Madison Heights hires new city planner

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published October 27, 2021

MADISON HEIGHTS — After months of contracting out planning services, Madison Heights has hired a dedicated city planner, who will oversee land use and development in the community.

Matt Lonnerstater is no stranger to the title of city planner, having served in that role for the cities of Savannah, Georgia and Greenville, South Carolina. He also spent four years working as a private consultant in Ann Arbor. He has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and a master’s degree in urban planning, both from the University of Michigan.

He officially started his new position with Madison Heights in mid-September.

“My short-term role is to ensure that development within the city of Madison Heights complies with the city’s current zoning regulations and development standards,” Lonnerstater said in an email. “In the long range, it’s my role to review and recommend changes to these regulations and standards, where needed, to align them with the city’s master plan.”

The master plan provides guidance on land use over a 10- to 20-year period. The city reviews its master plan every five years, updating it to better reflect the community’s land use objectives.

“Madison Heights’ motto is The City of Progress. In my mind, it is also a City of Potential,” Lonnerstater said. “A majority of the city is developed with single-family residential homes, while industrial and commercial uses make up the next largest land uses. Madison Heights also has the benefit of having a large Oakland County Park (Red Oaks) running through the center of the city.”

He noted how Madison Heights is primarily laid out in a traditional grid-like network, made with automotive and pedestrian connectivity in mind.

“Commercial uses typically line the outer edges of the grid — think John R, 12 Mile, 11 Mile, Dequindre — while the inner sections are typically lined with residential uses. The grid network means many of our residential streets are directly connected to commercial corridors by sidewalks,” he said.  “However, the city’s commercial corridors primarily cater to the automobile — like drive-thrus, big parking lots and fast speed limits — meaning it is a rather negative experience for pedestrians, bicyclists and other users of non-motorized transportation. Many Madison Heights residents therefore, understandably, choose to drive to nearby businesses and parks, rather than walk or bike.”

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, he said.

“We have a great opportunity in the city to improve upon our existing commercial corridors to make them more appealing, pedestrian-friendly and safer,” Lonnerstater said. “By strengthening the appearance and walkability of our commercial corridors, we can improve the connection between our residents, businesses and parks — and improve upon the sense of community.”
    

Honoring all stakeholders
He said that there are many things to consider when attempting to balance the needs of both businesses and residents.

“The concept of ‘zoning’ was originally developed in the early 20th century to protect residential areas from the noxious impacts of nearby heavy commercial and industrial uses,” Lonnerstater said. “Over time, however, the zoning practice has slowly developed to physically separate all residential uses from all commercial uses — even small neighborhood stores that could benefit nearby homes.

“The city’s current zoning code contains distinct zoning districts that not only separate out commercial uses from residential uses, but that also separate residential uses out from other residential uses. The current state of zoning — (which you could describe as) ‘keep everything away from everything’ — makes it difficult to realize the master plan’s vision to promote a mix of uses, walkable neighborhoods, and a variety of transportation options,” he said.

“The challenge is to recommend policies that both implement these visions while maintaining standards that protect residential uses from the external impacts of non-residential uses. Both of these have direct impacts on quality of life.”

He said that his first responsibility as city planner is to make sure all development is in compliance with the city’s current zoning regulations. However, when he reviews a new development or redevelopment, he will typically first look at the surrounding land uses, and envision any major negative impact that the new project could have — the goal being to minimize those impacts in a way that doesn’t compromise the master plan’s vision.

“Buffering and landscaping regulations, limitations on hours of operation, and lighting standards can, in my experience, alleviate many concerns from neighbors,” Lonnerstater said. “However, oftentimes zoning codes completely prohibit commercial uses near residential areas — even if these previous standards could be met.

“If a zoning regulation goes completely against the master plan’s vision, it should be changed,” he said. “That is why ‘short-term’ and ‘long-range’ planning are so related — if the short-term zoning ordinance standards don’t allow for land use and development patterns that we, as a community, want to see, it’s time to put ourselves into a long-range planning mode.”
    

Settling in
Currently, Lonnerstater is reviewing all aspects of the city. He said it’s a lot to take in, but he still finds time to unwind after hours. He and his wife Jessie enjoy traveling across Michigan, and spending time with their three-legged cat Dublin. He also likes watching reruns of “The Office,” “Seinfeld” and “Parks & Recreation,” or watching the movie “Airplane!” for the umpteenth time.

“Jessie and I also enjoy exploring local farmers markets and coffee shops, taking bike rides, and buying unnecessary items on Amazon,” Lonnerstater quipped.

He said he is “extremely grateful” for the opportunity to help shape the city of Madison Heights.

“I want to emphasize that this position is entirely within the category of ‘public servant’ — I am here to ensure that the city of Madison Heights develops in a way that improves the quality of life for everyone, as set out in our master plan,” Lonnerstater said.

He also invites anyone with ideas, concerns or questions about planning in the city to contact him anytime at his email address, mattlonnerstater@madison-heights.org.

Melissa Marsh, the city manager of Madison Heights, said she has every confidence in him.

“We are delighted to have Matt on board with the city to fill the planning role as an in-house resource for those looking to create new development or redevelopments within the city,” Marsh said via email. “Matt’s practical knowledge of planning, zoning and land use, and his ability to provide excellent customer services, have already proven beneficial to the city.”