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Planning updates: Planning Commission to revise downtown, zoning ordinance master plan chapters this year

Planning Commission to revise downtown, zoning ordinance master plan chapters this year

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Houghton City Manager Eric Waara talks during the Planning Commission meeting in 2018. The Planning Commission will tackle two chapters of the master plan in 2021.

HOUGHTON — The Houghton Planning Commission agreed to what parts of the city’s master plan it will review this year as part of a process that will also lead to recommendations on development in the city’s downtown.

The Planning Commission decided Tuesday it would tackle two chapters in the city’s master plan this year: 10, which covers the downtown, and 13, which discusses zoning ordinances.

In January, the City Council voted to have the planning commission conduct an overview of the year-and-a-half-long process leading up to the Veridea Group’s withdrawal from negotiations over potential development of the big parking deck area on Lakeshore Drive, and make recommendations on a process for the city to follow going forward. At the Planning Commission’s request, the City Council also authorized the commission to address its recommendations through the master plan revision.

During public comments, resident Craig Waddell suggested adding Chapter 8, dealing with neighborhoods. He cited a 2017 quality-of-life survey of residents who listed it as a pressing need.

Planning Commission members were amenable to addressing it in 2022, but said the two chapters were more important for this year.

“We’ve got a Herculean task coming up here with this single issue where it all started, and I personally don’t want us to get too far diverted from that,” City Manager Eric Waara said. “When we start talking surveys and all the things we’re talking about … to do it right, it’s going to take time.”

The 2017 survey was only shortly after the city had added a code enforcement position, said Planning Commission member Mike Needham. The city’s ordinance regarding compliance with the International Building Code has also improved conditions, he said.

“I have a lot of people tell me they can’t believe how much better all rental properties look now than they did five years ago,” he said.

The Planning Commission will hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 2, to discuss the structure of the master plan revision committee.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Chair Tom Merz laid out two options for how the commission would address the chapters. One would create ad hoc committees devoted to revising the chapters, each with three or four members. The committees would meet publicly and share progress updates and recommendations with the rest of the commission. The second option was to continue addressing revisions at its regular and special meetings.

Planning Commission member Michelle Jarvie-Eggart hoped Chapter 13 could include a compendium of former mining sites within the city along with talk about future land use. Carol MacLennan, a Michigan Technological University social sciences professor who spoke about a site to be potentially rezoned along Houghton Canal Road at a recent meeting, has offered to help with research, Jarvie-Eggart said. Merz said he had received a similar email, and thanked MacLennan in a response sent to the rest of the commission.

The Planning Commission will also send a letter to Michigan State University Extension and the National Charrette Institute expressing interest in their proposal to set up a precharrette for public engagement on next steps for the Lakeshore Drive property and downtown development in general.

“It’s just kind of a way of establishing, ‘Okay, what are the issues here? Who needs to be involved?’ What’s the best way to go forward?’ with people who have done this sort of thing before,” she said.

The Planning Commission also started discussing how meetings will be conducted after remote meetings end. As of now, governmental bodies in Michigan will be required to meet in person starting April 1.

Merz outlined three possibilities: meeting at the Dee Stadium ballroom; meeting in the City Council chambers with a minimal crowd and an option for the public to watch via Zoom; or meeting in the City Council chambers with no Zoom. All three options would include mask requirements, social distancing and providing contact information for contact tracing.

With more than a month to go, and the state still potentially able to the commission made no decision Wednesday. Merz said he preferred the first option, as it would provide the most public engagement. Given the social distancing requirements, nine or 10 audience members at most could be seated in council chambers, he said.

Vice Chair Bill Leder said he would oppose the third option.

“With citizens and others feeling they’re being left out anyway, limiting public participation to this extent I don’t think would be wise,” he said.

Clerk Ann Vollrath said she and Mayor Bob Backon conducted a trial run of Zoom in the council chambers with a wide-angle camera. While the audio worked well, people who are hard of hearing told Vollrath they were unable to read lips.

“If all nine of you are sitting in that room, and we have a wide-angle lens, people are not going to able to see what you’re saying, they’re only going to have to hear what you’re saying,” she said. “It was awkward, and some people said that they could not take part because they could not read your lips.”

Vollrath said the city could look into having meetings taped by a professional cameraperson, as is done in Marquette County.

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