Finding the tools

Marquette County housing summit focuses on solutions

MARQUETTE — Zoning is a major tool in dealing with local housing issues, said officials who took part in Wednesday’s Marquette County Housing Solutions Summit.

The Lake Superior Community Partnership put on the webinar, which took place on Wednesday and Thursday.

Taking part in the session titled “Local Government Housing Tools” were Nate Heffron, Negaunee city manager; Craig Cugini, Ishpeming city manager; Sean Hobbins, Marquette assistant city manager; and Jason McCarthy, Marquette Township planning and zoning administrator.

“I think zoning is kind of where a lot of these discussions start,” LSCP CEO Sarah Lucas said.

Those discussions, she stressed, need to take into account multiple zoning types.

“I think it’s important to consider all stages of life as we’re planning for these housing needs and know that we need different types of housing for different stages of life,” she said.

The participants talked about ways their communities are handling housing challenges.

City of Negaunee

“We’re working hard up here to find ways to leverage tools that we have in order to get housing in Negaunee,” Heffron said.

Announced on Wednesday was the auctioning of three city-owned lots along County Road that have been auctioned off to the Snapp Building Company of Marquette, which submitted the winning bid of $7,500 for the development of housing projects in the city.

The lots were previously part of the Negaunee city park system but were removed after a recommendation from the Negaunee Planning and Zoning Commission. That recommendation was later approved in a resolution by the Negaunee City Council.

The company has five years to develop those properties, Heffron said.

Why the low price?

“Right now, to me the land is worthless because it doesn’t generate tax revenue, and in order for our community to grow in Negaunee, we have to have more tax revenue,” Heffron said.

He believes that to make development appealing, the cost of land and materials, the shortage of workers and the short construction season are factors that need to be addressed, and costs must be lowered.

Private business profits are another consideration, he said.

“Developers are not mandated to build affordable housing,” Heffron said. “They’re going to build to make their money back, to make it profitable for all. However, we have an opportunity to leverage city- or community-owned properties to potentially have some mix in there where they have to provide some element of affordable housing, however we want to do that.”

Another good idea, he said, is to educate local boards and councils to work together as one voice in Marquette County.

City of Ishpeming

“Ishpeming is taking the approach of ‘Try everything, try it twice, and the third (time) it fails, try again,'” Cugini said. “So, we don’t limit or restrict ourselves in any manner.”

The city has three neighborhood enterprise zones, which involve tax incentives to private investors, said Cugini, who pointed out that having a vacant lot versus a lot with a home provides a greater long-term tax benefit to the city.

Cugini said a committee is considering how to remove “really blighted” homes, with the city’s department of public works being trained to help with demolition and save money.

“I think most of the time when we find an open space in Ishpeming, people want it immediately for parking lots because we’re short on parking,” Cugini said. “We have to really strategically think of whether or not that lot should be developed into a new home or housing opportunity or whether it’s serving a better purpose as a parking area for some of our apartments that don’t have parking. Now, all of a sudden, they can meet the zoning criteria that requires the parking spaces per apartment.”

Cugini said Ishpeming has lower-income families that can’t afford certain housing, with 46% of residents considered “asset limited” and “income restrained.”

“That really tells you the tale of why we are probably some of the most blighted housing,” he said. “The people that can afford to be in a house can’t afford to put any money into their house to even maintain, let alone, improve on housing, so we have that as a challenge.”

Cugini said working with the Marquette County Land Bank, trying to get tax breaks for people and getting properties on the National Register of Historic Places are tools that give the city flexibility.

“The reality is it’s going to take something new, which is probably some revenue,” he said. “It’s probably going to be some education on getting tradespeople right out of high school.”

Cugini also said zoning is a tool to shape the community to give it flexibility to support developers.

City of Marquette

Hobbins said the city has used several techniques to address housing: local development agreements and a brownfield development plan.

“There’s a site that’s underserved by water and sewer service,” he said of the agreements, “and in exchange of the city bumping up that replacement on its capital improvement plan, the developer would guarantee a certain amount of investment. What it does, (is) it gives a payback on our investment into the infrastructure within a certain amount of time, much like a brownfield plan would, but there’s not a specific (tax) capture for it.”

The Residences on Harbor Vista on the south side of Marquette, the site of a former hotel, is an example of such an agreement, Hobbins said.

Brownfield funding, he said, involves the use of tax increment financing in “deficient” properties in which the initial taxable value is frozen but continues to go into normal tax entities. For the life of the brownfield plan, the increase in taxable value is captured to pay back eligible expenses.

Founders Landing projects, Hobbins said, used brownfield funding.

The Marquette City Commission recently approved a report from its Ad-Hoc Housing Committee that included recommendations on the issue. The report can be found at www.marquettemi.gov.

Other housing projects in the city are being considered, he said.

“I know that the Ad-Hoc Committee report has been really helpful, and I think a really good example, of how local governments can be proactive and deliberate about how they address this,” Lucas said.

Marquette Township

“Our most powerful tool is probably zoning,” McCarthy said.

The township, which McCarthy noted has seen a 6% increase in population from 2010 to 2020, has vacant land that is zoned for residential development. The township also has the ability to have mixed-use development with commercial and residential uses.

“One thing that I think we’ll start talking about in the future is going back to some of our residential zoning districts that were typically single-family — our platted area, let’s say, Trowbridge Park — and maybe allowing multi-family or duplexes in those types of districts, because typically right now it’s very single-family only, and I think there’s properties that we have that could be accessible,” McCarthy said.

He believes there is an influx of people leaving urban areas and coming into the area wanting to invest in places such as a second home or camp.

McCarthy acknowledged that although zoning currently is a “popular mantra,” it is a powerful tool in setting up a community for allowing different projects that are smart for the area.

He suggested being innovative and recognizing trends — and trying to stay ahead of those trends.

“I’ve been trying to educate the communities that I do work for to start looking at your zoning ordinances’ definitions,” said McCarthy, who performs contract zoning for other Marquette County communities. “A lot of those smaller rural townships do not have the definitions and the land uses in there that they should, so that’s the first and foremost thing.”

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.


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