Planning Commission Recap: Washington Street Development, Flat River Discussion

The Lowell Planning Commission met for nearly two hours on Monday night to two discuss two items of business: a housing development at the north end of Washington Street and the update to the city’s master plan.

All commissioners were present for the meeting which was also attended by City Manager Mike Burns and planning consultant Andy Moore from the firm Williams & Works.

11 Homes Approved for N. Washington Street

A large contingent of area residents were on hand for the evening’s review of a housing development proposed for the parcel at 1040 N. Washington Street. The 12-acre property is north of Oakwood Cemetery and was previously owned by the Atwood Corporation. While the property is in the city, it is bordered by Vergennes Township on the north and east, and the road there is apparently controlled by the county.

Howard Hehrer of JTB Homes was present at the meeting to provide an overview of the project. All 11 homes would be placed on lots that meet city requirements for single-family homes. Behind the homes would be a shared open space that would lead to the Flat River. Hehrer noted most of the open space was in the floodplain and the intent was to leave that open space largely natural with no development planned.

Seven area residents spoke on the project and shared concerns.

Lisa Stormzand noted the properties would each have a septic system and asked why they weren’t required to hook into the city’s sewer system. Moore replied that the city ordinance only requires new construction to connect to the system if it is within 250 feet of an existing sewer line. In this case, the existing sewer line is about 1,300 feet away.

Elaine Gregerson said she counted 15 homes on one side of Washington from Avery to Fremont and noted that the proposed development would put 11 houses in a row on a quarter mile stretch of road. “That’s quite a bit different from how the city is set out, in my opinion,” Gregerson said.

She also had concerns about allowing so many septic tanks so close to the Flat River. “I’m just thinking a little bit of spill and oh, your river is going to be ruined.”

Moore said that before any home was constructed, the Kent County Health Department would have to sign off on the placement of the septic tanks. “To me, it’s not alarming that there’s not sewer (lines) there,” he said, adding: “The Health Department will make the final decision.”

Gail Drake wondered why local residents were not given the opportunity to purchase the property from Atwood. “Why is it that we had no idea this was going on?” she asked, adding later, “It seems really sneaky to me.”

“The city plays no role in the transfer of private property,” Burns replied.

Drake also had concerns about the number of homes proposed and asked if any changes were planned to the road to accommodate them. Burns said the road wasn’t on the city’s street plan. It was also noted that there are no known plans by the county to change that stretch of road.

Bruce Matthews thought perhaps the commission might want to require the developer to create a conservation easement for the open space near the Flat River to ensure that it remains undeveloped. Bill Schreur echoed that suggestion, but Burns did not know if the city could legally make such a requirement of a private property owner.

Ed Stormzand asked about an environmental impact study and inquired into how many similar developments had been constructed in the city. Burns noted that Highland Hills, RiverView Flats and housing communities behind Tractor Supply Co and along Bowes Road were all the same type of development.

Peggy Covert, who owns the property directly to the north of the development asked about adding a fence to avoid the possibility of people walking from the open space onto her property which was also natural woodland and contained a pond.

During the commission’s discussion on the proposal, Moore noted that a fence might be hard to maintain since the area was in the floodplain. He also thought it might require the removal of some trees, something Covert said she wanted to avoid. Instead, Commissioner Marty Chambers suggested the developer put “No Trespassing” signs up every 15 feet along the property line.

Moore also noted at one point in the discussion that homes are allowed by right on the property, and the plan meets all lot and setback requirements. Staff had the ability to approve the plan internally but brought it before the commission for review since it was likely that residents would have questions and concerns.

After some further discussion, the Lowell Planning Commission unanimously approved the site plan with seven conditions:

Four standard conditions that apply to every site plan and require building permits and approval from appropriate county and state entities, as needed.

Addition of sidewalks along the parcel, to be completed within three years.

No trespassing signs installed every 15 feet on the north side of the development. The south side adjoins Oakwood Cemetery so it was determined no signage was needed there.

Language added to the development’s master deed that prohibits development in the floodplain and limits development outside the floodplain to low-impact uses such as a playground for residents.

Master Plan Review Spurs Flat River Discussion

The other item of business on the agenda was the continuation of discussion regarding an update to the city’s master plan. During this meeting, Moore reviewed the updated goals and objectives that were created based on feedback provided by commissioners at the previous meeting.

At one point, Chair Tony Ellis asked if an objective being discussed would include maintaining the Flat River. That led to a brief discussion about the current issue of vegetation in the waterway.

“In our charter, it’s not our responsibility to take care of the river,” Burns said. “We will never have the revenue to maintain that river.”

“The channel on the east side is almost impassable now,” said Commissioner Dave Cadwallader.

Ellis thought maintaining the river should be added an objective to the master plan. “Who wants to come to a marsh?” he said.

Chambers recalled how the water level in the river used to be lowered so the community could work together to remove debris and trash from the river floor. “Times have changed,” he said.

“If you could get King Milling to relinquish control of the dam, (we) could increase the speed of the river to help move water through,” Chambers added later.

Burns appeared adamant that river maintenance was not something the city could undertake. He noted that when he worked in Fenton, it cost $100,000 a year to harvest milfoil from the water there. Short of a special assessment to pay for the cost, he didn’t see that as practical for Lowell.

“If you’re expecting us to cut police and fire to maintain that river, it’s not going to happen,” Burns said.

Moore pulled the conversation back to the master plan and said that it was intended to be a “visionary exercise” and not a commitment for something that the city would be doing immediately. It was decided by commissioners to add Flat River protection to the master plan goals.

At the end of the master plan discussion, resident Tyler Kent asked if the commission would also keep improving safety and efficiency of roads as an objective in the plan. This was apparently removed previously. “We are a commuting city,” Kent said, noting that “Alden Nash backs up a mile and a half up the hill.”

The Lowell Planning Commission adjourned at 8:57pm. The next meeting of the commission will take place on Monday, July 8, at 7pm in Lowell City Hall.

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