Niles Township rezoning: Could it harm growth of Niles schools?

Published 8:46 pm Saturday, July 24, 2004

By By JAN GRIFFEY / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- Niles Township officials are considering changes to its zoning ordinances, which at least one land developer thinks could harm Niles Community Schools' future ability to grow in terms of revenue and potential students.
The township zoning changes, which its planning commission has been considering for a number of months, will limit residential development on a substantial amount of property on the west side of the township.
Tom Rattenbury, who is president of Hearthstone Builders and developed The Settlement subdivision located off of Philip Road in Niles Township, said the new zoning map proposed by the township's planning commission takes a large amount of property in the west side of the township, which is presently designated for medium density residential development, and will require new homes be built on lots at least an acre and a half in size.
Once designated by the township as R-1B and set aside for medium density residential development, the new zoning plan will rezone much of that area to a new designation of Residential Preserve, which will allow only one residence on every acre and a half of land.
However, the area served by Brandywine Community Schools, located in the southern portion of the township, much of which is also largely undeveloped, is proposed for medium density residential development.
Rattenbury said he isn't against many of the changes being considered by the new zoning plan. In fact, he said he thinks upping the size requirement for lots in land designated for medium density residential development from 15,000 to 20,000 square feet is a good move, "but there's darn little of it" on the township's west side.
However, he said township residents haven't been as informed of the coming changes as they could have been -- changes which could have tremendous impact in the future on property they own now.
He said the township's planning commission ran legal notices in the Niles Daily Star about the public hearings, which is all the planning commission's chairman, Gary DeGroot, said it is required to do.
However, Rattenbury thinks that's not enough.
Rattenbury said he thinks planning commission officials could have gone to the media earlier in the process to explain to residents their interest in slowing residential development.
In addition, as a member of Niles Community Schools' strategic planning committee, he said Niles Township's west side represents much of the Niles school district's growth potential.
According to the old R-1B zoning, a three-acre area of land could be developed into as many as eight homes. Much of what was R-1B on the west side of Niles will now be zoned residential preserve and restricted to two homes on three acres of land.
Put a substantial limit on the number of homes that can be built in the school district, and you put a limit on the school district's growth, he said.
Rattenbury said typically zoning changes like the ones being considered by the township include a subdivision provision, which sets up regulations that would allow for subdivision development in large areas of undeveloped land. However, to date, the township's new zoning plan doesn't have such a provision.
Zoning changes part of master plan for township
DeGroot, engineering manager for a small engineering firm in South Bend, Ind., has been on the township's planning commission since 1986.
He said the zoning changes came about as part of updating the township's master plan, a process which began almost four years ago. That master plan was approved by the planning commission about two years ago, he said.
He said part of the master plan process was holding some visioning clinics at Brandywine High School gymnasium, which were advertised through legal notices placed in the South Bend, Ind., Tribune, but were poorly attended.
After that, in an attempt to get more citizen input, DeGroot said members of the planning commission put together their own list of about 40 township residents, who participated in a workshop and provided their opinion on the township's master plan.
While DeGroot didn't have a list of the 40 participants, he said it included, "Realtors and business people -- a real cross section -- who filled out questionnaires and we had a workshop. Based on their advice, we went ahead with the master plan."
DeGroot said Tracy Vines, the township's acting zoning administrator, would have a list of the 40 citizen advisors. However, she was unavailable Friday. A township official said Vines was out helping to inspect homes and property because of the storm damage in the township.
He said the significant changes in the plan are changes in terminology and increases in lot size requirements in residential areas.
Zoning changes, particularly in changing the designation of land on the township's west side from medium density residential development to the new designation of residential preserve, is aimed at keeping the "rural feel" of the township. He disputes that those changes will negatively effect future growth potential for Niles Community Schools.
He said he thinks the amount of land on the west side -- in the Philip Road area and in the Echo Valley subdivision area -- which is still designated for medium density residential development, is sufficient to meet the township's needs.
He said the township is "probably four weeks away" from having its new zoning plan adopted.
Asked if he or other members of the planning commission ever expressed concern about a lack of citizen input or notification about the zoning changes, DeGroot said, "I know this sounds harsh, but by law, when you are making zoning changes to multiple pieces of property township wide, you are only required to notify people through legal notices. We had discussed sending out individual letters to property owners, but we decided that was not a viable option. Yes, there were concerns about it. We even discussed publishing those notices again to see if we got any better response."
Bill Kechkaylo, who owns Kechkaylo Realty and has developed several subdivisions in Niles Township, said he thinks the township hasn't followed proper legal procedure in how it's gone about its rezoning of property.
Kechkaylo is in the process of selling a portion of the land he owns near Echo Valley subdivision, which he said he had legally divided into lots in the 1960s, to another person who wants to develop it into a small subdivision.
Kechkaylo said he's sought the advice of several attorneys on the rezoning issue, all of whom have told him residents must be notified personally before those kinds of changes are enacted affecting their property.
He said the issue amounts to "reverse condemnation" by the township of personal property of its residents.
Niles schools' superintendent: 'I'm just finding out about this.'
Doug Law, superintendent of Niles Community Schools who was in northern Michigan Friday attending a conference of state school superintendents, said via telephone he only became aware of the rezoning of property in his district in the last several days. He said he was made aware by a resident of his district.
The Niles Planning Commission will meet next to discuss the zoning issue on Tuesday, July 27, at 7:30 p.m. at the township hall on Bell Road.