Waterfront group hits goal for petition, might not use it

(Garrett Neese/For the Gazette) Ben Ciavola, a member of the Houghton Waterfront Redevelopment Group, addresses the Houghton City Council Wednesday. Seated from left are City Manager Eric Waara, Clerk Ann Vollrath and council members Buck Foltz, John Sullivan, Robert Megowen and Bob Backon.

HOUGHTON — Despite reaching its goal for signatures on a petition for an initiative regarding the development of property on Lakeshore Drive in Houghton, a citizen group may seek a different way to gauge the public’s opinion.

The group obtained about 160 signatures, above the 133 required to make the ballot, said Houghton Waterfront Redevelopment Citizens Group member Jim Hertel.

The measure would ask, “Should the sale of the waterfront parking deck property be postponed until the citizens of Houghton and other stakeholders are able to participate in an open decision-making process about the use of the property that explores other options besides a sale to a single private developer?”

The initiative would be advisory, and not bind the council to any action.

The group still has to decide whether it will seek the election. City Manager Eric Waara said Wednesday the election would cost the city about $7,000, with the county incurring additional time.

“That would be the only reason to have an election,” he said. “It’s not like you’re slipping it on a school bond proposal or something like that.”

Members had been unaware it would be the only item on the May ballot in Houghton, Hertel said after the meeting.

“That’s a bit of a surprise,” Hertel said. “…If the city has other suggestions that would avoid the cost of a ballot, we’ll consider it.”

Clerk Ann Vollrath said Wednesday it would be considerably cheaper to send Houghton’s 2,4000 registered voters a self-addressed stamp envelope with the question included.

In August, the council voted to pursue negotiations with The Veridea Group of Marquette on a mixe- use development on Lakeshore Drive. The company was one of three that responded to a request for qualifications.

Councilor Dan Salo said the city has been transparent in its dealings.

“We’ve given out all the information we know as we’ve gotten it,” he said. “There’s never been any hidden agenda or dealmaking or any other sort of action.”

Waara announced Wednesday the city will hold an open house regarding the project from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Feb. 11.

Citizens group member Norma Veurink said the city should engage in other proactive methods mentioned as options in its public participation plan, including surveys, steering committees, one-on-one interviews and design charrettes.

Its plan lists those steps as encouraged by optional for areas such as a master plan and zoning ordinance update, which also have legally required hearings and community meetings. For projects with a high level of controversy, many of the steps Veurink listed are marked as not used, while others such as a standing committee, community meeting and public hearings are encouraged but optional.

Councilor Mike Needham and Waara said not all steps apply to every situation. Needham cited the differences in development for a public works project versus one where the city sells to a developer.

“We definitely, obviously, intend to do all the applicable things, because we’re the ones who put that together that you’re reading from,” Needham said. “…I think what Eric (Waara) just proposed to do in February is the beginning and the continuation of that process that we’ve committed to do.”

Councilor John Sullivan said after the February meeting, some residents would want to take their name off the petition.

“I personally think it’s foolish to require or ask people to sign a petition to have an election for things they know nothing about,” he said.

Veurink said the city should have asked the community what it wanted to do with the space before approaching developers.

“You asked if (the February meeting) would address what we want. This is what we want,” she said, referring to the list of possible proactive approaches. “And we don’t want just one of those, we want as much as possible.”