By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
It was likely the best-attended village government meeting of the year, in-person or otherwise.
At a telemeeting last week, the Oxford Village Planning Commission denied a request to rezone a triangular parcel of land on the southern border of the village from single-family residential (R1) to multiple-family residential (RM).
The 3.86 acre parcel is an undeveloped field behind single-family dwellings along Minnetonka Dr., Mechanic St., and Lincoln St., with direct access to S. Washington (M-24). The southern edge of the triangle runs along the south border of the village with the township.
Neighbors in those dwellings overwhelmingly opposed the rezoning.
Christina and Terrance Molby of Oakland Township submitted the application to rezone Parcel 04-27-278-020 on behalf of Oakland County Holdings, LLC, along with a prospective site plan for an apartment complex.
Many residents were concerned the meeting was to be held virtually. Many requested the commission postpone the meeting until it could be held in-person, so those affected could attend. Shannon and Gilbert Strong, who live on Lincoln St., were among those leading the charge.
“It would be difficult to effectively view any presentations via phone or video conference that are pertinent to this issue,” the Strongs wrote in an email to the village. “Visual presentations are essential to completely grasp the scope and effect that rezoning will have on the community. There are people that do not understand nor have the technology to participate in a video conference. The purpose of public meetings is to have everyone involved, present and engaged. A phone conference or video meeting will not accomplish this.”
Village Clerk Tere Onica acknowledged, “Teleconference meetings are certainly not the preferred method for any public board meeting.”
When the meeting was scheduled, it was fully expected that June 1 would be a back to work date with all board meetings returned to council chambers, Onica said. “The required legal publications and first class mailings were made in good faith, so that the applicant could have their case heard as permitted under the law by the appropriate legislative body.”
The commissioners “value and listen to public comments and concerns; however, ultimately they have to abide by state statute and local ordinance.”
Since the Village Council has final approval in the re-zoning process, if the Planning Commission had approved, there would be “multiple opportunities for the public to address the various public bodies involved.”
In previous meetings, Village Council members expressed their own frustrations with the deliberative limitations of telemeetings, and a desire to postpone important or complicated agenda items.
Telemeetings are permitted due to the ongoing health concerns of COVID-19 per the governor’s Executive Order 2020-75 which temporarily authorizes remote participation in public meetings and hearings through June 30.
At any rate, the Planning Commission meeting was well-attended, with 19 members of the public commenting and more listening in. Onica noted that prior to the meeting, the village received over 20 emails or phone calls on the topic. Those pieces of correspondence were entered into the record.
One email from Andrea Kitcherner was included in the meeting’s agenda packet.
“I have never had an issue I feel so strongly about,” wrote Kitchner. Among the reasons she lists for her opposition are “the cost and aesthetics to build a six foot privacy fence,” and “I will lose a view I have enjoyed for 25 years and frankly the reason I love my home.”
She attached a photo taken from her backyard, which shows a low chain-link fence unobstructing a lush view of the parcel’s green meadow and trees.
At the top of the meeting, Village Attorney Bob Davis reminded the commissioners the purpose of the meeting was to consider a general rezoning request, not a specific site plan. “Inquiry into the applicant’s proposed use, if in fact it were rezoned, is not relevant to this hearing” and should not influence the commission’s decision.
“You need to look at what the applicant is seeking to rezone the property to,” Davis said, “and you have to envision that once it is rezoned, the property can be sold, transferred or otherwise used for every single purpose in that new (zoning) category. So, any indication of what the use is tonight is not binding.”
The RM Multiple Family Residential District is more permissive. It allows two-family dwellings and multiple-family dwellings in addition to the one-family detached dwellings allowed in R-1 Single Family Residential.
Of all those who made comments, none (besides the applicant) spoke in favor of the rezoning. Most who spoke are neighbors to the adjacent property.
Many iterated their wish to have the hearing in-person.
Common objections to the rezoning were loss of property value, increased traffic, noise, aesthetics and safety. Longtime residents, or folks who moved to Oxford specifically for the small town feel, were concerned about overdevelopment.
“Who wants to sit in their backyard and look at a parking lot with a lot of cars?” Marion McGraw rhetorically asked. “What about the noise from that many people, that many cars?”
Kelly Arkle, who lives in Oxford Lakes subdivision, pointed out that the village has many areas already zoned for multi-family.
“This will not benefit any of the surrounding home owners,” Shannon Strong said.
She worries about traffic congestions that already exists from nearby Daniel Axford Elementary and children’s safety. “This is not ‘small town done right,’” she said.
“It is a very well-cared for, very nice neighborhood,” said Kathleen Graham, who specifically bought her house on Minnetonka two years ago for the atmosphere on the street. “Had that parcel been zoned multi-family, I would not have purchased this house. It is too small of a parcel for multi-family use.”
Graham was under the impression that the hearing was to consider the proposed site plan. “I’m actually more concerned after hearing the attorney say it’s just the actual zoning. Because if it’s changed to multi-family, anything can go in there that’s allowed under the ordinance, not necessarily what’s proposed.”
Most folks expressed sympathy for the owner’s right to develop the property, and are unopposed to single-family development. But Adam Laskowski, who lives on Lincoln St. opposed any kind of development. “I just don’t want anything back there and that’s all I have to say.”
Despite the attorney’s clarification on the scope of the hearing, some still commented on the site plan. The plan includes a storm water retention pond in the southwest corner next to Mechanic St. Folks worried about mosquitos and safety with Daniel Axford across the street.
“We appreciate all your concerns,” said the applicant, Terrance Molby. “We want to thank our neighbors for coming out and voicing them.”
Molby briefly clarified some points. Some folks worried that trees that have already been marked on the property suggests that the Planning Commission had a predetermined decision.
“Trees were marked recently because we had a topographical survey done which is typical for any development and or even rezoning,” Molby said.
Others commented on the poor upkeep of the property as it is, which might indicate poor upkeep after it is developed. Molby assured that it is scheduled to be mowed. “The circumstances of hiring a new company to handle that under the stay-at-home order has been difficult. We finally secured somebody this week and we expect that to be cleaned up later on.”
The village’s planning consultant, Mario Ortega, advised the commission to recommend approval to Village Council.
Ortega, of Northville-based McKenna Associates, found that the rezoning was consistent with the 2011 amended Village of Oxford Master Plan, the 2016 South Washington Redevelopment Plan and “the historic RM zoning pattern of the Village.”
In a letter to the commission, Ortega noted “evidence that the applicant cannot receive a reasonable return on investment through developing the property with the uses permitted in the current district.”
The R-1 district requires a minimum lot size of 7,200 square feet, which could potentially allow 23 single-family homes on the site, but the triangular shape presents “a significant design challenge to accommodate the number of units allowed using standard dimensional requirements.”
This did not sway the commissioners.
There were internal inconsistencies within the South Washington Redevelopment Plan.
Page 2 of the Redevelopment Plan states that the ‘Washington Triangle,’ as the parcel is called, is “Master Planned for Multiple Family Residential.”
However, Commissioner Jack Curtis pointed out that “there is no zoning nomenclature for ‘Multiple Family Residential.’ It’s called ‘Residential Multiple.’”
“You have to read the entire document,” Curtis explained.
Page 15 of Redevelopment Plan states, “The development objective is to “develop single-family housing on the undeveloped portion of the lot” and also to “allow unique single-family configuration such as bungalow courts in order to use the triangular lot efficiently.”
The implementation action recommends considering “a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to . . . increase the permitted density while keeping a single-family topology.”
During public comment, Shannon Strong cited these quotes and argued that “RM zoning is not in conformity with these objectives.”
Curtis agreed, saying he would vote for the parcel to stay R-1. “Because of our redevelopment plan that was adopted, I’m strongly in favor of keeping this R-1.”
Planning Commission Chair Justin Ballard saw the same issue.
“Page 15 shows what the Village really intended or wants for their master plan,” he said, “which is the development of single-family housing on the undeveloped portion and to allow single-family configurations, such as a bungalow court.”
A map of future land use in the Redevelopment Plan shows the Washington Triangle color coded for “Multiple Family Residential.”
Ballard said, “Maybe the map shows that it’s RM, but all these details that all this effort was put in is showing something completely different. It’s showing single-family homes. It’s not showing more the multi-family.”
Ultimately, the Planning Commission voted 7-0 not to recommend the rezoning to Village Council based on the adopted South Washington Redevelopment Plan.
However, Ballard encouraged the developer that there are other options, such as a PUD. A PUD allows for regulatory flexibility and creative development of unique properties, without rezoning.
Ortega agreed that PUD is a reasonable alternative to RM rezoning. If it were rezoned for multi-family use, that would open up the property to any of the density specifications that zoning would allow, “whereas a PUD would be a thoughtful discussion with the applicant to consider what they’re proposing.”