variance request from B&D Asset Recovery to reduce the size of its rear yard setback. Normally, buildings in the C3 district must be located 35 feet away from the property line, but the applicant was proposing to place a building 15 feet from the property line. The property, located at 2040 W. Main Street, is irregularly shaped, and the business would like to build a structure for storage and office uses.

Since variances remain with a property permanently, the zoning ordinance stipulates the ZBA may only grant a variance if it determines six standards have been met. Andy Moore, the city’s planning consultant from the firm Williams & Works, prepared a memo of the standards and walked the ZBA through each one during the meeting.

These standards include requirements that the property be subject to unique conditions not applicable to other properties in the same zoning district, that the variance is needed to ensure the owner has the same property rights as other owners in the same district and that the variance won’t be detrimental to adjoining properties, among other conditions.

After extensive discussion, the ZBA agreed all standards were met and approved the variance. The applicant must now go to the Planning Commission for site plan approval before any construction can begin.

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Social District Set to Open Soon

During the regular Lowell City Council meeting, City Manager Mike Burns noted the city’s social district had been approved by the state. Also, five out of the six establishments named in the city’s ordinance have applied for licenses to participate. Burns was hoping the social district would be ready to start this Friday, but he wasn’t sure about the timeline for the state to approve the business licenses. If they are not approved this week, the social district will start the following weekend.

During the citizen comments portion of the agenda, resident Steve Doyle asked about the placement of fires and their maintenance. Burns said city workers would be lighting and maintaining fires, which are expected to be placed on Monroe Street and the Riverwalk.

Ashely Dunn, owner of Creative Party Bug, also spoke during citizen comments and asked about placing igloos or greenhouses along the Riverwalk. She said her business would be happy to help coordinate that if she could be provided some direction on what was required. She also suggested the city look into the development of pods, such as those used in Sparta, to house small businesses during the pandemic.

Police Chief Chris Hurst, who lives in the Sparta area, said he was familiar with the pod concept and believed the Lowell Police Department could obtain storage pods for free through the federal surplus equipment program. However, someone would need to paint and prepare them for use. Mayor Mike DeVore was concerned about what the city would do with the containers after the pandemic.

City Attorney Jessica Wood said a potential issue with igloos and greenhouses on the Riverwalk is that the social district is supposed to be common space. Having an area that can be reserved for use by specific people might be problematic under the current language in the social district ordinance. However, she thought there were ways to make to it work.

Burns said he would talk to Wood about both suggestions and be back in touch with Dunn.

Water and Wastewater Negotiations with Lowell Township

The city is continuing to meet with representatives of Lowell Charter Township to discuss the future of shared water and wastewater services. While a taskforce meeting was held recently, city representatives characterized negotiations as being challenging.

“There was definite tension in the room,” Burns said. Mayor Mike DeVore, who was also present, said: “Not one of the best meetings I’ve ever sat through.” DeVore also felt the meeting facilitator was biased toward Sid Jansma, who owns land along I-96 in the township and needs water and sewer services in order to develop it.

Still, Burns said everything was on the table and one option would be for the city to sell the current water and wastewater systems to Lowell Charter Township. The city would then become a wholesale buyer of the services for its residents. The Village of Caledonia and Caledonia Township did something similar in the past.

“I’m not committing the city to this one way or another,” Burns said.

While councilmembers declined last year to pay for a specialized appraisal of the water and wastewater systems, Jansma has offered to pay the $37,000 appraisal fee. That offer comes with the understanding that he would be reimbursed for a portion of the fee if it leads to an agreement between the township and city.

Burns asked if the council would be willing to consider that offer if he drew up a memorandum of understanding to present at the next meeting. Councilmembers appeared open to the idea. DeVore said that he and Todd Schaal, another city representative on the taskforce, were planning to visit Caledonia to learn more about their service agreement as well.

Other Meeting Items

Other items mentioned or discussed during Monday’s meeting include the following:

  • An offer from Wolverine Building Group to match dollar-for-dollar – up to $5,000 – donations made to the Showboat during February 2021.
  • A presentation from the Lowell Area Historical Museum on their 2020 activities.
  • Approval of an agreement with Lowell Little League to allow them to manage the scheduling of city baseball fields. The usage fee for fields was also updated. Previously, groups paid $1 per person registered for their teams. The new fee will be $8 per field per day.
  • Approval of $22,100 to update the temperature control system in City Hall.
  • Councilmember Cliff Yankovich shared that Dollar General had received approval from the Downtown Historic District Commission to update and expand their building and make improvements to the parking lot.
  • Burns shared that resident Donna Ford, who passed away in December, left $110,000 of her estate to the city to be used on landscaping projects. These must be completed in conjunction with the Lowell Showboat Garden Club.
  • Burns also shared that he had requested Kent County Road Commission repave the section of Alden Nash Ave. from Main Street to Gee Drive, and the county is looking into that project.

The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will take place on Tuesday, February 16, at 7pm.

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