City Council approves new code for Greek housing

Wednesday, July 18, 2018 - 8:43am

Members of Ann Arbor City Council listen in during public comment at the City Council meeting held in City Hall Monday.

Members of Ann Arbor City Council listen in during public comment at the City Council meeting held in City Hall Monday. Buy this photo
Emma Richter/Daily

At the Monday meeting, the Ann Arbor City Council approved changes to the zoning code for Greek life houses and moved to postpone the approval of a new development plan for the northern part of the city. 

City Council voted unanimously to approve new zoning for fraternity and sorority houses, which modifies the definition of “fraternity” and “sorority” and requires the organizations to affiliate themselves with the University or another higher education institution.

Mayor Christopher Taylor commented the changes will improve Greek life organizations’ interactions with Ann Arbor residents.

"Our goal is to more accurately increase the likelihood that fraternities and sororities are good neighbors to everyone," Taylor said. "In many cases they are. Occasionally they are not. I think this ordinance change will give us the opportunity to do something about it in that minority case."

Though the changes do not retroactively apply to existing Greek life organizations and the new zoning rules will only apply to new Greek life organizations seeking a permit or established organizations looking to expand, neighbors of Greek life houses as well as Greek life alumni came forward to discuss the proposal.

Anne Schreiber, an Ann Arbor resident whose house is surrounded by fraternity and sorority houses, was in support of the proposal, saying while some of the organization members are good neighbors, many fraternities in particular cause disturbances.

"There are an awful lot of people that are very unhappy with the way they (fraternities) behave,” Schreiber said. “They are unruly, they are noisy, they’re dirty — lots of garbage and papers and stuff. And I don’t think we should give them any more latitude. I think if anything we need to restrict them and give them some parameters. It seems like nobody can take ownership of the responsibility of their misbehavior.”

Peter Nagourney, the co-chair for the North Burns Park Association and neighbor to several Greek life houses, pointed out one neighboring residence housed a banned fraternity.

“You should know that one neighbor spent nine months constantly, and I mean daily, dealing with city, University police and Greek life entities before one of these party houses set up by members of a banned fraternity was shut down,” Nagourney said. “This is a real problem. Others in this neighborhood must constantly deal with trash, public drunkenness, loud music and other violations of city ordinances. Oversight of these groups is not done at the national level despite the claims of their attorneys. Oversight by the University and the Office of Greek Life does not seem to make much difference.”

Elizabeth Jove, a member of the house corporation that owns the Alpha Phi Sorority property and chapter adviser for the sorority, pushed the council to postpone the decision for approval, stressing a need for all voices involved to be heard.

“What we have here tonight is exactly the situation that will continue if council doesn’t let all parties sit and talk together because we’ve heard neighbors who have deeply held concerns and issues with the behavior of these properties, of the people who live on these properties,” Jove said. “This proposed zoning amendment is not going to address those issues. It doesn’t address trash and noise and parties. It doesn't address the appearance of your properties.”

Nagourney disagreed, claiming Greek life organizations have previously not been forthcoming in responding to neighbors’ concerns.

“Hearing tonight’s sudden offers to work with the community are a joke,” Nagourney said. “In 20 years I have never heard from any organization about meeting or dealing with these issues. Never once. And my name’s been on the books for over 20 years.”

In addition to the approval of the new housing code for fraternities and sororities, the council also discussed a new development plan for the Cottages at Barton Green.

The decision to postpone the new housing development by Trinitas Ventures, an Indiana student housing developer, was made following heavy protests from residents of the Pontiac Trail. The proposed development would range from the west side of Pontiac Trail and south of Dhu Varren Road and include 225 apartments with 716 bedrooms in 92 buildings built on the vacant lot. Major concerns from residents and councilmembers included safety, increased parking and traffic, and an increase in undergraduates that would result in noise and littering problems.

“My main issue is with safety,” Jan Adams Watson, a resident near the proposed development site, said. “Ann Arbor is trying to be a walkable city. Adding unnecessary new traffic will make this more difficult. We already have speed problems and frequent accidents. I call the police frequently for traffic accidents on my corner.”

Ann Arbor resident Rebecca Aarons commented one of the major concerns from neighbors was the proposed influx of undergraduate students, bringing parties, noise and violations with them into the quiet residential area.

“My main concern is the negative social impact of this development,” Aarons said. “We are in the midst of two changing social trends. The increased use of not-quite-yet legalized but more potent than ever marijuana … to the #MeToo movement, as a necessary upheaval in how mostly younger people, like our proposed neighbors, interact in consenting and respectful ways. These social evolutions are best played out in a much more supportive and local to the campus environment. Not the proposed isolated community away from U of M medical staff, law enforcement, U of M crisis counselors, et cetera.”

Resident Ed Gosem agreed the marketing toward undergraduate students is his main issue with Trinitas’s proposal, suggesting the housing be built to serve a wider range of residents.

“Try to attract additional groups of people,” Gosem said. “Low-income people needing affordable housing, working people, seniors. If these student-focused units fail, they’re just going to have to be ripped out and replaced with units that can serve a more diverse population. Why experiment? What’s wrong with doing things right the first time? This is too good a property to waste.”

Timothy Stoker, a representative for Trinitas, defended the development plan.

“We meet all the requirements,” Stoker said. “We’ve responded to all of the issues the planning committee has raised at their public hearing and we believe that our client has done its utmost to bring a project to the city of Ann Arbor that meets every aspect both in spirit and with the actual requirements of the code.”

The council voted to postpone approval of the project plan to September. Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy, D-Ward 1, was skeptical that the short time frame would be enough to make drastic changes to the plan in order to satisfy both developers and residents.

“I think there’s a fundamental flaw in this project,” Kailasapathy said. “And I’m not sure how that’s going to be fixed in two months, I’ll be very honest.”

Adams pushed the council to prioritize the desires of its constituents.

“It is time for City Council to put the needs of residents ahead of the needs of developers,” Watson said. “We live in the city, we pay taxes, we vote and you need to listen to us. Don’t listen to the developers.”