Category Archives: Government

Charter Township Concerns Expressed at Meeting

By Sue Moore

Sunset Lake weed control and the Schoolcraft charter township referendum both came under fire at the board’s February township meeting.

The issue of Schoolcraft becoming a charter township, on the March 10, 2020 primary ballot, was hotly debated by a few members in the audience. Some felt the township was overreaching its authority by placing the question on a ballot in March when, theoretically, fewer citizens would come out to vote.

“This is a classic example of a solution in search of a problem,” said Steve Fryling, a former township planning commission member. “There is no indication of where this proposal came from or its perceived advantages. It sounds like an attempt to prevent annexation, but chartering a township opens up residents to very large tax increases and the imposition of services that residents may not feel they need or want to pay extra for. We need a citizens group that can study the issue and find the best way to proceed. If chartering has advantages and fits with an overall plan, then I will be all for it in the future but I encourage voters to reject this current proposal.”

Also speaking against the ballot question was former township attorney Craig Rolfe. He lives in Brady Township but owns property in a part of the village of Vicksburg that is also under the taxing authority of Schoolcraft Township. Rolfe said a change to a charter township would mean more compensation for the board as it would increase from five to seven members with the potential to hire a superintendent to serve under the township supervisor and the expanded board. Other cost increases would involve further publication of ordinances.

Rolfe was especially concerned that becoming a charter township would expand the taxing authority of the Township by nearly 600 percent (from about 0.8 mills presently to 5.0 mills) without any further vote of the people, ever. He also noted that merely becoming a charter township would not even address the Board’s supposed underlying concerns about annexation, because the Township doesn’t meet all of the statutory criteria for a charter township to enjoy some protection from annexation.

Jack Wiley, a township resident, felt the issue had been pushed through without information given out to the public. Denny Olson thought the threat of annexation had come from the Mill who would want to ask for such consideration. It’s just a little chunk [of their land] but could lead to bigger types of request for annexation, he said.

Don Ulsh, township supervisor, offered to adopt a resolution that the board would not raise taxes if the vote passes. “We live here too. Do you think we want to raise our own taxes?” Township Clerk Virginia Mongreig cited what is done for the residents on .8 mills. “We have a balanced budget and have money in reserves. Our budget is out there so all can see what [taxes] pay for.”

Ulsh read from his prepared text about why the township wants to be a charter township. “It all started when the village of Vicksburg annexed the 400 acres that the Allen Edwin development company built on 22nd street in 2002 when sewer and water was extended to the property. In 2005 we were approached by the village for another development called the Renda property on V Avenue and 22nd street.

“We put together a 425 agreement with the village that was a first for Kalamazoo County. It allowed for anyone in the area to have sewer and water as long as they paid for it and the village would not require the property to be annexed to the village. It stipulated that the village and township would enter into a growth management agreement for 10 years that was signed by both entities. In 2015, the village got angry and said they wanted out of the agreement. The township was left with three options. The last one was to become a charter township, so here we are, at this crossroads.”

A 425 agreement under Michigan law, ordinarily between a township and an adjacent city, provides for a temporary transfer of control of specified functions without annexation.

Trustee Ken Hovenkamp said the two entities need to work together. He thought the village didn’t like that the township Planning Commission wouldn’t rezone the 80 acres west of the Mill for an industrial park in 2015. The request was denied when commissioners chose to keep the property as it was, a blue heron rookery. “We are a little nervous about what the village has in mind. What’s going to happen when the paper mill gets going again? If we have a chance to become a charter township, it moves us up a notch and makes people play a little harder,” Hovenkamp said.

“I applaud what you have done with your money,” said Vicksburg Village Manager Jim Mallery. “But a resolution is only as good as your word. You can pledge to not raise taxes and a majority of the people would trust you. However, a future township board could change a resolution just as easily as you could pass one here tonight, as a resolution is not binding on them. An ordinance would give me a lot more comfort than a resolution. You need to have a trust factor with citizens. I believe that your word is good. This nation was founded on the written word.”

Ulsh answered that it would take some time to develop an ordinance but he would be willing to delve into it with the township attorney. Mongreig said she would like to work together with the village.

Others in the audience are residents of the Sunset Lake Association, seeking to have the special assessment district for weed control renewed for 2020-2024. It would cost each homeowner $400, the same amount as before. The village of Vicksburg decided to discontinue the $6,000 it has put in each year. Instead, the village plans to treat the weeds in the ponds that have become unsightly in the summer. Mallery said it was rare that a governmental unit would make this kind of a donation to a waterway, saying it would pay the $1,200 assessment for its three parcels. “We are not going away from the problem.”

Township Treasurer Teresa Scott, who would have to make up the assessment rolls for the 48 residents around the lake, was dubious about doing this without more input from the residents. She said only 14 residents had sent her emails in support of the assessment package for 2020-24; she didn’t feel that was enough input. Perhaps the lake residents should start over with the petition process to indicate whether they wanted to be assessed as they have been since 2010. She said it would take up to four months to collect the signatures which the township needs to begin the treatment plan. “We need to collect the money for the treatment in advance and not afterwards as has been done previously,” she said.

Audience members felt that this approach would take too long; the lake wouldn’t be treated in the summer of 2020. This would set back the whole program of weed control as the permit to do the work needs to be applied for in March. Ultimately, the board voted to move ahead with a March public hearing, setting the assessment roll in April and collection of the fee by June 1.

Ulsh announced that J. Rettenmaier with manufacturing facilities in the township on U.S. 131, would be naming their offices there as its USA Headquarters. It will be investing $2 million to enlarge the headquarters and $7 million in a warehouse addition. “We are really happy about this,” Ulsh said.

Vicksburg Village Council Opts Out of Retail Marijuana

By Sue Moore

Because it signed a Federal government loan contract, the village of Vicksburg must opt out of any kind of retail sale of marijuana within the village, attorney Andrew Horne told the village council. That will prohibit any sale or consumption of marijuana in public places within the village.

In 2018, the village applied for a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for construction of sewers  scheduled this year and next. The Federal government still lists marijuana as a controlled substance even if 11 states, including Michigan, have voted to allow retail sale. In this case, state law can’t supersede federal law, Trustee Tim Frisbie said. People can grow marijuana for their own personal use but it must be within their own home – not even on their front porch, Horne told the council.

It was also announced that the annual spring clean-up that has historically allowed residents to put items out on the curbside for pickup will move to a central pick-up place in May. The trash companies that have bid on the pick-up have decided to discontinue that service.

New rental fees were set by the Council for the Historic Village gazebo from $25 to $50, with $25 refunded if everything is cleaned up. The Historic Village grounds rental will be $100, with $50 refunded if there’s no damage. Disc golf for events will be $50, with $25 refunded if all is in order. Trustee Rick Holmes suggested that a rental rate be set for the caboose at the Historic Village. He noted that it would be a great place for kids’ birthday parties.

Budget amendments occupied a good portion of Village Manager Jim Mallery’s report to the Council. He indicated the village will continue to invest in ways that will not raise tax liability for any future capital outlays. The village financial team meets each week and every three months meets to complete budget amendments. “By doing this as a staff, we capture a lot more data to plug into multi-year projections to be sure we are debt-free as the village moves forward.”

Henry Yaple, who grew up in Vicksburg and is now a resident of Powell, Wyoming, urged the council to not lose the Historic Village. “All the assets, i.e. buildings, were financed by people’s love and dedication to history. Do be careful, please.”

Schoolcraft Village Council Authorizes a Balanced Budget

By Deb Christiansen

Although revenues are declining and expenses are increasing, the Schoolcraft Village Council was able to pass a balanced budget for the fiscal year which began March 1. To accomplish this, it was necessary to move $40,054 from the fund balance, said Village Manager Cheri Lutz. “We have a healthy fund balance so the $853,254 general fund didn’t have to take a hit.” The current property tax rate is 15.85 mills, $15.85 per $1,000 taxable valuation.

The village established a finance committee last year, which is really beneficial in establishing the budget, Lutz said. Employee pay raises are consistent with the pay schedule established in 2015. Village President Keith Gunnett said “in sitting in on those meetings it’s difficult to find any place to trim the budget at this point in time.” Gunnett also complimented the hard work the employees of the village have done.

The street fund revenue comes primarily from the state of Michigan and totals a little over $250,000. The street project for the coming year will be redoing Angel Drive by the Chem Link building. The water fund is balanced, with revenues in excess of $60,000. There has been a cutback in usage because the biggest consumers of water were Bud’s Bar and Schnauzer’s, which have closed. The total budget, including the street and water funds, is $1,485, 857. The Household Hazardous Waste program through the county was funded at $1,050 and South County Community Services received $3,500.

Village President Keith Gunnett informed the council that there will be no petitions circulated locally about the proposed sanitary sewer because the issue will be done through the Kalamazoo County Drain Commission. A public hearing is tentatively scheduled for late April or May. All water users will receive a postcard about the hearing. The public hearing will be the one and only time viewpoints can be expressed about the sewer,” Gunnett said.

Lutz is addressing sewer questions on Facebook. Currently, she collects questions and includes her answers on Facebook on Thursdays each week. The village website receives a feed from the village’s Facebook page and can be viewed without being on Facebook.

County Commissioner John Gisler said there is a provision for hardship assistance to residents for a proposed sewer project, but in his experience only one person qualified. To qualify for a grant the user must have no money or assets. Village Manager Cheri Lutz said she wrote to the USDA to inquire about getting a grant. The USDA said that it couldn’t answer without an application, but generally, the project is funded with low interest loans or a loan-grant combination. Village President Keith Gunnett presented an unofficial opinion by tax assessor Kevin O’Toole. “Does having sewer change the state equalized valuation of a property? Answer: No, for the most part.” The only time there is an increase in valuation – and it’s marginal – is for lakefront property.

Deb Droppers presented a proposed event for the summer months from the Kalamazoo Experiential Learning Center called “Food Truck on the Road.” This is a family focused celebration that will bring food trucks to Burch Park on three Tuesdays during June, July, and August from 5-8 p.m. A motion was passed to allow the events.

Vicksburg Planning Commission Studies Parking at the Mill

vix planning comm
Members of the newly formed Vicksburg Planning Commission are seated left to right: Tim Frisbie, Chris Newman, Matt Shankle, Kyle Mucha, Rick Manchester. Standing in back from left: Don Wiertella, Bill Cox, John DeBault, Bill Hunt.

By Rob Peterson

Vicksburg’s parking requirements will require the Mill development to pave portions of a wetlands area developers have hoped to save, a consultant told the village Planning Commission. Developers are asking the village to consider reducing the requirements.

Commission members asked for more information from the consulting firm, Grand Rapids-based Progressive AE. The commission’s review was requested by the developer, Paper City Development.

Developers of the Mill said paved parking to meet the current ordinance would need as much as nine acres, which would require paving over portions of the wetlands. They considered a parking structure, but said it’s not workable due to the cost, the high water table and the historic designation of the property.

Consultants said reduced requirements for paved parking are consistent with modern best practices in zoning – and would be sufficient because of the mixed-use nature of the development. People who visit the brewery are likely to also visit the museum, for example. The ordinance calls for providing enough parking for each use independently.

The goal, according to consultant Suzanne Schulz, is to make a place for people, not cars. “It’s a Goldilocks scenario: Too much parking actually makes it feel empty and unappealing,” she said. “Too few parking spaces and you deter visitors from coming.”

The consultants illustrated their concerns over the current parking ordinance by comparing required parking in Vicksburg to requirements for a similar project in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and the Village of Middleville, southeast of Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo were chosen because of their experience with mixed-use developments. Middleville was chosen because it is closest in size to Vicksburg.

For example, the Mill would require more than 1,200 parking spaces under the current Vicksburg parking ordinance. In Middleville, this number would be 1,406, but that village allows up to a 50 percent reduction in parking spaces for a mixed-use development. The city of Kalamazoo would typically require 1,755 spaces, but it does not have a parking requirement in the downtown area, which is the part of town with the most development activity. In Grand Rapids, the required parking could be as low as 303, as its requirements for each use are lower and allow for up to a 50 percent reduction in parking for mixed-use projects.

Vicksburg’s Planning Commission, charged with making recommendations to the Village Council on any changes to the zoning ordinance, requested that the consultants provide estimated attendance numbers at the Mill.

Commissioner Chris Newman asked how attendance would vary by days of the week, adding that he was especially interested in how the planned museum would affect the parking needs. The consultants agreed to provide these numbers, saying that programming for the project is still being developed. The goal of the community comparison was to begin a conversation about how Vicksburg fared in relation to other places; specific numbers will be provided in the future.

The parking study reviewed a similar-size project in Grand Rapids to see how the complementary uses impacted the parking lot. American Seating Park is an 11-acre mixed-use project that houses several uses: the headquarters of American Seating; rented office space; 89 apartments; and New Vintage Place, an event center. The total square footage of all uses there is 355,207 square feet. The Mill at Vicksburg totals 419,000 square feet.

The total number of parking spaces at American Seating Park is 619. The consultants studied the development over several days when events were happening at New Vintage Place. The events on those days were around 100 attendees each. According to the study, the parking lot maintained a consistent occupancy of 75 percent from morning through evening, leaving 151 parking spaces open throughout the day. The consultants presented this as evidence that the Mill will not require the full 1,200 parking spaces that the current zoning code requires.

The Mill project is in a zoning designation called a Planned Unit Development (PUD), which allows the village to create special zoning requirements specific to the property. A PUD is generally used when a developer has a mix of uses for a property that don’t fit into the typical residential, commercial, or industrial zones.

If the Village agrees that the Mill can be served by fewer parking spaces, it could revise the PUD. Landscape architect Mark Robinson, another consultant present at the Planning Commission meeting, believes this is a time “to not do something just for the Mill. Something that benefits the Mill should benefit the community, which is why we are taking our time and making sure that this [potential change to the zoning code] works for everyone.” Village Manager Jim Mallery noted that most of Vicksburg’s parking requirements date back to 1976 and updating them is considered a best practice.

The consultants will now work with Paper City Development to study the expected attendance numbers at the Mill and calculate the expected parking needs. They will then return to the Planning Commission with more information and their recommendations later this year.

Other Planning Commission Action

The Planning Commission also heard a request from owners of a home at 210 N Michigan Avenue planning an expansion of their living area and the addition of a two-car attached garage. Due to the location of the home on the property, they could not attach a two-car garage without building within 8.5 feet of the side lot line. A 10-foot setback is required. The owners also requested relief from the maximum allowed ratio of building to lot size. After conducting a survey, it was found that their plans would cover 21 percent of the lot, where only 20 percent coverage is allowed.

Village Planner Bobby Durkee recommended approval of both requests, the side setback because there is no other way to attach a two-car garage to the structure within the required 10’; and the lot coverage area due to the fact that the property fronts Mill Pond. Waterfront property is notorious for being difficult to survey, as the waterline can move from year to year. The neighboring property owners were informed of the request by the village, but none appeared at the meeting to offer objections. The Commission recommended village council approval of both requests.

Schoolcraft Village Takes Another Look at Sewer Project

By Sue Moore

The possibility that neighboring villages of Schoolcraft and Vicksburg can share costs of a sewage disposal system has put Schoolcraft’s immediate plan to go it alone on hold.

Schoolcraft’s village Council had scheduled a Jan. 29 special meeting to consider when to set a public hearing date, the first step to finance the project. At that meeting, Council President Keith Gunnett told residents and fellow council members he had learned about Vicksburg’s interest in looking at the costs the morning before at a meeting of the South County Sewer and Water Authority.

There was another reason to delay the process, Gunnett explained: “I found out that once we have the public hearing and vote to go ahead, we couldn’t stop the process any time in the future. I thought we could stop the process at several other points.”

Schoolcraft had been counting on getting finished cost numbers by scheduling a public hearing and then applying to the United States Department of Agriculture/Rural Development (USDA) for a grant. “Once we got the numbers, we were told that we could either move forward or back out. Apparently, that was not true,” Gunnett said.

“Just yesterday, I was told that the only way to back out of the sewer project, once the public hearing is held, is to go to Circuit Court during the 45-day rescission period. This is the only window after we have applied to the USDA for a grant and loan. You know how much that would cost to go to court and probably not result in our favor if we want out?”

“I asked questions at the Authority meeting and got answers that were new to me,” Gunnett said. “The whole point of applying for the money from USDA was to get the costs firmed up so we know the accurate numbers. Right now, we don’t know that. What we have are the numbers that [engineering consultants] Wightman & Associates have given us previously. Those were the highest possible costs and didn’t figure any reduction if we were able to get a grant from USDA – which we believe we are eligible for.”

Authority members agreed to Gunnett’s request for a time extension to study the process further, giving his village two months to do so.

Vicksburg’s representative, Council President Bill Adams, suggested at that meeting that his village might be interested in joining with Schoolcraft on the sewer project if doing so would reduce their costs below that of the Vicksburg’s current sewage disposal structure: transporting sewage through Portage to the Kalamazoo waste treatment plant. “It’s part of our due diligence to look at this option.”

“This was a bombshell,” Gunnett said at the Schoolcraft meeting. “It would change everything. Now I think we will probably see that a two-month extension will go at least another month or more while Wightman recalculates the numbers, with Vicksburg being added at the front of the project. This would give everyone a little breathing room,” Gunnett said.

Trustee Mike Rochholz said that if Vicksburg would come in, that would change the scope of things, requiring a [sewage treatment] plant to handle chemicals and the combined volume. He thought a lagoon system that has been proposed would be out of the question. Wightman consultants have said that they could build it either way.

Trustee John Stodola, who also attended the Authority meeting, said, “We need to get our own legal advice and find out our exposure to the costs going forward. This is a very abrupt change in direction. We need the costs in writing. It’s more important to do this right than to do it quickly. I’m willing to sit down with anybody who has concerns.”

There was an avalanche of questions and comments from the 25-plus people in the audience. They appeared split about equally for and against.

Rochholz asked the Council and citizens to not be divisive with each other. “No matter which way this decision lands, someone is going to be unhappy.”

Who owns the sewer system if it is constructed, an audience member asked, and what is the process?

If Schoolcraft goes ahead with a sewage disposal system, the Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner must form a Drain Board to establish the financing for the project, make the request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for funding, and become a conduit for the project.

“The day-to-day work on engineering and running the sewer would fall to the South County Sewer and Water authority,” Council President Keith Gunnett said, adding that the Authority would own the infrastructure and the treatment plant and collect fees from member communities to operate it. The authority currently services sewer systems around Pickerel and Indian Lakes and in parts of Pavilion Township.

Brady, Pavilion and Schoolcraft townships each send an elected official to sit as a member of the Authority’s board. Schoolcraft and Vicksburg villages have been invited to be official members. For now, their voting power is weighted, with less value than the votes of the other three townships.

They would have equal representation with the other three entities if the sewer project goes through.

The Authority signed a contract with Wightman & Associates some time ago for engineering design for the proposed sewer. The individual municipalities have not contributed funding so far for the engineering work.

Bud’s Bar License Seized for Delinquent Taxes

bud's bar 1Village Manager Cheri Lutz reported to the Schoolcraft Village Council that the Bud’s Bar liquor license has been seized by the state until the current owner pays taxes due on the property. The owner is currently refusing to do so. This has stalled attempts to purchase and reopen the bar, a long-time Schoolcraft watering hole.

Lutz added that Nonla Taqueria restaurant is interested in acquiring a DDA Class C liquor license but added that isn’t a possibility. The Village of Schoolcraft would have been required to put over $200,000 of investment into the Downtown Development Authority district to qualify over the last five years. That has not happened. Event licenses might still be possible, she explained.

Deb Christiansen presented proposals for the 2020 social calendar in Schoolcraft. She is promoting the Art Hop, a free monthly event put on by the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo. It joins businesses and artists for an evening of socializing, art appreciation, and music. The Arts Council is joining with other communities such as Richland and Portage to host a yearly Art Hop event. It has agreed to help Schoolcraft host a local event on May 1 if she could get a green light from the village. “The Schoolcraft Community Library will be exhibiting Schoolcraft student art in May, and the Library would be one of the Hops,” Christiansen said. “It will be a great way to showcase our local talent.” The Arts Council will also provide a musical group to perform in Burch Park that evening. Christiansen was given a thumbs up for the project.

Village Council President Keith Gunnett introduced the new police chief, Scott Boling. He has 25 years of law enforcement in VanBuren and Kalamazoo counties. Boling introduced his wife, Heather, and his three daughters. His son is a freshman at Western. “I’m very excited to transition to the village of Schoolcraft. It’s a great community and I’m looking forward to it and looking forward to making advances, working with people, and getting to know everybody,” Boling said. His proposed start date is April 20. He will be retiring from the Kalamazoo Public Safety department in early April.

Drew Johnson is the new executive director of South County Community Services (SCCS). He updated the council on activities in 2019 and what he predicts will happen in 2020. The agency is located in Vicksburg on Spruce Street and serves the entire south county area including Prairie Ronde, Schoolcraft, Brady, Wakeshma, Climax and Pavilion townships. Johnson said its biggest program is emergency financial assistance. Its main focus is to fill in the gaps left by other programs and services that are not available to area residents.

In 2019, SCCS hired a new transportation coordinator, Tamra Stafford, and saw an improvement in ride services in the area. Also hired was a new emergency assistance coordinator to replace Johnson. In 2020, there are plans to hire a senior outreach coordinator to take over the position held by Diane Durian.

“We are looking this year for more penetration. In a rural area, it’s hard to make sure that people know about our services,” Johnson said. “Approximately a third of the population of South County would qualify for our services if they needed them and yet they don’t know about us.”

The Village donates annually to SCCS. The amount of $3,100 was approved to support the people of Schoolcraft Village.

Keith Gunnett stated in his president’s report that there was a finance committee meeting to talk about the budget. The committee is hammering away on the budget. “We ruled out budgeting for an audio system for the council,” Gunnett said, “so everyone will need to talk louder so that everyone can hear.”

Gunnett will be setting up a special meeting to go over a timeline for sewer system financing and construction.

Charter Township Put to a Vote in the Schoolcraft Area

sch twp 4By Sue Moore

Schoolcraft Township, which includes the village of Schoolcraft and part of the village of Vicksburg, is asking its residents whether it should become a charter township. The issue is on the March 10 ballot for voters to decide. Michigan voters will also vote in a Democratic presidential primary on that date.

Township attorney Mike Homier said that in some instances, becoming a charter township provides greater protection from annexation as the surrounding community continues to grow.

Homier, from the Grand Rapids office of Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith law firm, advised that passage of a charter township proposal provides a township the means to protect its boundaries. Currently, the township remains at risk of losing property within its boundaries to neighboring municipalities in the event of an annexation petition. “Nobody can predict what outside units of government might attempt to annex. They can make a statement today that they don’t intend to annex, but nobody knows what will happen in the future.

“There are no guarantees. We don’t want to sacrifice the jurisdictional boundaries of the township tomorrow by failing to act now.

“As a charter township, the board would expand to seven members rather than the five now and have better standing to provide additional municipal services. These might include water and sewer, perhaps 5, 10, or 20 years down the road,” Homier said. He pointed out that as a charter township it might be financially feasible to add sewers to serve properties that may have failing septic systems, which would benefit the environment. Further, infrastructure could result in desirable but limited growth opportunities.

“As an example: a developer might want to build 100 homes somewhere in the township. Right now, there is no sewer service, which may deter a developer, or encourage a developer to seek annexation to a neighboring municipality that has available sewers. So, in order to balance the needs of development, the township may desire to make sewers available not only for new development, but also existing property owners that may desire those services. The development of infrastructure need not happen now, but could happen in the coming years. But, once property is lost from a township due to annexation, it is difficult to get it back,” he said. While none of those decisions have been made, the township board is simply asking the voters to consider the issue for the future of the township.

Homier also says that there is no motivation on the part of the township to raise taxes if the township becomes a charter township. “There are opportunities for grants and loans and bonding that goes along with being a charter township,” Homier said. The operating tax rate for the township is currently 87 mills, 87 cents per $1,000 taxable valuation. There is a provision in the charter township law that allows up to $5 per $1,000, but does not require it. For example, Cooper and Texas townships are both charter townships, and they don’t levy the additional mills. Cooper levies .85 mills and Texas .84 mills for operating expenses. An increase in taxes is not the motivation for bringing this issue to the voters, Homier said. The motivation is the “benefit in protecting the township’s jurisdictional boundaries from further encroachment for years down the road.”