Huntington Woods maintains site plan review regarding zoo

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published December 21, 2015


HUNTINGTON WOODS — Despite recommendations from the Huntington Woods Planning Commission and city administration, the City Commission took no action on a site plan ordinance revision during its November meeting that would have allowed certain Detroit Zoo animal habitats to be built without city site plan review.

According to City Manager Amy Sullivan, the city recently was advised that the Detroit Zoo is not exempt from site plan review.

While Sullivan’s initial request to the Planning Commission was to exempt all animal habitats from site plan review, as the city does not have the expertise to deal with such plans, the Planning Commission decided to recommend site plan review for modifications to existing or new animal habits within 120 feet of the centerline of Huntington Road.

“One of the things administration is concerned with is we don’t have the expertise or knowledge to deal with animal habitats,” Sullivan said. “The Planning Commission was not comfortable with exempting all animal habits and wanted to review animal habitats that might have an impact to our residents.”

The revision still would have required the Detroit Zoo to bring any non-animal habitat modification or new construction to the Planning Commision, and all construction would have had to follow the zoning ordinance and applicable permits.

However, before commission members could discuss the issue, resident Jason Turkish brought up his concerns that would later be echoed by the commission.

“My fear is once we do this, we will have a very difficult time in the future getting this authority back, and we may want it back for some really good reasons,” Turkish said. “I don’t understand why we would write off any authority to take a courtesy look at the plans. We may want to streamline the process, but we shouldn’t eliminate it entirely.”

City Commissioner Allison Iversen responded that allowing the Planning Commission to review any changes or additions would show the residents they are trying to do what is best for them.

The Detroit Zoo and the city of Huntington Woods have been in close contact this past year, mostly regarding noise concerns with the return of the Dinosauria exhibit this summer. The Detroit Zoo held a public forum in February and addressed several concerns regarding mitigating noise for the nearby neighborhoods.

In June, the City Commission passed a noise ordinance amendment that set a maximum decibel level of 65 decibels, 24 hours a day, for the zoo.

“While I admit we don’t know a lot about the specifics of animal habits, we should maintain some control,” Iversen said. “Having some ability to look at plans to get an idea could go a long way for the relationship between the zoo and residents. I don’t know how often they would have a new habitat, maybe once every five years, so to give up the ability to look over the plans, I’m not sure how we get it back.”

Commissioner Joe Rozell discussed setting up guidelines similar to residential site plan reviews, but Sullivan said she didn’t feel there would be enough uniformity among animal habitats that a checklist of sorts would work.

“Every animal habitat is different, and I’m not sure we can do a one-size-fits-all guideline in terms of size and height,” she said. “The land mass will vary, the height of the fence may vary, so that is why we put this in place, because all habitats will be different.”

The commission decided it was best to allow the Planning Commission to review all potential site plans within the Detroit Zoo. Commissioner Jules Olsman said he came to the meeting expecting to vote in favor of the restrictions, but after discussions, Olsman sided with maintaining the power of review.

“We are asking people with no expertise on a highly specialized area to comment, but the zoo does have the high expertise and I don’t see this as a big burden for the Planning Commission,” Olsman said. “I don’t think it is unreasonable that the zoo is burdened to come in, as they have very knowledgeable, highly intelligent people. So I opt on the side of giving everything a fair hearing.”