City Council Recap: ZBA, Pool Update and More

Lowell City Council met for approximately two hours and 20 minutes last night to discuss a lengthy agenda. They also convened as the Zoning Board of Appeals to consider a variance request to the city’s sign ordinance. All councilmembers were present for the meeting.

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ZBA: Sign Variance Approved

Before their regular meeting, Lowell councilmembers first convened for 40 minutes as the Zoning Board of Appeals. The ZBA is charged with hearing appeals to the city’s zoning ordinance. While some communities have a separately appointed ZBA, in the City of Lowell, the council serves in this role with Councilmember Jim Salzwedel as the chair.

During its Tuesday meeting, the ZBA considered a request from Betten Baker to swap the location of the signs at its dealership on W. Main Street. The dealership is currently being renovated, and new car sales are moving to the south side of the road while used sales will be relocated to the north side of the road.

Both signs at the business are legally non-conforming and exceed the maximum height allowed in the city’s current sign ordinance. One sign also exceeds the size allowed in the current ordinance. Although grandfathered in, existing signs are required to meet ordinance requirements if structural changes are made to them.

“When they want to pick it up and move it, we have to treat it as a whole new sign,” said Andy Moore, a planning consultant to the city from the firm Williams & Works. Later in the meeting, Moore noted that the current sign ordinance with its lower heights and size requirements was developed to minimize visual clutter along Main Street.

Betten Baker requested a variance – which is a permanent exemption to the ordinance – to allow them to swap the locations of the existing signs. Since a variance remain with a property forever, six standards must be met in order for a request to be granted. If any standard is not met, the variance should be denied, according to Moore.

Moore provided the ZBA with a memo outlining the six standards along with his professional opinion on whether each standard was met. In reviewing the memo, Moore expressed concern that three standards were not met:

  • Standard 1 states that the property is subject to exceptional or extraordinary circumstances, such as an unusual shape or topographic feature that makes compliance with the ordinance difficult. Moore said that he was hard pressed to find anything unusual about this property that would preclude it from meeting the requirements of the current sign ordinance.
  • Standard 3 states that a variance is required for the property owner to enjoy a substantial property right as that of other properties in the same vicinity and district. The standard states “The possibility of increased financial return shall not of itself be deemed sufficient to warrant a variance.” Moore noted that while there were other tall, non-conforming signs along Main Street, all properties were bound by the same current ordinance. If structural changes were made to those signs, they too would have to meet the new height and size requirements.
  • Standard 5 states that the variance will not impair the intent or purpose of the ordinance. Here, Moore expressed concern that granting a variance would set a precedent for numerous other businesses to ask to be exempt from the sign ordinance as well. “Frankly, granting a request absent a real, practical difficulty undermines the whole zoning ordinance,” Moore said.

However, councilmembers appeared keen to find a way to make the variance request work.

“They aren’t seeking to put up eight new, non-conforming signs,” said Mayor Mike DeVore. “I can make a yes case that they’ve met all six.”

“They’re not new signs,” said Councilmember Cliff Yankovich. “I don’t care what Andy [Moore] says.”

Ultimately, the ZBA voted unanimously to approve the ordinance with several councilmembers citing the fact that the dealership owns property on both sides of the road as making the situation unique.

Recreation Park Plan Reviewed

After adjourning as the ZBA, Lowell councilmembers took a five-minute break before reconvening as Lowell City Council. First on the council agenda was a review of a design plan study for Recreation Park.

The city had commissioned the study in 2019 to gather community input regarding what should be done with Recreation Park after the Kent County Youth Fair vacates the property. Since the fair’s departure from the city has been delayed, it was decided to wait until now to review the findings of the study.

Representatives of Williams & Works outlined how ideas were gathered and the process by which a final design was developed. That design includes camping, sports fields, a boat launch, splash pad and more. It was noted that since the design was developed more than two years ago, some aspects of the plan are no longer relevant. For instance, the Lowell Area Recreation Authority has changed a trail route so it no longer crosses the Flat River via Recreation Park.

Councilmember Jim Salzwedel asked about what sort of timeframe it would take to develop the park.

“In my opinion, it’s 20 to 30 years,” replied City Manager Mike Burns. He noted there were several challenges such as the site being in the floodplain and the need to raise grant money. “For the city to fund this on our own, it’s not going to happen.”

Since the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission is starting a review of their master plan, it was decided to have them consider the design as part of their discussion.

King Memorial Pool Update

Next on the agenda was an update from John Sterly on efforts to create a community pool. Sterly noted that he was part of an active group of about a dozen people who had been working for several years to create a community center.

A survey conducted by the group found that 70% of respondents would like to see a community pool reopened in Lowell. The city previously had an outdoor pool that was closed in 1992. That pool apparently closed because of maintenance issues that included cracked decking and underground pipes that were rusting. The site of the pool has since been filled in.

Sterly says the community center group has shifted focus and is now working primarily to reopen the King Memorial Pool. The group has identified two sources of income for the pool.

One was a $320,000 gift from a local family that was given with the intent of building a pool, and that money is supposedly being held by Lowell Area Schools. The other was a commitment from the late Harold Englehardt that his monetary gift to the city – which created the Lowell Area Community Fund – would include $100,000 annually for the purpose of maintaining a pool for up to 30 years.

The group would like to use the site of the former pool but first needs to take soil borings to ensure the land is in suitable condition. Sterly said the cost of the borings would be $4,000, and he asked city councilmembers to consider paying for the expense.

Councilmembers were supportive of Sterly taking borings from the site but balked at the city paying for them. Salzwedel noted that township residents were also likely to use a community pool, and Chambers said the city had more pressing priorities such as street repairs.

Burns also expressed concern that any pool project could end up being an expensive proposition for the city. “I have to be the Debbie Downer,” he said. “I have to say things like this will fail and the city will be left holding the bag.”

Yankovich asked what sort of pool the group was envisioning, and if it would be an indoor pool that could be used year-round. “We haven’t crossed that bridge yet,” Sterly replied. Yankovich then asked how much it would cost to build an outdoor pool like the one that was previously at the site, and Sterly said, “I have no idea.”

Sterly noted that the pool committee could raise the money to pay for the borings themselves, and councilmembers encouraged him to explore that option further.

River City Cannabis Receives Second Citation for Odor

During his city manager’s report, Burns shared that River City Cannabis had received another odor citation. The microbusiness both grows and sells marijuana out of a suite in the Lowell City Mall on W. Main Street. The business was previously cited two weeks ago.

Burns said the odor seems to be intermittent, and the owners have been cooperative but haven’t been able to determine how odor is making its way into other tenant spaces. The Lowell Police Department will begin making daily inspections of the business, and Burns said he will be working with city attorney Jessica Wood to begin the process of revoking their license.

“Why do we have so much tolerance for that?” DeVore asked. Burns said the city needed to build a case before revoking a license.

“Honestly, these businesses can be very litigious, and we want to make sure we have our ducks in a row,” Wood said.

Burns added that it was his understanding that a hearing would need to take place to revoke a license, and he believed it should be something councilmembers vote on. “As Jessica says, we’re going to be sued, and we have to be ready,” Burns said.

Yankovich noted that when a restaurant moved in next to his jewelry store, he had a cloud of exhaust in his building for a period of time while the new business sorted out the problem. For that reason, he felt some patience was warranted to provide River City Cannabis a chance to resolve the problem.

Later, in his board updates, Chambers noted that the Planning Commission had set a public hearing to gather comments about marijuana ordinance at its next meeting.

Other Meeting Items

Other agenda and discussion items from the meeting included the following:

  • Approval of a resolution to enter into a development agreement with the new owners of the former line shack building on Riverside Drive.
  • Approval of the purchase of flower boxes to be installed on the Main Street bridge thanks to a bequeath from a resident.
  • Approval of the closure of a portion of Riverside Drive on May 18 to facilitate an event hosted by LowellArts.
  • Approval of resolutions to allow the restaurants Ripple, Junction (formerly Larkin’s) and Rio Plano Tacqueria to participate in the social district.

All approvals were made unanimously. Planning Commission Chair Bruce Barker also presented the annual report from the commission.

At the end of the meeting, Chambers noted it was Police Chief Chris Hurst’s birthday, and he presented him with a small cake while everyone in attendance sang “Happy Birthday.”

The meeting adjourned at 9:19pm. The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will take place on Monday, March 7, at 7pm.

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