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| 4 min read | by Sean Dalton, sdalton@thesuntimesnews.com |

What would be one of the newest mixed-use developments in western Washtenaw County over the next five years is going to have to go back to the drawing board after the Chelsea City Council aired several concerns with it during a public hearing this week.

The Wolf Farms development, which boasts 173 units of residential living space following the construction of two medical office buildings each over the first two years of the five-year phased building plan, faces a lack of compliance with the city’s zoning requirements.

The office buildings face incongruence with the city’s requirements for floor area coverage and impervious area coverage, meaning the ratio of building square footage compared to the lot size is more than 20 percent too large as proposed. The impervious area or amount of the parcel that cannot absorb or infiltrate rainfall exceeds Chelsea’s specification by more than 15 percent.

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The housing units fall far short of the city’s requirements for lot area, lot width, side yard, rear yard, and floor area ratio under all three of its single-family home zone classifications. Essentially the density would have to be relaxed in such a way as to increase lot size from 6,000 square feet to at least 7,500, as well as extend lot width from 50 to at least 60 feet, front yard length from 50 to 60 feet, and double the front and side yards.

There are also lingering concerns about adding more traffic to the intersection of Freer Road and Old US 12, particularly from the two 40,000 square foot office buildings that would be the development’s face onto Freer and towards Pierce Lake Elementary School across the street.

Developer David Wolf, of Illinois-based Fremont Group, and engineering and construction firm Atwell Group boast of 65 jobs created for each building, but to city council members that’s just 130 more commuters brought into the mix at an intersection that is already a major safety concern for area residents — not to mention all of the non-employee visitors to the buildings.

“In the master plan we identified that intersection needed improvement without additional development,” said Chelsea Mayor Melissa Johnson, who added that backups to the I-94 ramps is not uncommon.

Johnson and others on council directed the bulk of their opposition to the office buildings for a number of other reasons aside from the increased traffic burden, such as the fact that the city’s master plan also calls out Main Street parcels in the downtown as the appropriate location for such structures like the Wolf Farms medical office structures. 

There’s also a question of whether or not, from the city’s perspective, more commercial space is even needed at all. Given the fact that the development would face significant construction cost and time overruns without provision of water and wastewater services from the City of Chelsea Utilities Department.

City officials cited available commercial spaces in the Clocktower building, the Pamida strip, the Federal Screw Works building, and several others with commercial space available in and around town. There’s also 50,000 square feet of available commercial space near Old US 12 and South Main Street that is designated for infill development.

“When we haven’t filled those spaces and we’re going to look at this against our master plan, I question the inclusion of the medical or office components as part of this proposed development,” Johnson said, adding that the additional housing is not the problem and is needed in the area.

Council-member Peter Feeney took issue with the homogeneous nature of the residential units, saying he would be in favor of a revised plan being brought back before him with more of a “mix of housing.”

“Without it having a mix of some smaller units, if we allow it all to be stick build homes we’re going to have expensive stick build homes like we already have,” Feeney said.

He brought the discussion at the work session back to the traffic issue by stating that it was the most important question before the council with this development.

“We only have once chance to get it right,” Feeney said of steering Wolf Farms in a direction that will at least not exacerbate the traffic problem.

Many of Chelsea’s growing pains as a population center in western Washtenaw stem from the fact that M-52 is a state highway and Old US 12 is under the purview of the Washtenaw County Road Commission. 

“When we have these concerns it’s not as simple as calling up the road commission,” Pacheco said. Having served on the city’s transportation committee, Pacheco is familiar with the limitations of enlisting larger governmental bodies to get involved in addressing hyper-local concerns like the traffic situation at Freer and Old US 12.

A lane expansion or roundabout would be good solutions, according to City Manager John Hanifan. But those would cost the city money as the situation at the intersection doesn’t pass emergency thresholds for the number of preventable accidents, which are required for a county or state agency to invest in address roadway concerns within their jurisdiction.

When asked by Hanifan what the council would like to see brought back before them by the developer, many said that a plan without the medical office buildings would be of interest. The plan would also have to further address traffic concerns and bring more green space into the mix.

Wolf, who was visibly disappointed with the prospect of having to go back to the drawing board, pleaded the case for the concessions and improvements that have already been offered in the current site plan iteration to Lima Township, which is in the same direction as what the various council members said they want in Wolf Farms.

“We reduced the density at [the township’s] from 220 to 172 units, we increased green space pretty dramatically — they insisted that there be more green space and parks — and we’ve added more parks and increased the southern woods,” Wolf said. 

He also pointed out that Fremont and Atwell have increased the profile of the berms around the parking lot three times, over the course of working with Lima Township’s Planning Commission over the past six months.

Wolf Farms was first proposed in a previous iteration three years ago, before being re-submitted middle of last year.

Wolf indicated he would continue working with the city, which holds all of the cards with its potential choice to annex the land away from Lima, rendering the township’s local regulations moot. Otherwise, the city would have to be a party to a Public Act 425 Agreement to share the tax revenue from the development until the land eventually transfers to the city decades down the road.

Or the city can do nothing and leave the developer and township to figure out how to provide utilities on their own.

“We’ve responded to every one of their requests in kind, now it’s with Chelsea … so it looks like I’m going to go through this all again,” Wolf said.

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