The site of the former Whitfield Elementary School was being eyed for high-density multifamily developments.

The site of the former Whitfield Elementary School was being eyed for high-density multifamily developments.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Resident group celebrates PUD ordinance amendment in Sylvan Lake

By: Andy Kozlowski | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published October 25, 2019

 Residents fill the Sylvan Lake Community Center during a Planning Commission meeting March 5.

Residents fill the Sylvan Lake Community Center during a Planning Commission meeting March 5.

File photo by Sean Work


SYLVAN LAKE — When an apartment complex was proposed at the site of the former Whitfield Elementary School, on Orchard Lake Road, and a zoning change was considered to allow it, public outcry was swift, with residents raising concerns that the changes would overpopulate their small town.

This led the Sylvan Lake Planning Commission to recently recommend that the City Council approve an amendment to the planned unit development ordinance that would limit the units per acre to five — a stark contrast with the 20 units per acre that would have been allowed under the zoning change. The measure also prohibits multifamily developments.

The City Council unanimously approved the amendment in concept at its meeting Oct. 16, with final approval expected at the Nov. 13 meeting. The council also approved an amendment to the community service district zoning ordinance with regard to permitted principal uses and special approval uses for the district, adding dining rooms as a use, but no other type of restaurant.

“With the new uses approved for the CS district — along with the mixed-use options by using the PUD — I believe a developer will be able to design a very nice, viable development that will benefit the developer and the city of Sylvan Lake and its residents,” said Sylvan Lake City Manager John Martin.

He commended the efforts of the resident group SPAR — an acronym that originally stood for Sylvan People Against Rezoning and will now stand for Sylvan Peoples Alliance of Residents, since the group plans to continue advocating for the community. It should be noted that SPAR was never against all rezoning, but rather the kind its members believe could lead to overpopulation.

“With SPAR, it was very nice to see a group of people come together for a common cause,” Martin said. “They did a lot of work and created lasting friendships. They were very professional in what they did, which was working with each other, the Planning Commission and the City Council to preserve the Sylvan Lake way of life.

“I believe the process was proper and very thorough,” he added. “I know there was a little angst about it taking so long, but this was a very big decision, one that could potentially have a very significant impact on the city and its residents, so it needed to be evaluated carefully.”

According to Midge Davison, a resident and one of the core members of SPAR, there were standing-room-only crowds at the last two Planning Commission and City Council meetings, and more than 50 residents spoke at one Planning Commission meeting, making their plea that the commissioners not approve multifamily developments.

The SPAR leadership team itself had more than 40 meetings during the past eight months. SPAR members pointed out how the city of Sylvan Lake is already in the 93rd percentile for density compared to 700 other Michigan communities, with the U.S. Census Bureau placing the population of Sylvan Lake at about 1,850 residents. SPAR’s concern was that more residents and rentals could erode property values, strain emergency responders, congest traffic, and degrade public spaces such as parks and beaches.

SPAR steadily became a household name in Sylvan Lake as it sought out nearly 950 signatures for a petition for change. The group also maintains a website, www.sylvan

The catalyst for the group’s mobilization was developer Steven Friedman’s proposal to develop the site of the former Whitfield Elementary School, located at 2000 Orchard Lake Road, into some sort of high-density, multifamily development. There were no formal proposals, although one idea was for three-story structures housing 180-200 units or about 300 occupants, while another concept was scaled back and slightly smaller in scope.

Friedman did not respond to requests for comment by press time. Friedman has been in community development for the last 40 years with commercial and residential developments. In an earlier report, he described a “live/work place with luxury rental units,” according to Planning Commission minutes, which also mention a pool, a clubhouse, a communal garden, a wellness center, a business and residents lounge, an outdoor barbecue and patio area, and a connection to the Clinton River Trail.

The developer’s pitch led the city to consider rezoning the site, since the ordinance in place at the time, originally adopted in 2013, prohibited multifamily developments and only allowed for condominiums and single-family homes no higher than two stories.


Resident feedback
Kerri Gruebner was part of the SPAR movement.

“If you had told me a year ago I would be knocking on doors to get petition signatures, I would have laughed,” Gruebner said in an email. “I’ve never been a protester, activist, or gone door to door for anything. I moved to Sylvan Lake two and a half years ago because of its charm, uniqueness and friendly, small-town vibe. I’m happy that our city officials did the right thing and voted to preserve our way of life in Sylvan Lake.”

Jim Cowper is another resident happy with the outcome.

“In today’s world, it’s so powerful to see 940-plus people unite, present a message in a dignified manner, and grow in size and momentum to protect the interests of a community,” Cowper said in an email. “SPAR represents the type of freedom that makes America the greatest nation on Earth, and Sylvan Lake the benchmark city.”

Kelli Krause, a SPAR member, said she hopes recent events keep people engaged.

“My hope is that SPAR has injected sustainable unity into our community and that, going forward, the residents remain committed to collective conservation and positive action, especially when opinions and objectives differ,” Krause said in an email.

Jan Hays has been a resident of Sylvan Lake for 34 years and is a Realtor. Hays is one of the original 13 SPAR members.

“Sylvan Lake is a unique community with the charm and character of yesteryear. Sylvan Lake is also one of the highest appreciating communities in Oakland County. People buy here for the small-town community feel and the lake access,” Hays said in an email. “We fought the development of multifamily use because it would have changed the face of Sylvan Lake forever.”

Christine DeBano said the saga shows groups like SPAR are needed to keep people informed.

“A huge part of what we did, through our canvassing and informational meeting, was to let citizens know what was being proposed and what the stakes were for the community,” DeBano said in an email. “People have busy lives and aren’t always plugged into what’s happening with their city government.”

Davison said she is pleased with the results of SPAR’s dialogue with elected officials.

“This initiative has heightened our awareness of the need to stay closer to a small city, and the decisions that are critical to (the) lifestyle and well-being of all,” Davison said in an email. “We will rebrand the tagline on SPAR, keeping the acronym that served to rally almost 950 residents to sign a petition for a cause; they now have a support team that will evolve and change as the city needs us, keeping our promise to those people. Our city officials acted responsibly and with sensitivity to the topic and the people. We are very grateful for their support. They are our friends and neighbors too.”