UticaJuly 16, 2012
Utica City Council unanimously denies variances, opposes recommendations
By Brad D. Bates
C & G Staff Writer
UTICA — In a move Mayor Jacqueline Noonan said she has seen only “once or twice” in more than 20 years in office, Utica City Council unanimously disregarded recommendations of the Planning Commission and Building Department July 10.
As council voted 6-0, with one member absent, to deny setback variances for an apartment building at 44612 Davis Drive owned by a company that rents to adults who are in rehabilitation after having suffered traumatic brain injuries, the mayor cited the message from some residents as ringing louder than the recommendations from the two regulatory departments.
“Once council heard from the residents and how they felt that (the company) had been rude, impolite and nonresponsive, it was hard not to take notice,” Noonan said. “So, when council had a chance to, it voted to say, ‘Correct these things, and then come back to us.’”
Council’s denial of the variances has no effect on the day-to-day management of the building and would only come into play if the company, Communicare Michigan, was looking to sell the property or perform a “significant reconstruction.”
None of the renovations that were in a site plan Communicare gave to the city following a June 6 Planning Commission meeting are affected by the denial of the variances.
Among other issues, residents cited a lack of transparency with the work Communicare, a Rochester-based company, had done in renovating the apartments, which are meant to serve as a place for clients to start establishing a return to normal life.
Starting with and since the March 13 City Council meeting, a small but vocal group of residents from neighboring houses near the apartments has voiced concerns about the building. At the July 10 meeting, they were present with a handful of supporters and touted a petition with more than 100 signatures in support of their concerns during the public hearing on the setback variances.
Some residents also expressed concerns that the function of the building is more than a simple apartment building, with specific concerns about the possible presence of ongoing, on-site medical treatment.
Communicare Michigan Chief Operating Officer Ben Pulfer said part of the issues raised stemmed from a lack of understanding on his company’s behalf of the processes involved with operating an apartment building, specifically one that stands as a non-conforming use within a one-family residential zone.
“We definitely misunderstood the non-conforming use from the beginning,” Pulfer said. “Unfortunately, I think the council was forced to make a decision based on the opinions of the neighbors.
“These opinions were based on speculation. I wish the public opinion wasn’t based on speculation, but the fact is, from the beginning we’ve never operated anything other than an apartment building.”
Noonan said that non-conforming use — which, along with the setbacks, has been a problem since the building’s construction in the 1960s — is at the heart of one of the issues she plans to watch closely.
“It’s an apartment building,” Noonan said of what is appropriate business at the building, which is zoned multiple-family residential.
“If it stays an apartment building, that’s fine; but if it has live-in help and round-the-clock management, that is not an apartment. We view that as a halfway house, which would not be allowed under that use.”
Pulfer said that he has stated in writing Communicare’s intentions for the property on Davis Drive and hoped that would be enough.
“I’ve invited all of them to come out and see the property,” Pulfer said, noting that none of the officials aside from Building Director Gary Moscone had been to the property. “After you see it, it’s clear it is not any type of medical facility.
“I’ve put my name in writing stating exactly what that building is, and to me, that’s accountability,” Pulfer added.
Pulfer said it was on the recommendation of the Planning Commission that he requested the variances for setbacks, which would have brought the 44612 Davis Drive building in line with codes and streamlined future endeavors for renovations and possible sales and financing as a show of “good faith.” He said he and was surprised that the council’s vote went the way it did.
“Those were a recommendation from planning and Mayor Noonan on our end to show good faith,” Pulfer said of the setback variances.
‘“My thoughts prior to the (July 10) meeting, with prior meetings, I was optimistic and thinking it was something that would pass,” Pulfer added.
Along with the unanimous approval of the Planning Commission June 6, Moscone recommended the variances at the council meeting.
Moscone also told council that he believed many of the past issues that had plagued Communicare, which had a stop-work order placed on the property’s renovations because of improper work permits, had been rectified.
But Noonan reiterated that the voice of the residents and those past practices were the difference between the sentiments from building and planning officials and the council’s vote.
“The fact that Communicare came in, not just as a bull in a china shop, but as a bull thumbing its nose, so they soured everyone from the residents to those of us that enforce the rules,” Noonan said.
“Misinformation, inappropriate actions and a lack of appropriate protocol for the processes were running amok on that project.”
Pulfer said he hopes that Communicare can work with the community to change its perception and prove to residents and officials alike that their presence can be an asset rather than a detriment to the community.
“I still think Utica is a good community that serves our individuals well,” Pulfer said. “The same reasons we’re having issues is the same reason we like the community, because it is close-knit. Hopefully, as people get to know us better, we’ll earn more support.”
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