Planning Commission Recap: New Chair, Housing and Master Plan Discussions

The Lowell Planning Commission met for about an hour and 40 minutes on Monday night. Since the commission did not meet in January, this was its first meeting of the year.

Chair Bruce Barker started the meeting by welcoming John Barnett as the commission’s newest member. He was appointed in December to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Amanda Schrauben. Barker then asked for nominations for the position of chair for 2024.

Commissioner Marty Chambers – who is the Lowell City Council representative on the body – immediately nominated Commissioner Tony Ellis, and the motion was seconded by Commissioner Dave Cadwallader. No additional nominations were made, and Ellis was elected chair unanimously. Chambers then nominated Commissioner Michael Gadula as vice chair, and he was also unanimously elected to the position.

It is unclear whether Barker knew he would not be re-elected chair, but it appeared Councilmember Jim Salzwedel had been told there could be a change in commission leadership. Prior to the meeting, Salzwedel was sitting in the audience, and Chambers asked if he was there to speak. Salzwedel replied that it “depends on you.” Then, during public comments, Salzwedel congratulated Ellis and Gadula for their election and encouraged them to reach out to councilmembers if ever needed.

Housing Next Presentation

There were two pieces of business on the agenda, and the first was a presentation by Brooke Oosterman, executive director of the non-profit Housing Next. She previously addressed Lowell City Council and provided similar information to the Lowell Planning Commission about the need to provide diverse housing options.

“People are surprised to hear that we’re talking about households earning up to $100,000 per year,” she said. However, she noted creating housing for this demographic ensured that higher-income households don’t “eat up” lower priced housing options.

Chambers asked what the average rent or house payment would be for these families. Oosterman replied that these families would be considered middle-income with earnings that fall between 80% to 120% of the area median income. She noted that this segment of families has the highest demand for housing according to her organization’s assessment.

“We’re talking about people who can afford a home up to about 350, 400 ($350,000/$400,000),” she said. For rent, these households are estimated to be able to afford up to $1,500 per month.

According to Oosterman, there has been a shift in market preferences for baby boomers and millennials, both of whom seem to prefer smaller homes in walkable areas. She added that many communities are looking into allowing accessory dwelling units which allow a property owner to place a second building on their lot. These buildings could be used to provide housing for children in college or older parents. They could also be rented out to provide income to the homeowner.

Commissioner Colin Plank asked how the City of Lowell came to the attention of Housing Next. City Manager Mike Burns said he had attended several presentations by Housing Next and reached out to them to discuss affordable housing.

“We have a lot of older housing stock and we have a lot of older people in our community and as time evolves, there is probably going to be transition of those people out of their homes and having to do something with those properties,” he said. He also mentioned there have been changes to state law regarding Brownfield tax credits for developers.

After the meeting, Burns said he thought the property behind the Greenridge Realty office was a good example of where infill development could take place. He also said that there is land behind Tractor Supply Co which is outside the wetland area and could be developed. Beyond that, he thought there was a possibility that some larger homes in the city could be converted to duplexes in the future.

During the discussion, Oosterman mentioned Town Square in Rockford and Robinson Landing in Grand Haven as example developments. She said Housing Next would be happy to provide information about resources that could reimburse the city for costs associated with making the zoning changes needed to allow smaller lots and higher density development.

Oosterman will next meet with the Downtown Development Authority.

Master Plan Work Session

For the second item of business, the Planning Commission worked on the city’s Master Plan.

They were first asked to compile a list of opportunities – things that could help the city – followed by a list of threats – things that could hinder the city. Burns and City Clerk Sue Ullery participated in the activity as well.

About 15 items were mentioned by commissioners and staff as opportunities:

  • Rivers
  • Availability of local employment
  • Continued downtown growth
  • Public art
  • Incentives for small town businesses
  • Parking ramp
  • Affordable housing
  • Lower value properties
  • Recreational park development
  • Water and sewer systems
  • M-21 safety
  • Home of North Country Trail
  • Aging housing stock
  • Promising area of West Michigan
  • Placemaking

Meanwhile, a dozen threats to the future of Lowell were identified:

  • Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) which must approve anything pertaining to the rivers
  • No current vision as a city
  • Slow pace of change
  • State control over M-21
  • FEMA which recently updated flood maps “on a whim”
  • Uncontrolled density of developments
  • Traffic on Main Street
  • Cost of everything
  • Cost of replacing infrastructure
  • Crosswalks on Main Street
  • Lack of grants from state and federal governments
  • Uneducated public

Then, commissioners and city staff were asked to identify what they considered to be the top three opportunities.

That was followed by naming their top three threats.

Finally, commissioners took a look at the vision statement for the city that was included in the 2007 Master Plan.

The consensus was that the current statement is impersonal. It was also decided to remove the reference to the city’s small town character.

“When I think of a small town, I think of Belding and Saranac,” Burns said. “We’re not Belding and Saranac.” He considered Lowell to be similar to Northville, Chelsea and Plymouth, which were all small towns at one time but grew.

A new suggested vision statement was stated as:

In 2050, Lowell will be a vibrant city that works with neighboring communities, provides quality services and effectively manages growth while maintaining a strong sense of place and community pride.

This is not the final draft of the vision statement, and Lowell City Council, the Downtown Development Authority and the Parks & Recreation Commission will all complete similar exercises before a final version is created.

The meeting adjourned at 8:41pm, and the next regular meeting of the Lowell Planning Commission is scheduled for March 11 at 7pm in Lowell City Hall.

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