Rezoning of Sylvan's NeighborWood gets a divided vote of the township board


The rezoning request made for some land on Conway Road in Sylvan Township was not approved at the last board meeting, but that doesn’t mean the idea for the future of that property is going away.

Before the Sylvan Township Board at their May 9 meeting was a consideration of a conditional rezoning request for a 20 acres parcel at 5601 Conway Road. The request was to take that land's designation from Agricultural to Low Density Residential. The township’s Planning Commission (PC) had recommended to the township board to deny the request.

The project and request has been brought to the township by resident Patrick Zieske, under the development company called Inlandish Development. The project is called Sylvan's NeighborWood.

This project and rezoning request has been a topic at many previous meetings, specifically the planning commission. In an attempt to learn more about the project and decision, the Sun Times News (STN) reached out through email to the different people involved; starting with the township board and its decision.

Here is the story, which may be too long, but the following information does give some insight for those interested.

Township Board Trustee Kurt Koseck said the zoning change was not approved. The Board of Trustees (BOT) went through the standards of review and then voted and he said the vote was 2 for and 2 against.

“Since you need a majority, the request for change was not approved,” Koseck said.

He said the land will retain its current zoning classification (Agriculture).

“We suspect that the owner will now start the process within the Open Spaces Project Development ordinance,” he said.

Township Supervisor Kathleen Kennedy abstained from voting on the matter due to her business partnership with Zieske at Agricole Farm Stop in downtown Chelsea.

Because the supervisor is the meeting chair the board had to pick a temporary acting replacement for Kennedy at the May 9 meeting. Treasurer Rod Branham was elected. The Board then went into Closed Session with Township Attorney Rob Thall.

Kennedy said there were a number of people at public comment that supported the project.

After returning to the Open Meeting, there was a motion to deny the rezoning request, supported by Clerk Nimke and Trustee Koseck. Treasurer Branham and Trustee Schulze opposed. Then there was a motion to approve the rezoning, supported by Branham and Schluze, opposed by Koseck and Nimke.

Here is Kennedy’s statement about her abstaining:

“When the Board gets to the consideration of the Conway Road conditional rezoning, I will be abstaining from any participation in the matter since I feel that I have a conflict of interest. The conditional rezoning request is from Inlandish Development which is a company owned by Patrick Zieske. I have a small business relationship with Mr. Zieske as a part owner of Agricole Farm Stop involved in selling local produce and locally made items. Because of my business relationship with Mr. Zieske I do not feel like I can be unbiased and I also want to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Additionally, the Conway Road project would have a farming component and some of those farm products could potentially be sold at our business. With that being said, when we get to that item on the agenda I will abstain from participation and ask at that time that the Board vote on appointing somebody to temporarily chair the meeting regarding that matter.”

Now here, provided to the Sun Times News by the township, is the excerpt from the township board minutes from May 9, regarding the Conway rezoning:

"Consideration of a Conditional Rezoning Request for a 20 Acre Parcel (5601 Conway, F-06-11-200-024)

Kennedy said she was going to abstain from any participation in the matter due to a conflict of interest. Kennedy said she had a small business relationship with Patrick Zieske, the applicant. Kennedy said she felt she could not be un-biased and wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Kennedy asked the Board to temporarily appoint a Chair of the meeting for the agenda item. Motion by Koseck to appoint Schulze to act as Chair for the matter. Schulze asked to defer to Branham. Koseck said, as the PC representative Schulze should act as Chair. Schulze said she had never chaired a meeting and asked Branham to act as Chair. Branham agreed. Koseck amended his Motion to appoint Branham as the Chair. Supported by Nimke. Koseck suggested also discussing the Shoreview Road rezoning application while in closed-session. Motion carried by voice vote.

Branham said he was hearing the need to go into closed-session. Branham asked Zieske to share any comments he had for the Board at that time. Zieske said it had been 4 years since he originally submitted an ordinance text amendment for his project. Zieske said the project was unusual and did not fit any ordinance designations at that time, and there were many pieces that needed to come together to make it an effective project. Zieske said he didn't think it would be a big deal to add two or three homes, but understood why it might be a big deal to some. Zieske said three Planning Commission members stated they did not want to see the additional homes, but felt that was not a valid reason to reject it.

Zieske said the number of homes, from 9-12, was a big deal to his community due to the costs of infrastructure per resident. Zieske said, though the Master Plan could appear conflictive, he thought his project was the greatest exemplar of the Master Plan future land use designation because the area was designated for both agricultural and low-density residential zoning. Zieske said his project did not fit into ether zoning category, which was the reason for the rezoning. Zieske said there wasn't a lot of public participation when the 2017 Master Plan was drafted, but he was there. Zieske said the initial draft of the Master Plan stated that Low Density Residential was the only compatible zoning district for an area of Low Density Residential Land Use, but that it was changed to allow Agricultural zoning districts at his request.

Zieske said he did not think the PC made an adequate case to reject the rezoning, and that the PC had stated the rezoning would destroy farming activities on the property. Zieske said he did not think that was a serious consideration and said the Right to Farm Act protected farming operations with constraints, and would seek solutions if there were future problems. Zieske said he had considered splitting off the part of the parcel used for farming after the rezoning and sending it back to the PC to return it to an agricultural zoning. Zieske said he didn't think anyone would harass him about future farming operations.

Christian Smith said he was the lead designer on Zieske's project and had worked on land preservation across the State. Smith said he was proud of the work done to strengthen the Open Space Preservation Ordinance, but thought Zieske's project was an interesting blend to the zoning issue to change for agricultural zoning to low density residential zoning. Smith said he wanted to point out that it was a conditional rezoning, and that Zieske's project was a blend between farming and low-density residential, and felt it was a compromise between community and agriculture.

Motion by Branham that the Township move into closed-session under Section 8(l)(h) of the Open Meetings Act, to consider material exempt from disclosure by state statute, section 13(l)(g) of the Freedom of Information Act, being a letter from its attorney dated May 9, 2023, for the reason that the letter is exempt from disclosure under State law due to the attorney-client privilege. Supported by Schulze. Roll call vote: Branham, yes; Koseck, yes; Nimke, yes; Schulze, yes. Motion carried.

Board moved in closed session at 8:20 p.m.

Board reconvened in open session at 9:07 p.m.

Branham read the standards of review.

1. Consider all uses in the proposed zoning district. Nimke said the uses will be 12 homes with 50% of the land preserved.

2. Compliance with the Master Plan. Nimke said although the Master Plan Future Land Use map allowed for the area to be rezoned, she did not think it was the right time for the parcel to be rezoned due to the surrounding parcels all being agriculturally zoned.

3. Consistency with zoning in the general area. Nimke said all of the surrounding parcels were agriculturally zoned with 2-acre lots.

4. Consistency and compatibility with for general land use patterns in the area. Nimke said the use was agricultural with a density of 2-acres or more, and that the applicant was asking for a higher density than what was currently used.

5. Suitability with proposed uses in the zoning district. Branham said farming was not directly allowed in a low-density residential zoned district. Nimke agreed , and said farming would not be a reason to rezone to low-density residential due to it not being allowed in the low-density residential zoning districts. Attorney Thall noted that the Right to Farm act would allow for lawful non-conforming uses.

6. Adequacy of public services. Schulze said the development could provide their own well and septic.

7. Traffic. Branham said it was currently a low-traveled gravel road. Nimke said there were currently 17 houses between the parcel and Cavanaugh Lake Rd, which was the main road residents take to access other areas around the township. Nimke said adding 12 houses was approximately a 70% increase in the amount of traffic residents would see on the road, which was significantly more than residents had historically experienced.

8. Reasonable use under the current zoning classification. Nimke said it could still be developed under the Open Space Ordinance using agricultural zoning. Branham agreed.

9. Identifiable public need. Schulze said there was a public need for more diverse housing in the community, and though she was unsure of the sizes of housing Zieske was proposing there was an elementary school that had closed due to a lack of enrollment. Schulze and that bringing in a diversity of housing would bring in diverse people, which would make the community richer. Koseck said it would be a unique community.

10. Diminution in value. Branham said the property could still be used. Nimke said the standard did not apply because the applicant was asking for the rezoning.

11. Citizen opposition. Koseck said there was support based on the public comments and letters. Nimke said there had been opposition, so it was a mixed response.

12. Recommendation of the Planning Commission. Nimke said the Planning Commission recommended to deny the rezoning.

Motion by Nimke to deny the consideration of a conditional rezoning request for a 20 Acre Parcel (5601 Conway, F-06-11-200-024). Supported by Koseck. Roll call vote: Koseck, yes; Branham, no; Nimke, yes; Schulze, no. Motion failed.

Motion by Branham to approve the consideration of a conditional rezoning request for a 20 Acre Parcel (5601 Conway, F-06-11-200-024). Supported by Schulze. Roll call vote: Nimke, no; Schulze, yes; Koseck, no; Branham, yes. Motion failed.

Thall said there was no motion carried; the property was not rezoned."

The minutes excerpt ends there.

STN reached out to Zieske following the meeting with the questions; What do you think of the decision? What was the plan? What’s next for the property?

Here was his reply by email:

Thanks for reaching out. I was planning to contact the Sun Times News to see if you were interested in doing an updated story about "Sylvan's NeighborWood" -- the name of the community project that I am pursuing. Way back in 2018 or 2019 the Sun Times did a story on us. At that time, we thought we would gain approval in a fairly reasonable time-frame and the Sun Times was planning to do an update in 6-12 month. And here we are in 2023 -- kind of hard to believe it. Since then we have suffered through quite a few delays.

The Board's decision on May 9th was actually no decision at all. No motion passed. They deadlocked 2-2, with the fifth member of the Board abstaining. In effect it was the same as a denial, because if you are not approved, then you are denied. As far as what I think of the vote: I was pleased to see two Board members in support. I was of course displeased with the other two who voted the other way. Blatant public misstatements of fact from one Board member accompanied the vote. Only 1 or 2 of the 12 review criteria legitimately weighed against our rezoning application, and then only mildly so. The other 10 or 11 criteria were either neutral or solidly in our favor. On the merits it is clear that we should have won approval. So, it was really the subjective personal feelings or desires of two Board members that made the difference.

Exactly what those subjective feelings are, it's hard to say. But I have observed a kind of attitude in some people... it's as if we were asking the government to give us something that we don't deserve, or that they feel threatened in some way. Those sentiments could hardly be further from reality. We are literally asking for nothing from the government. Compare that to other projects. But you can't argue with feelings; I've tried. Whatever it is, it's intense. It has driven people right over the edge into, as I mentioned, blatant and knowing misstatements of fact, as well as the pressure applied to the fifth Board member to abstain over a fake conflict of interest. Somebody even tried to neutralize another voting member of the Board with a legal theory that had already been dispelled before -- thankfully that gambit failed.

50 years ago, such attitudes were less fashionable. It used to be a matter of common sense and good will that it was your property and if you weren't hurting anybody, go ahead. It used to be that the government needed to have a good reason if they wanted to block you. Now they assume by default you shouldn't be able to do anything unless they (out of the goodness of their hearts!) allow you some permission. And goodness of heart is waning.

What was the plan? I would love to get the chance to talk at length about the project itself, but I'll be brief here. Our plan has been, and continues to be, a small integrated residential/agricultural community on the 22-acre site. We are going to be a co-owned farm (a business with shares owned by each resident) with the intention of many residents actively participating in the farming activity part-time. We want to exemplify the best practical standards of ecological living -- including renewable energy, modest home footprint, natural building materials where possible, organic agriculture, avoidance of toxins in the environment, and authentic connection to both the land and to community members. Finally, we want to position this kind of life-style to be within reach affordably for a wide variety of people. So far, we have had sheep, vegetable farming, mushrooms, and over 100 fruit trees as a start to the orchard. One house is under construction, utilizing hempcrete insulation in the walls, wood heat from an Amish cookstove, 100% off-grid solar power, attached barn, and hopefully soon an earthen floor on the lower level. (only a little out of date)

In a way, it hearkens back to the days of the old European (and I believe African, too) farming villages with the little cluster of homes comprising the village and the villagers' farm lands surrounding it. In another way, it looks toward the future of hybrid work, partly remote via electronic technology and partly re-inhabiting the land. For sure, the future is not going to look like the present. This is just our best non-utopian vision that seems to be emerging and we think it is saner and more healthy than those utopian visions that have gripped too many people's attention.

The May 9th decision, in itself, only affected the number of homes. The current zoning district allows us the potential for 9 or 10 homes, depending on how you interpret the ordinances. A full rezoning to Low-Density Residential would have increased that number to approximately 20. Our conditional rezoning application was capped at 12. So, we were arguing over 2 or 3 additional units over what it already permitted. It was amazing to see how some people got so tied up in knots over 2 or 3 homes! For the Township, it really doesn't matter (objectively). But for us, it's a big deal. 12 is 33% more than 9. The smaller number really puts a crimp on affordability, as fewer residents have the shoulder the whole cost of the common infrastructure such as the private road and community wells, and the farm start-up. Affordability matters; how many young people/families can afford to be part-time farmers, let alone afford their own house in this area? The lower number of homes sites also detracts from vibrant community life and the availability of enough people living on-site to run the farm.

What's next? Part of me says, "Don't let them get away with this travesty. Sue them." That decision has not yet been made. But putting that aside, we can go forward with the 9 or 10 units by submitting a site plan for the project for Planning Commission review. In my opinion, the project is still worth pursuing. We have prospective residents who are really looking forward to living in the community and I don't want to let them down! We did get the key enabling Open Space ordinance approved last December. Now we hope to work with the Township for effective implementation of the Open Space ordinance as applied to this Conway Road project. There are a lot of uncertainties, since the ordinance is vague and contains various exception clauses. We'll just have to see what they will do with our site plan. The experience of four years thus far has seen a lot of discouragements, but certainly we do have a real chance of success if they would be willing to work with us constructively within the framework of the Open Space ordinance.

I think if we can get enough of the project built out, and people can see it, then hearts will change. Maybe in the future we will have another chance to realize the full potential of what we are starting now.

It has been good to see support from the Chelsea community already. The people who spoke in our favor on May 9th only inspired me further.

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