In Praise of Chelsea: Mayor Johnson’s Observations
By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter
Ask Mayor Melissa Johnson what makes Chelsea great, and the list gets as big as the Mayor’s enthusiasm for her hometown.
In less than a month, Chelsea will have a new Mayor. Johnson is not running for reelection and has served the City for ten years in public office—two years on the Planning Commission, four years on the City Council, and four years as Mayor. Before she left office, I wanted to give her a chance to share a few of the highlights of her time in office. She had more than a few.
“Chelsea is in great physical and financial shape, probably the best it's been during my ten years of service to the city,” began Mayor Johnson. “We're in a really good place to move forward. We have some excellent plans in place right now.”
The cornerstone of those plans is the City’s Master Plan, which determines the vision for Chelsea. The Master Plan encompasses growth but also embraces concern for maintaining Chelsea’s small-town character.
“We have to be mindful that as we grow, we only have so much road infrastructure,” says Johnson. “Studies show that each residential unit brings an average of ten car trips a day in Chelsea. We can’t just grow. We have to grow smart.”
The Mayor believes Chelsea’s biggest challenge is maintaining the balance between growth and all the elements that provide a great quality of life.
“We've done some excellent work on sustainability in Chelsea,” says Johnson.
She points to the City’s own power resources, a rarity among smaller towns. If that wasn’t good enough, of the electrical power that Chelsea provides, 25% of it comes from renewable sources such as solar and wind. And the City has kept it affordable.
“We have one of the lowest electrical rates in the state,” says Johnson. “The City of Chelsea has done a great job with that.”
Chelsea owning its power supply pays off big in other ways too. Johnson explains, “When the power goes down in Chelsea, we have a team with great response times. Instead of being out for days or weeks, we’re out for minutes or hours. That’s been a tremendous asset for us.”
Other sustainable efforts of the City include electric vehicle charging ports, stormwater management that create bioswales and rain gardens, and enhancing existing green spaces. Chelsea is focusing on non-motorized alternatives for transportation. The City has a high participation rate in recycling that has served as a model for other communities wishing to do the same.
It's no accident. Chelsea is strategic about reducing its carbon footprint, explains Johnson. “We’ve incorporated more sustainability into our Zoning Ordinance. We really try to plan very holistically and long-term. As a city, you’re not planning for tomorrow. You’re looking ahead five, twenty, or thirty years out.”
“The City of Chelsea has not raised its tax rate in 14 years,” says Mayor Johnson with not just a little pride. “Your collective tax bill may have gone up because of other things such as road, mental health, school, fire authority, and other county millages, but the City has held the line on its rate.”
Johnson highlighted the county mental health millage, which funds the new CARES team.
“CARES is an interdisciplinary team designed to respond to mental health and crisis situations,” explained the Mayor. “It is available 24/7, and anyone can call at any time for assistance. Our police department utilizes the service.”
The phone number for CARES is 734 544 3050. Keep the number accessible, and please call if you or someone close is in crisis.
Mayor Johnson is a strong advocate for outdoor recreation.
She initiated Chelsea’s Parks and Rec Commission and has sat on the Commission since its inception. The group has created two draft master plans positioning it for grant funding. Jeff Hardcastle, who started Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative, and Coy Vaughn, Director for Washtenaw County Parks and Rec, were also members. Those connections have helped facilitate the new regional B2B Trail coming through Chelsea.
The City is also working on its intra-city network of trails too. The development of non-motorized pathways is one of Chelsea’s strategies to mitigate the traffic congestion in the City.
“Making those non-motorized connections is important,” says the Mayor. “We had the vision and planned for those connections in the early part of our Parks and Rec Master Plan.”
But shared, non-motorized pathways are not just about reducing the number of cars on the road or encouraging folks to get outside and move. Trails have been proven to be an economic catalyst for communities. The more people move about recreationally, the more likely they’ll stop for a drink or snack or attend an event. Trails draw people into town, as the City of Dexter can attest to since the construction of its B2B Trailhead.
“These pathways are for everyone,” she says. “Residents benefit tremendously from having these trails.”
Tied into the trails and getting folks outside is the need for more parkland, a condition the City recognizes.
“There’s a real demand for increased outdoor recreation that has been reinforced during COVID,” says Johnson.
She points to a national standard recommending ten acres of parkland per 1,000 people. Chelsea’s current population of around 5,500 would need 55 acres of land. Chelsea is currently at 35 acres.
“Parkland recreation has a significant impact on our physical and mental health, but it also has a positive impact on our economy and our overall feeling about our quality of life and the community in which we live,” says Johnson. “For me, there is no greater focus.”
“One of the greatest focus areas for the next coming Council is to focus on those recreational needs because they're available to everybody,” she adds. “It is essential because public land is open and available to everybody.”
Also tied into moving people around town is another initiative Mayor Johnson introduced—Chelsea POP, a project designed to improve Chelsea's walkability, drivability, and bikability. With the future development in and around Chelsea and the traffic increase that will bring, “We need to plan for that now,” says Johnson.
Some of the efforts so far include marking street corners to help travelers of all modes negotiate them safely. Bike lanes are being designated in some places. (Note: No street parking is allowed in bike lanes). Paint and other temporary solutions are being used to test traffic calming measures before the City invests in reengineering the roads. The initiative began last year. After surveying public input on the project, the City continued with Chelsea POP 2.0 this year.
“We have significant development in Chelsea right now that I’m not sure everyone is aware of,” says Johnson.
The Mayor went on to list the future growth:
- Heritage Farms with 40 more homes this year and 190 after that.
- The Rockwell Building is under development for 50 units.
- Silver Maples has added 16 units this year.
- Westchester Farms in Sylvan Twp planned with 330 units.
- Westchester Farms in the Chelsea portion with 55 units.
- Lincoln Point is scheduled for 25 units.
- Chelsea Square Apartments in Sylvan Twp with 81 units.
“A lot of different types of housing are coming to Chelsea,” says Johnson. “And many people don’t know that Chelsea has one of the most affordable housing prices for cities in Washtenaw County.”
Past Year Controversy
The past year has been a challenge for Chelsea as it works through social concerns from the 2020 protests. The process has been complex, emotional, and ongoing.
“The City is always looking for continued improvement,” says Johnson. “One thing I’ve encouraged everyone to do first is to gather good facts. That doesn’t mean personal facts but full facts. Make sure the information you get is verifiable. It is really important as you make policy decisions to look at what the data and the facts say and take the time to gather that. Policy shouldn’t be rushed.”
“In running the City, we have to consider the micro and macro, planning five, ten, twenty years out,” says the Mayor. “We have been very fortunate here in Chelsea to have an excellent staff that has been the backbone for the City.”
And Mayor Johnson’s list continues well beyond the space of this article. While she is quick to give credit for Chelsea’s continued success to the community, City Staff, and other civic leaders, Mayor Johnson’s contribution is unmistakable and much appreciated.
Two Council members are running for Chelsea Mayor in the November 2 election, Cheri Albertson and Jane Pacheco. Mark your calendars. Vote.
Photo: Doug Marrin