Whether or not 90 acres of farmland held by the Doletzky family trust is developed into Dexter Township’s next residential subdivision is a question for another day after the Dexter Township Board of Trustees recently voted to postpone taking action on a request by the property owners to rezone the land located at Dexter Town Hall and North Territorial Road from agricultural to rural residential zoning.
The type of zoning and whether or not an open space community overlay district is applied to the develoment acreage are critical factors in not just the shape of the development proposal that would be drafted by architects and submitted by the developer Guenther Homes further along in the process, but zoning stipulations also ultimately dictate the financial feasibility of developing the land at all.
If the development density allowed doesn’t match what the developer needs to make the project economically feasible, then the development could fail to materialize and leave the Doletzky family looking for an alternative way to divest themselves of farmland stewarded by local farmers on behalf of June (Aiken) Doletzky, who passed away in May 2015, leaving the land to her daughters Terry Stacey, Julie Knight, and Sharon Abrass.
Doletzky’s daughters said recently that they cannot farm the land themselves, as the local farmers who were stewarding June’s farmhold were only able to run a break-even ag operation that covered the taxes and fees. Most buildings used in the day-to-day operation of the more than a century old farm are also either falling down now or fell down long ago, making the land’s prospects for longterm agricultural output an onerous endeavor to those responsible for June’s legacy.
Despite the Doletzky family making their voices heard over the past several months during multiple zoning board of appeals, planning commission and township board meetings, residents are continuing to mount a strong resistance to the development of the Doletzky land into the next Copper Meadows or Hartman Farms development.
Residents raise outcry against Doletzky development
Questions raised by those who stand in opposition to the development were why Dexter Township Trustee Michael Howard and a majority of his colleagues decided to postpone the rezoning question until a future meeting at least past next January 19, when a moratorium on new developments instituted by the township this past July 19 was put in place while township planners update many of the municipality’s ordinances.
“Given all of the stuff that came in late, I’m not comfortable with this board doing anything tonight,” Howard said in response to the more than 60 emails received by staff at Dexter Township Hall leading up to the most recent regular meeting of the township board.
Read the bulk of the letters submitted to the township in the below embedded PDF document printed and handed out to the township board and members of the media last Tuesday night.
Jason Maciejewski, who along with Howard and Carl Lesser served on the township board for the last time during last Tuesday’s board meeting, said that the Doletzky property has gotten more public response than any other issue he’s seen come before the township board in the eight years he’s served on it.
In fact, this development resulted in a write-in candidate campaign for the township board started less than two weeks before the November 8 election. While Michelle Stamboulellis failed to garner enough votes to win a literal seat at the table, write-in did tally some 240 votes from Dexter Township voters, which was much higher than the number of write-in votes in other Dexter area townships.
Maciejewski said he opposed the rezoning on the basis that, combined with current developments such as Hartman Farms and Copper Meadows, the aggregate impact that the overall level of development in the township would have on infrastructure, traffic, and the schools with a new dense residential development of 40 to 60 units had a high probability of negatively impacting the township.
“I’m trying to keep in mind the impact of not just this development, but of Hartman Farms and Copper Meadows and the impact that will have and what that might look like for our community and those who live here,” he said. “I’m not opposed to residential development. My perspective on this is how does it fit into our community and what are the things we have to do to make this work right.”
Maciejewski challenged the developer to create a unique development within the constraints of agricultural zoning with an open space communities overlay district, which would allow 24 units on five acre lots. A dozen of those units would be allowed based on meeting open space development standards with those lot sizes and also from meeting the township’s superior design standards set forth in the OSC district ordinance.
Representatives from Guenther responded to Maciejewski from the audience, stating that technically there are currently no such regulations in existence under the moratorium and what’s been seen of the proposed new ordinance changes for OSC indicates that open space bonuses will be reduced, making developing the land as ag zoning with OSC overlay an even less attractive prospect compared to the rural residential zoning which would allow for nearly 50 lots.
Maciejewski said that he believed it was time for a new community survey conducted by the township to take the temperature of residents on a range of topics, including land development and how agricultural land is handled down the road.
Many questions still need an answer
Trustee Bill Gajewski pointed out concerns raised in the 60 emails about groundwater contaminants, such as arsenic. He also singled out concerns about the rural character of the township on North Territorial Road. He ultimately favored waiting to investigate some of the questions before moving forward with the rezoning request.
Lesser, a lifelong Dexter Township farmer who always voices his point of view on the board, initially held his tongue, but reiterated some of the criticisms he’s leveled at residents who he characterizes as trying to dictate how a longtime local farm family uses or disposes of land that belongs to them, including the right to decide its fate in the hands of a new potential owner.
“I’ve been in this township for 92 years next month, born and raised here, and now the ones who’ve stuck to farming until the bitter end here, and now you want to put some restrictions on us so we can’t sell our land and I’m paying $100 per acre in taxes,” Lesser said, before pointing out that his tax bill once had three line items on it compared to the more than 20 that will be on the bill after the elections this year saw the passage of more millages throughout the county.
“I think we ought to have a little property rights. I thought we had property rights, but we’re going to let the neighbors tell us what our property rights are? That’s just going a little bit too far for me,” he said, before challenging the authors of the 60 protesting emails to buy up the land and continue to farm it themselves if they want to sacrifice the Doletzky’s property rights in the name of farmland preservation in the township.
“Try farming, that’s all I got to say,” he concluded.
Township Treasurer Libby Brushaber said that she was concerned with the potential for putting the Doletzky development on the Multi Lake Water & Sewer Authority’s system if built. The MLWSA was started in 1995 for Dexter and Lyndon Township lake homes with a second phase added in 2000 to meet the needs of additional homes in Lyndon, Unadilla, and Putnam Townships as well as the hamlet of Gregory. A new plant was built for MLWSA in 2005 to meet additional demands on the system.
Brushaber stated that she expects lake residents using the system to transition from being part time weekend residents to full time residents over time, placing further strain on MLWSA. Copper Meadows and Hartman Farms were added to the system.
Subdivisions in the southeast corner of the township were rezoned from ag to rural residential, but that was done based on determining that the land on which those developments sat would support wells and septic fields as features of the homes in those developments so those units didn’t need connecting to MLSWA, Brushaber added.
“(Multi Lake Sewer Authority) was built to help existing problems around the lake, not to promote growth,” she said. Rezoning the Doletzky land without knowing if the land can support wells and septic fields could put the township in a position where they need to add this new development to MLSWA in the future, which was the basis for her vote to postpone the rezoning.
Township Clerk Debra Ceo said she was concerned about setting a precedent where more rezoning requests for ag property would be coming down the pike as farmers sold more land, which each developer seeking a rezone to rural residential for increased development density.
“There’s a lot of agricultural land in our community,” Ceo said. “I’m not saying don’t develop the land, but if we do, whatever the number turns out to be, it’s just adding more and more and more. I’m not stopping the growth, but I would like to limit the growth.”
A challenge to make less density work
Township Supervisor Harley Rider challenged Guenther to make the Doletzky property development a marquee development that sits in their cap as its greatest feather by making ag zoning work with fewer homes that are more impressive to justify the higher price tag they would have to carry to make the development work economically.
“If you’re going to develop a property you can do it under the current zoning … it may take you a little longer to get your money because it’s a little harder to sell $900,000 houses than it is to sell $400,000 houses,” Rider said.
The development would have to go beyond just the house type being of a higher caliber of quality, features, and aesthetics. His prescription for finding success on this path would involve smart use of the farmland to tie the development together in a way that pulls perceived value from the rural character of the surrounding township and how it meshes with the Doletzky land itself.
Rider suggested building 20 houses on acre-and-a-half lots, which would take up 30 of the 90 acres of Doletzky land. With 10 to 20 percent set aside for infrastructure that leaves 50 acres of open space on which an equestrian based open space development could stand as what ties the development together with a unique character that makes people want to buy into the rural luxury development as imagined.
If the developer worked with ag zoned land and an OSC overlay in this way, Rider’s concerns about creating an “island” of agricultural zoned land north of North Territorial and west of Dexter Town Hall Road would be mitigated. When zoning in a community it’s generally frowned upon to create islands of one zoning type separated from blocks of the same type of zoning elsewhere in the municipal boundaries.
Rider said that the newly constructed Dexter Area Fire Department substation completed earlier this year in the township was built with a 50-year outlook, which is how he wants to look at this development in terms of impact to the township as a whole.
“This is not kicking the can down the road … it’s for more information to make a good intelligent decision,” Rider said before the vote of 5 to 2 to postpone with Brushaber and Maciejewski dissenting.
Barry Lonik, of Legacy Land Conservancy which started as the Washtenaw Land Conservancy, spoke amidst the many township residents who reiterated their emails over the course of more than 40 minutes of public feedback after the vote.
Lonik suggested the the township consider putting a ballot proposal before township voters to fund a purchase of development rights from the Doletzsky family with a millage, thus keeping the farmland in the historic state its been in since the late 1800s.
“Webster Township has three times passed PDR millages by wide margins,” Lonik said. “As of yesterday (Monday, November 14, 2016) they have preserved 1,600 acres in only ten years at only half a mill which is far less expensive for paying for all of the public services required of residential developments and maintains the ag base and preserves rural character,” Lonik said.
Residents attempt to throw up a legal barrier
Rod Dunlap, of Farmington Hills-based law firm Rod A. Dunlap & Associates, was one of the last speakers after the township board’s vote, which he praised as a wise move while also expounding on Rider’s concerns about creating an ag zone island in the township.
Dunlap characterized rezoning the Doletzky property according to the wishes of the developer as spot zoning, given the circumstances laid out by Rider: “Spot zoning is frowned upon by the courts, in fact, it is illegal.”
The Michigan State University Extension resource page on spot zoning backs Dunlap’s argument up by pointing out that the practice violates the Michigan Planning Enabling Act and the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act, both of which have provisions that exclude spot zoning from acceptable municipal planning practices.
“When you say we don’t want to have an island here in a zoning district, that’s exactly what the law says as well,” Dunlap said. “You can’t have a zoning district of ag and spot zone and pick particular areas and say we’re going to have this and we’re going to treat it differently. Let’s make this residential rural, but not all of the other ones around it.”
On its face the decision to rezone the Doletzky land as requested by the developer only appears to be for the profitability of the private developer, which is “insufficient reason to invoke the amending powers of the township when the property is capable of full use within the limitations for which it is currently zoned,” Dunlap added.
Even if the township answers all of the questions raised by the 60 emails and amongst the board trustees, the township will have to consider the rezoning request as a dead end and move in another direction to stay within the bounds of the law and out of a situation where a Michigan judge would overturn the township’s invocation of their zoning powers if challenged by the residents that Dunlap is representing.
Issues surrounding this matter, such as the parameters of zoning ordinances that dictate unit bonuses for development density and design standards mentioned earlier in the article, will be discussed further Tuesday, November 22 at Dexter Township Hall at 7 p.m. during a planning commission meeting intended to hash out revisions of all the township’s ordinances while the development moratorium is still in effect.
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