Neil Stilwell (231) 439-9350 - firstname.lastname@example.org
7:42 AM EDT, July 20, 2012
PETOSKEY — Fletch’s of Petoskey hopes to break ground in 60 days on new GMC/Buick and Audi facilities, after the dealership’s proposal to rebuild at its current location was approved 5-1 by Petoskey Planning Commission on Thursday.
That permission came after a struggle amongst commissioners, however. Parking dealership display vehicles inside city rights of way — it’s going on today and is proposed to continue — posed a dilemma for commissioners.
Though the board balked at Fletch’s site plan, five of the six commissioners present ultimately looked past their concerns in light of the physical and aesthetic improvements that the car dealership owners, the Johnson family, want for their property.
When Fletch’s owners, John, Bob and Don Johnson and their sister, Mary Foster, in June presented the planning commission with a site plan to replace the GMC/Buick and Audi dealerships and repair facilities, some board members objected to the dealership’s use of street rights of way. Fletch’s today is displaying vehicles for sale on property within road rights of way, and wants to continue the practice. It is permissible under license with the city.
Since June, a revised site plan was submitted by Fletch’s which lessens but does not eliminate rights of way encroachment. That plan moves vehicle display along Charlevoix Avenue (U.S. 31) to the property line but the family said it could not achieve the same setbacks along McDowell Street and still meet the demands of General Motors.
City staff planner Amy Tweeten had recommended that vehicle display area on McDowell Street between Charlevoix Avenue and the existing McDowell drive entrance be moved back behind the property line and out of the right of way. That would also increase green space on the development.
But giving up that display area was a “deal breaker,” for a project pegged at $2.7-$3 million, Johnson family members said.
“This is a redevelopment,” Bob Johnson said. “I acknowledge you are compromising and you are not getting everything you could demand.
“We feel the same way. We understand we are asking for something that is less than perfect. But we, as a family, are willing to go horribly into debt to bring something to the table that we feel is beneficial to the city.”
Johnson and his brother, Don, said Fletch’s options are: taking their chances with GM if they do nothing, remodeling the buildings it has or moving out of town.
“This is the way more expensive approach,” Bob Johnson said. “If you say yes, I have to go sign my name (to a loan) that would curl my hair if I had it. If you say no, we will continue on but it will not be what’s best for Fletch’s, for the city, or the people of Petoskey.”
Planning commission soul searching over use of rights of way — it occurs elsewhere in town — was typified by commissioner Elizabeth Looze, who said she struggled with balancing the public property use question with the needs of a local businesses, “which make the city what it is.”
“It is a dangerous precedent,” she said. “We have to continuously think about the future and other planning projects that come before us.
“The worst case scenario is if we lose Fletch’s to the suburbs of Petoskey, or altogether.”
Looze added that to “spin” it another way, Fletch’s plan makes the western approach to Petoskey more attractive, adds more green space and uses far less right of way than the existing operations.
But commissioner Cynthia Linn Robson, along with commissioner John Murphy, stressed that the site plan’s shortcomings are not the commission’s problems — they are hardships created by the proposal.
“What we see here is, too often we have 1 and a half-pound projects trying to fit into a 1 pound box,” Murphy said. “It’s really not the commission’s issue on how you load up your 1 pound box. I see all the recommendations by staff as being doable. I hope this project goes through but I see all the reasons staff has given for approval and support these at this point.”
Robson said the city planning commission must do the best it can to remove private uses within public rights of way, to increase green space and aesthetic improvements to existing properties.
“I think we are compromising tremendously,” Robson said of staff-recommended site plan changes. “We are not even getting our minimum (greenspace lot coverage ) of 15 percent, but at least it is improving and we are still allowing you to use the right of way.”
Planners favored the concept of accommodating a local business’s redevelopment compared to demands the commission could place on a fresh new use for a site. Robson pointed out that who brings the request does not matter.
“In a court of law, existing or new business would hold no weight,” she told fellow planners. “It might make you more comfortable making a decision, but that is not how it works. A new owner would have just as many rights as an existing owner.
“When looking at making a decision, if there is a hardship, if it’s owner created, we can’t bend the rules. If the hardship is by a choice they are making, that is not a reason.”
Murphy’s motion to approve the site plan with the encroaching reductions and other conditions recommended by staff planner Tweeten failed 4-2, with Jim Holmes, Rick Neumann, chairman Gary Greenwell and Looze voting no and Murphy and Robson voting yes.
After more discussion, ultimately, Murphy voted with the 5-1 majority on a motion by Rick Neumann to approved Fletch’s submitted revised site plan, without staff recommended conditions. Robson cast the vote against that motion.
The action included the elimination of a corner display area at the McDowell and U.S. 31 corner in favor of more greenery; setting the main driveway entrance to 39 feet as recommended by Michigan Department of Transportation, added greenery and walkways on the site.
Fletch’s John Johnson said Thursday night they are excited about moving ahead and that without the city’s OK on this proposal, Fletch’s choices were limited.
“The last thing we want to do is move,” he said. “We’ve been in town all our lives.”
Absent: Emily Meyerson, Dean Burns, Eric Yetter
Present: Jim Holmes, John Murphy, Gary Greenwell, Elizabeth Looze, Rick Neumann and Cynthia Linn Robson
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