HARBERT — A revised site plan for the proposed Union Green development was approved despite complications from new zoning rules for the Union Pier area at the February 9 Chikaming Township Planning Commission meeting.
A Union Pier overlay district that went into effect November 2, 2021 was not in place when planners gave initial site plan approval in July 2021, and the fate of a major feature of the revised site plan of Union Green presented to planners on Feb. 9 that appears to conflict with the new rules could end up being decided by the township’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
Planners approved the Union Green site plan by a 4-1 vote on February 9 with the following stipulations – that the developer go to the Zoning Appeal Board to seek a waiver reducing a requirement under the District of superimposed zoning that the front half of the first floor structures in the Union Pier Corridor portion of the neighborhood be set aside for commercial purposes; amend the site plan to remove two parking spaces adjacent to a “home/work” retail space and conform to a 10 foot front setback requirement for buildings; and that an updated site plan be provided to the township authorities.
“This is the first time we’ve had this ordinance in front of us, we’re testing it,” Planning Commission Chairman John Chipman said. “We’re testing it with a sitemap that was actually approved under a different order.”
In June 2021, Brad Rottschafer began the process of obtaining township approval to build the Union Green development on a 1.05 acre site (the former home of Riviera Gardens) located at the corner of Red Highway Arrow and Goodwin Avenue.
Following an Aug. 4 public hearing on the Union Green site plan, planners requested additional information on factors such as open space requirements and parking. On September 1, the Planning Commission also requested responses regarding driveway safety requirements to eliminate dead ends, reduce density and increase open space, and the submission of an impact assessment.
Suzanne Schulz of Progressive AE presented a revised sitemap designed to meet September 1 requests at the February 9 meeting.
Highlights of the new site plan include a reduction in the number of residential units from 20 to 18, with the two proposed former buildings along the Red Arrow Freeway being consolidated into one. An earlier site plan indicated that the housing sites would range in size from 2,100 to 8,000 square feet.
“Grass block pavers” were also added to the plan in the northwest portion of the property near a repositioned swimming pool to allow access for emergency responders; additional green space for a more park-like feel; and a screened waste corral area.
Schulz said the townhouses along Goodwin will be three stories while the carriage house along Red Arrow will be two stories, adding that “very high quality materials” will be used. She said the relationship between the buildings and the sidewalk is designed to be “walkable” and “village-like.”
She said a traffic impact study (based on the design of 20 units) predicted about 20 new morning rush hour trips on weekdays and 23 new afternoon rush hour trips in week.
In July 2021, the area in question was zoned CU Union Pier Mixed Use, and multi-family residential development was permitted with special land use approval.
On Feb. 9, Chikaming Zoning Administrator Kelly Largent said the proposed development is no longer a special land use in the Union Pier Overlay Zoning District (which regulates zoning in parts of Chikaming and New Buffalo Township from Union Pier) which came into effect in November. 2. 2021.
“You will now find that this is an authorized use,” Largent said.
But later in the meeting, a section of Union Pier’s zoning rules regarding the “uses” of first floors became an issue.
The latest site plan for Union Green calls for the first floors of all but the living/working facility to be residential.
But the wording of the ordinance for the “Union Pier Corridor” area states, “Residences may be permitted in the back 50% of the ground, but the front 50% must be for commercial use.”
It also reads: “The commercial first floor will span the full width of the building’s frontage as seen from the adjacent public street.”
The first floors of the “Union Pier Village” district (the downtown area) must be used for commercial purposes only.
Planning Commission member Grace Rappe said it looks like the building along the Red Arrow Freeway will need to be redesigned.
But Schulz said she thought there was some question as to whether the order was intended to require advertisements on the entire facade of a building along the Red Arrow Freeway in the “corridor” area.
“From an economic viability perspective, and ensuring there are not more vacancies along the Red Arrow Freeway, it would not seem logical to require commercial space on the ground floor. Most communities that had this requirement are now repealing them and changing them from what they used to be because they have an overabundance of vacant commercial space,” she said.
Planning Commission Chairman John Chipman said the intention to have separate village corridors and districts in the Overlay District was to concentrate commercial entities in the central part of Union Pier, adding that he thinks Schulz is right to call the rules confusing.
“The reality is you’re not going to have storefronts all the way down the hall,” he said, adding that no order is perfect and “we’re going to work on it.”
Rappe later said, “The zoning ordinance, clear or unclear, is all we have at the moment. And there are things here that are written that are clearly not part of this development proposal.
Planner Andy Brown noted that a site plan has already been approved and the developer has been asked to make changes such as creating more visual security at the corner of Red Arrow and Goodwin, and they did.
“They did the things we asked for that were reasonable, which would make their sitemap even more appealing,” he said.
There has been debate over whether anything with the density of the Union Green project could ever be developed under the current zoning, Rappe said nine three-bedroom units per property was now the limit.
Following the Planning Commission’s 4-1 decision and a series of public comments, Rappe (who voted the only “no”) announced his intention to resign from the Planning Commission, calling the decision of requesting waivers from the ZBA instead of following what it called “absolutely horrible” proper procedures.
Those who spoke about the Union Green issue during public comments included:
Suzanne Koenigsberg, who said driving across the Red Arrow Freeway, a street at 45 miles per hour without lights, doesn’t seem like a safe bet. She also wondered if there would be enough parking for everyone likely to be in a short-term rental community.
Karen Doughty said she doesn’t think the proposed development is a good use of space. She also said it looks like the big trees that need to be felled will be replaced by 34 “twigs”.
Jim Harper said he thought the development was far too dense. Harper said the impact on already small and crowded public beaches worries him.
Fran Wersells asked “Why is there nothing green in Union Green, why is there no mention of using eco-friendly materials, solar panels, heaps of compost?”
Babe Paukstys said the traffic studies were done on weekdays while “our problems are on the weekends”. She said with up to a dozen people potentially in each of the 18 units, there aren’t enough parking spaces and sending them onto the Red Arrow Freeway isn’t safe. She also questioned the affordability of the units.
Nick Martinski said he thought township officials seemed more focused on representing the interests of the builder than township residents. “You’ve already approved it, and now you’re going to receive public comments. So our comments mean nothing.
Pijus Stoncius asked how the township fire department would arrive at a fire on the third floor.
Koenigsberg concluded the public comment session by saying “We don’t want that here.”
Also on February 9, the Planning Commission approved a site plan for a proposed Barndogg cafe in an existing structure near the corner of Wintergreen and Red Arrow Highway at Union Pier on the condition of obtaining a ZBA waiver involving permission public parking located less than 600 feet across the Red Arrow Freeway to alleviate the limited number of parking spaces available at the existing site, as well as to address concerns raised regarding front yard parking, removal of trash cans and widening of entry and exit points.
And planners heard from Joseph Reed, who said the planned concert hall for Harbert Community Park was progressing through a somewhat closed process by the park board without a proper master plan reviewed by the planning commission.