City of Ann Arbor:
The Ann Arbor City Planning Commission is a 9-member appointed board responsible for the preparation of Master Plans, review of site plans for proposed development, and consideration of zoning amendments, property re-zonings, and similar proposed ordinances for recommendation to the Ann Arbor City Council.
The Planning Commission holds its regular meeting on the 3rd Tuesday of each month, at 7pm in the Ann Arbor City Hall 2nd floor Council Chambers. Subcommittees, working sessions, and similar are held on other Tuesday evenings. Agendas, minutes, and meeting packets can be found on the Planning Department's website.
One of the quirks of Ann Arbor's development process, which has caused no small amount of discussion over the course of the 2000s, is the City Council's re-review of site plans after Planning Commission has reviewed them.
Legally, a site plan review is considered an administrative activity - if a proposed development meets the zoning and development standards laid down in local ordinance, it is approved. These are often referred to as "by right" site plans, in that the developer has the right to construct the project as long as he can demonstrate in the site plan that all applicable standards are met. In many communities, by-right site plans are therefore reviewed and approved by the Planning Commission, or even by staff. However, Ann Arbor sends site plans to City Council for review, including a public hearing, even when all standards are met, and there is theoretically no legal basis for denial. This theme can be found discussed repeatedly in forums like the Ann Arbor News / AnnArbor.com, Arbor Update, and the Ann Arbor Chronicle, around most significant development projects in the City.
Several problems arise from this arrangement:
- Since stakeholders know that Council has the last word, they will often wait until the final approval step to bring up concerns, meaning that a developer who may have spent significant time and energy working with City staff and the Planning Commission may be sent back to the drawing board by Council.
- If City Council is unhappy with a site plan that staff and Planning Commission have found to be approveable by-right, they are left grasping at fuzzy definitions of "public nuisances" that would be created by the proposal that have not already been dealt with under the zoning provisions.
- The multiple-step review process makes it difficult for either the applicant, or the site's neighbors, to have clear expectations of what might be possible.
A case study of these problems is the City Place development proposed for South Fifth Avenue in various iterations over 2008-2010: in the midst of repeated revisions of a Planned Unit Development version of the project (a negotiated, flexible zoning tool), the developer sent a by-right proposal of the project through the review process. Several Councilmembers stated they were "confused and disappointed" by this action, which seemed to be partially based in leveraging concessions on the PUD negotiations by having the by-right site plan, which was nobody's first choice, approved and ready to build in case the applicant could not get a favorable outcome on the PUD process. (The developer later brought back a dramatically re-worked PUD application that attempted to address community concerns about preserving the historic homes and streetscape pattern on the site.)
Over the years, many developers, near-downtown residents, and advocates of sound urban planning have called for the process to be revised, suggesting that if the Zoning Ordinance does not adequately address the community's concerns, it should be revised to do so. This would allow the Planning Commission to issue actual administrative approvals to site plans that met legal requirements, rather than leaving the City Council asking their attorney, "On what grounds could we legally deny this, if Planning Commission has stated that it meets all ordinance standards?" Several initiatives have sought to address this issue, including the Calthorpe Report/A2D2 process for visioning and revising zoning standards for downtown, and the Area, Height and Placement Project to examine zoning standards for commercial districts outside of downtown. These are, however, large-scale initiatives covering thorny questions of community identity and needs.
- Ann Arbor Chronicle, 15 Dec. 2009: Fifth Ave. Project to Meet Historic Standards
- AnnArbor.com, 22 Sept. 2009: City Place site plan gets unanimous approval of Ann Arbor City Council
- AnnArbor.com, 18 Sept. 2009: City Place site plan coming back before Ann Arbor City Council for approval on Monday