State & City Rules Make Development Rules Hard To Understand

Screenshot from Planning Commission Meeting January 23, 2018


Understanding the rules of the state or a city aren’t always easy for residents, especially when someone wants to build a new subdivision or commercial entity on land next to them that may have been standing vacant for decades.

The state’s rules on development are found in the Michigan Planning Act and the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act. The city’s rules are in its zoning ordinances.

Troy City Council and the Troy Planning Commission met together last Tuesday with Dick Carlisle, CEO of the city’s planning consultants, Carlisle Wortman, to see how everything works in the building scheme of city life, and to see how they can inform residents that sometimes they cannot stop buildings from proceeding, even when residents don’t like the idea.

While the Planning Commission would often like to say “no” because it isn’t within their view of what’s good for the health, safety and welfare of residents, they also know that saying “no” is just a lawsuit in the making if the would-be developer has met all the rules laid out in the state’s enabling statutes and the city’s ordinances.

Troy also has a Master Plan for the city’s development goals for the future, Carlisle noted. This is a policy guide that was approved after two years of study by the Planners and Council. It provides the policy basis for the zoning. Carlisle added that departure from the Master Plan can weaken not only the Master Plan, but the ordinances, too. There will be points of friction now that the city is quite built out, Carlisle warned. He advised both groups to be consistent in the processes they use. But if certain regulations aren’t working for them, he said, change them.

One area that is being looked at for changes is the Rochester Road corridor, which has many old developments and shallow lot depths. Almost a decade ago changes were made to encourage new development. The only new thing is the 4-story storage facility, which no one liked, but met all the requirement of Troy’s zoning ordinances.

Building a new subdivision is an expensive process. The land alone can cost a developer millions of dollars. (The two parcels of Troy School land each sold for over $4 million.) Just developing the plans, like architectural plans and engineering drawings before any utilities, sewers or streets go in, can be another half-million dollars. That’s before any approval for the project is finalized. But the Planning Commission knows that when they have a project that meets all the zoning requirements, and that residents oppose, they can do little to stop it.

They hear comments like – “No one ever listens to us,” and “We can’t trust the government.” But with no zoning changes needed, and all the ordinances met, it means the developer can build “by right.”

The arguments these groups hear over and over – people will speed, they’ll cut down the trees, our children won’t be able to play in the street, it will ruin our quiet neighborhood – cannot stop someone from developing their private land.

As Planning Trustee Don Edmunds noted: “We don’t choose where developers may build.” He added it’s an insult to the developer to say, “We like your project, just not here.”

How, asked Planning Trustee Karen Crusse, do we let residents know that sometimes the city doesn’t have the right to turn a project down? From videos on the city’s TV channel (17 on Comcast and 10 on WOW) to a handout at the meetings, or as the Zoning Board does, read the rules at every meeting, ideas were considered. You might even find a copy of some rules in your water bill.

Carlisle definitely said, and the Planners definitely agree, that it’s in a developer’s best interest to meet with the neighbors before going before the Planning Commission for site plan approval. The Planners are also looking at setting up some more exact design standards, which may be coming to the table in March.

Then there’s the question of transition from the building on the street to the abutting residential property. That was clearly a problem area for Council on the McClure project on Big Beaver. There are still other areas of concern, like walkability, so expect more meetings between the two boards.