FIXING A ‘MESS’
MARQUETTE — For Marquette city residents interested in “tiny houses,” harvesting fresh eggs from their backyards, or just making simple improvements to their home — municipal land development codes define what’s permitted and what’s not, for homeowners and businesses alike.
These rules, which inform the appearance and character of a community, are going to be overhauled in the city over the next year.
The land development code project, intended to modernize city land use codes, will involve the Marquette Planning Commission, city planning and zoning staff, a private community planning and design firm, and an ad hoc committee made up of elected officials, stakeholders and members of the public.
Officials, at a kick-off open house last week, said Marquette’s rules have been outdated for a long time.
“A lot of what we’re trying to do here is correct a lot of those things that are a mess,” said City Planner and Zoning Administrator Dave Stensaas.
Many old zoning laws don’t match up with current uses, which creates problems for property owners and staff, he said.
The project will create a user-friendly document that will update and combine various ordinance and code elements, including zoning, sign and fence ordinances, as well as three form-based codes now in use in the city
Form-based codes — a growing alternative to traditional zoning — uses physical form, rather than property use as its organizing principle.
Stensaas said the city is looking to hybridize use and form approaches to zoning, which is what many cities are doing now.
Other goals for the project include protecting the shoreline, creating better buffers for streams and stormwater runoff and creating more pedestrian-friendly environments.
Stensaas said the city also hopes to hear from residents about issues like urban agriculture — which includes greenhouses, as well as keeping chickens, bees and other animals.
Accessory dwelling units, or “granny flats,” and housing cooperatives are something else he expects to be a topic of interest, along with the potential for “tiny houses,” which are typically 400 square feet or smaller.
Other issues relate to the phasing out of the old hospital, creating more mixed use and flexible zoning districts, consolidating some districts, and setting commercial parking standards that that will reduce runoff and expense and allow for more green space.
The Marquette City Commission June 2 approved a contract with McKenna Associates, of Northville, Mich., to head up the project.
The city is budgeting about $85,000 for the contract, with $35,000 sourced from a grant. The process is expected to take one year to 18 months.
Planning Commission Chairman Taylor Klipp said McKenna is needed, because city staff alone don’t have time for a project of this scale.
“There is no extra time,” Klipp said. “The commission itself, we don’t have the expertise to actually write legal code, … and the city staff is pretty much booked to the hilt as it is.”
Klipp said there are many neighborhoods where the code isn’t up to date with current usage.
“So it gives the citizens less flexibility, it makes them go in front of us when they don’t really need to, and it just adds more workload to the board and the staff because they have to file these appeals on an ongoing basis,” Klipp said.
As of now, Stensaas said, thousands of homes on 50-foot lots don’t conform with a “short-sighted” zoning ordinance passed in the 1970s that requires lots to have at least 70 feet of frontage.
“(The codes were) actually created for a 1970s kind of fantasy world, where everybody’s (going to) create a big house on a big lot,” Stensaas said. “That was imposed on these small lots in the city. … That was a huge mistake.”
Stensaas said if an owner’s property is non-conforming when an ordinance is passed, it’s grandfathered in as “legally non-conforming.” But if any significant changes are made to the property, it has to be brought up to code.
To instead apply for a variance through the Marquette Board of Zoning Appeals, it costs $600, plus the cost of a survey.
Stensaas said because staff is bound to follow the code, people’s choices are to spend $600 to apply for a variance they may not get, alter their home to meet the code, or do nothing and wait for the codes to be revised.
“It’s almost hard to wrap your head around why (city officials in the ’70s) would’ve done that and set up thousands of properties to become non-conforming,” Stensaas said. “It’s just really hard to grasp.”
He added, “We’re (going to) try to eliminate the problems that lead people to appeal the rules.”
At the open house, Commercial property owner Dave Dowsy asked for “common sense” and said the market can decide some things better than regulations.
Developer L.R. Swadley said the “devil’s in the details.”
Swadley, board president of the Home Builder’s Association of Michigan, cited a new report by the HBA that points to a looming housing shortage. He said many people are struggling to afford to live in Marquette.
“Don’t lose sight that housing is an economic development issue in our community. Marquette is no exception; as much as we all like it, we have our challenges here for affordability,” Swadley said. “Balancing demand with price and affordability is a real, real challenge.”
Mark Curran, owner of real estate rental agency Curran & Company, said he hopes “they tear down as much of the hospital as possible” to develop smaller lots for more affordable housing.
Stensaas said when he joined the staff in 2010, a similar land development code project was foundering due to disagreements, and it ultimately ran out of resources. Attention moved instead to completing the master plan. Work generated then will still be applied to the current project, he said.
“Even though that previous land development code process fizzled out doesn’t mean we’re (going to) throw the baby out with the bath water,” Stensaas said. “We don’t want to waste all that effort.”
Patrick Sloan, senior principal planner at McKenna Associates, praised Marquette’s Community Master Plan as “one of the better we’ve ever read.”
“It’s a great city. In reading the master plan, we can tell that people are very involved, they’re very progressive, they want to see success for their community, and they have a lot of clear vision in terms of those steps,” Sloan said. “So we’re really excited to be working with the community on this project.”
Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.