Voting reform and housing development projects were key issues discussed at the Ann Arbor City Council meeting Monday. Members of council voted down proposed resolutions on local official term-limits, switching to non-partisan elections and moving city primary elections. If passed, the resolutions would have gone on the November 3rd ballot for voters to consider.
Regarding housing development projects within Ann Arbor, a number of amendments to the zoning chapter of city code passed. Many Ann Arbor residents voiced disapproval of one specific project, Geddes Avenue Improvement Project on Monday.
Among the election reform resolutions discussed was Councilmember Jane Lumm’s (I–Ward 2) proposal to put on the November ballot a proposal to switch elections from partisan to nonpartisan elections — for both mayoral and city councilmember elections — which was voted against by Council in a 7-4 vote.
Kirk Westphal’s (D–Ward 2) resolution was for mayor and city councilmember terms to be four years instead of the current two-year term system. Like Lumm, he also proposed a resolution to have non-partisan elections.
Another resolution to go on the ballot asked for increasing term numbers from two to four years and moving city primary elections to August and have elections starting in 2016 and on even years. This would eliminate odd-year elections.
None of the resolutions were approved to go on the November ballot.
Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2) said part of her reasoning for proposing her resolution was that only three other counties in Michigan have partisan elections and that Ann Arbor is an outlier. She said nonpartisan elections would encourage elected officials to go out and see, by going door-to-door, what the community wants.
Voter participation was a factor discussed with election reform, and many council members discussed the problem of low voter turnout. Many councilmembers also pointed out that the significant student population of the city is a large contributing factor.
Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) said she has spent a lot of time looking for conclusive data on voter turnout for partisan versus nonpartisan local elections. She added there needs to be an increase in student participation in city politics.
“If it wasn’t about marijuana, it wasn’t interesting,” Briere said of past student participation in local government. “Even when local races are on the same ballot as state and national races, local races receive fewer votes — partisan and nonpartisan,” she said. “My observation has always been the nonpartisan ballot gets the least attention, has the least awareness and we are already fighting an uphill battle.”
Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1) said 5 percent of registered voters voted in the last election and that the system was not working to represent everyone in the city.
“Is it really working for the average voter? I don’t think so. Just getting more people into the voting booth and voting is a good thing,” Kailasapathy said.
Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3) said the low registered voter turnout might be an inflated number since many students do not change their voter registration from their parents’ home address to the city of Ann Arbor.
Members of council ultimately rejected the resolution calling for nonpartisan elections, the motion calling for four-year terms and eliminating odd-year elections.
Council did approve, however, four ordinances to amend to the city’s zoning code. In response to Ann Arbor residents’ continued concern about the over-development of the city, some of these amendments will add tighter restrictions on future development plans.
One of these restrictions is the East Huron Character Overlay Amendment, proposing the maximum height be reduced for buildings in the D1 and D2 districts while adding a 130 feet maximum tower diagonal height.
Although the construction of Foundry Lofts, a student housing high-rise being built on East Huron that calls itself “Ann Arbor’s most exclusive residence,” will be completed this year, similar buildings as tall as the Foundry Lofts will not be allowed under the new East Huron Character Overlay Amendment.
During the public hearing section about the plans for rezoning East Ann Street, quite a number of residents spoke in favor of the zoning revisions that they say would preserve the historic district of Ann Arbor and stop more buildings like Foundry Lofts from being built there in the future.
At the public hearing for a resolution to amend the re-zoning code in the Nixon road area area, three residents opposed the resolution for development because of traffic concerns.
During discussion, councilmember Briere said the zoning code in downtown Ann Arbor will need to be continually revisited with care in the future and that building plans and their ramifications for the community need to be looked at not after developers build the structures, like in the case of Foundry Lofts, but before they are built.
Councilmember Mike Anglin (D–Ward 5) agreed, adding the rent in these areas is becoming too high due to these luxury highrises and is only getting higher.
“I think the public outcry about what buildings we are getting in terms of design are not being taken as significant. The public speak, and it’s dismissed,” said Anglin. “Well, that’s not good governance. I would like us to be really alert to this and not to keep going forward for the sake of getting some more money into our city as if that’s going to improve it. Actually, what you’re going to do is increase expansion outside the city: as people can’t afford to be here, they’ll move out of the city — just the opposite effect of what you thought was going to happen.”
Councilmembers also discussed the issue of flooding within the city. Because of a recent history of severe flooding due to climate change, the council is also looking at an ongoing creation of an ordinance for a floodplain management overlay. Members of council unanimously approved a proposal to go to the Ann Arbor Planning Commission for recommendations for the ordinance. Councilmember Jack Eaton (D–Ward 5), a sponsor of the resolution along with Jane Lumm, worked with University graduate students to come up with the beginnings of the plan.
“In 2012 on the day of the Dexter tornado, the Churchill Downs neighborhood experienced flooding in the streets, in the backyards, in the basements — it was a remarkable flood occasion,” Eaton said.
He said the ordinance would address multiple neighborhoods and would start with the neighborhoods close to the Huron River.
“On Sunday, June 14th of this year, we had flooding throughout the city — up in Churchill Downs,” Eaton said. “On Scio Church between 7th and Main, Hill Street area, South University Park, the areas surrounding Edgeward and Snyder. There was so much water in the streets that it came up to people’s front porches.”
Councilmembers then discussed the controversial Geddes Avenue Improvement Project.
Three projects — Geddes Avenue Reconstruction, Geddes Avenue Sanitary Sewer, and Geddes Avenue Storm Sewer — make up the $10 million Geddes Avenue Improvement Project that involved seven resolutions on Monday’s agenda. There will be a public hearing on the upcoming project on August 6th at 7 p.m. at Guy Larcom Municipal Building.
Council approved the resolution to go ahead with planning for the project. Part of the project is a plan to build storm sewers and sidewalks on Geddes Avenue. This was a concern for many citizens who spoke at public commentary. Some Ann Arbor residents at the meeting were also in favor of it.
Ann Arbor resident Kathy Brennan said the plan will remove trees on Geddes Avenue and that citizens have been coming to council meetings to voice their objection to the project.
“The city was going to put in new sidewalks and sewers on Geddes Ave. But we just found out they’re taking away 200 trees. Just ripping them out,” said Brennan. “And it’s almost like it’s a done deal.”
A letter from Sonya T. Butler, chief of Revolving Loan Section from the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance and the Department of Environmental Quality, to concerned citizens summarized the qualms, which included tree removal and animal habitat interference, that Ann Arbor residents had voiced about the project. Ann Arbor resident Eliza Beverage also decried the Geddes Improvement Project, saying that it would put a financial strain on homeowners in the area.
Council also discussed the ongoing site plan resolution of The Racquet Club of Ann Arbor. The club has requested to demolish an old tennis building in order to build a racquet club, pool building and snack shack. The construction for the project is proposed to cost around $2.5 million.
Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor, Councilmember Julie Grand (D–Ward 3), and Lumm, all members of the Ann Arbor Racquet Club, excused themselves from the voting process. The club’s resolution at Monday’s meeting, which has been previously rejected by City Council, asked to forgo the city’s current sidewalk requirement. The sidewalk waiver resolution was approved to go back to the Ann Arbor planning commission.