Council disappointed with progress on trail ordinance

Mayor Pro Tem Kim Russel


The Rochester City Council voted to table a discussion of an ordinance concerning parcels abutting public trails at the city council meeting on Monday. The measure was intended to protect trailways located in Rochester’s mixed-use districts from future development by establishing setback standards, but the council decided that the ordinance language was not strong enough yet to adequately protect the trails.

City Planner John Jackson presented the ordinance, which will protect the Paint Creek Trail, the Clinton River Train, and the Downtown Rochester River Walk. At the beginning of his presentation, Jackson apologized for being unable to meet with the Paint Creek Trailways Commission prior to the public hearing. He said that he planned to meet with the commission and the Friends of the Clinton River Trail at a joint meeting on July 16. The draft he presented was the same ordinance that was given to the Planning Commission in April.

The ordinance establishes setback relative to the piece of property where trailways are located instead of being measured from the trail. This provides the farthest possible setback distance.

The ordinance requires a 25- foot setback or the required setback of the district, whichever is greater. In industrial districts, a 40-foot setback is required, and the first 20-feet adjacent to the trail must be a naturalized buffer. The ordinance allows for a few nonconformities for buildings that predate the existence of the trail. It also intends to exclude the Rochester River Walk from setback standards because it functions as an easement to allow access to the other two trails. It also attempts to give access review to trail agencies. City Council members and trail advocates were concerned that the language of the ordinance was too vague to accomplish its goals. Members of the Friends of the Clinton River Trail also said that they wanted to have more input to help preserve the natural environment surrounding the trail.

One of the biggest concerns raised by trail advocates and council members was language in the ordinance exempting the Rochester Walk from setback standards. The ordinance states: “The changes include eliminating the Rochester walk and the requirement for development to provide direct access to the trail.”

Jackson addressed some of the confusion.

“I want to make it perfectly clear that we are not recommending that we eliminate the trail itself,” he said. “It’s an important part of this connection and an important part of activity in downtown Rochester.”

Many people thought that the ordinance did not make that properly clear.

“Words are what they say, not what their intent is,” Paint Creek Trail Commission Member Hank Van Agen said. “Words matter.”

Fred Phillips, who serves on the board of the Friends of the Clinton River Trail was also concerned about the vague language stating that the appropriate trailway authorities would have access reviewal. He said that the Friends of the Clinton River Trail does not own the trailway, so the language of the ordinance would exclude the group.

“We may be persuasive. We may bring some money to the table occasionally, but we have no authority,” Phillips said.

Phillips also advocated for improved wording to better protect the natural environment surrounding the trail by addressing concerns like light and noise pollution, trash, driveway and parking lot orientation, and stormwater management. He said that stormwater management was especially important because it had been contentious in other communities along the trail.

At the meeting, Phillips said that the Friends of the Clinton River Trail was unaware of the ordinance until last Friday and asked for the opportunity to provide feedback.

“In general, the idea of protecting local trails from intrusive development is something, certainly, I myself, and I would assume our whole group, would certainly endorse, but we have to recognize the Friends of the Clinton River Trail as a group has not heard about this yet,” he said.

Amanda Harrison Keighley, Community Relations Specialist at the Rochester Hills Public Library and a candidate for the Rochester City Council, also spoke at the meeting to advocate for greater input from trail groups.

“I’m a big user of the trails and want to support the system, and I think it’s great that an ordinance is being addressed,” she said. “I do think that the Paint Creek Trailways Commission and the Friends do need to be looped in on this. It’s such an important issue to get just right.”

City Council members agreed.

“This basically failed the over- communicate test,” Councilmember Ben Giovanelli said. “We try so hard to make sure we communicate everything and make sure that anyone who has any kind of stake in anything that we do has an opportunity to express their opinion, and this is super disappointing… This is not even remotely ripe for discussion at this point.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kim Russell said that she would like to see much stronger language in the ordinance.

“Words are important,” she said. “The language just isn’t as descriptive as I think it needs to be, especially just preserving. We pride ourselves in our trailways and our parks, and it is an extension of our pathways, and we are responsible for it.”

The council voted unanimously to table further discussion of the ordinance until the July 22 City Council Meeting, which follows the meeting set between the city planner, the Paint Creek Trailways Commission, and the Friends of the Clinton River Trail on July 16.