Making voting harder to try to get you to vote

This year we are going to experience a significant change in elections – one filled with intended and unintended consequences.  Unless stopped by a lawsuit, Michigan election law has eliminated straight-party voting.  And that has implications beyond my imagination.

I’ve been analyzing the possible effects for several months, ever since the governor signed the law eliminating straight-party voting in January. I’m not alone – but the impact from this decision has yet to be felt, so it isn’t in everyone’s thoughts.
On Thursday, July 7th, Ann Arbor’s City Council will consider whether to ask voters (on the November ballot) to eliminate partisan elections for local (Council/Mayor) elections. If the Council places this charter amendment on the ballot, and the voters approve it, there will be unintended consequences of this act, too.

I’ll break it down in my usual way, by asking questions.

First, what is the problem the change in state law is intended to address?

The official rationale seems to be that the problem is that, currently, voters don’t learn about down-ticket races, and when they vote straight-party tickets, they help elect unqualified or under qualified candidates.

The cynical among us would assert that the problem is that the lesser-known candidates, such as candidates for the State Board of Education, the Secretary of State, Regent, and local elected officials benefit from straight party voting – and in some places, that benefit is reflected in higher numbers of elected Democrats.

The optimistic among us assert that the problem is voters don’t know who they are voting for, and they should. They expect voters to become increasingly vigilant and learn more about the candidates running for each office so they can make educated decisions. 

40 other states prohibit straight-party voting. Nearly all of those states also allow early, no-question absentee voting. 

Voters in Michigan have twice overturned efforts to eliminate straight-party voting; because this law was attached to an appropriations bill, they don’t get that opportunity a third time.

Now, what is the problem that would be addressed by eliminating partisan elections for local office?

The official rationale seems to be that, in Ann Arbor, the winner of the low-turnout August Democratic primary is frequently the only candidate for local office on the November ballot. That’s because the local Republican Party has failed to put forward candidates for over a decade, and very few people run as Independents.

Currently, most candidates for city council and mayor in Ann Arbor win if they are on the Democratic ticket. That means that vying to be the Democratic candidate is often where the political action is. State election law requires that the Democratic and Republican primaries be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in August. As a result of that, the candidates running in local elections as Democrats are often selected in August. And since there are few people running as Independents, and no people running as Republicans (in the last decade), the person who wins the August primary is frequently the only candidate on the November ballot.

By eliminating partisan identification, the proposed charter amendment would allow multiple candidates to file for the nomination, and, if more than 2 candidates filed, there would be a primary in August. The 2 who received the majority of the votes would then appear on the November ballot. If only 2 candidates file for the nomination, then there would be no primary, and those 2 would appear on the November ballot. If only 1 candidate files, of course, there would be only 1 candidate on the November ballot

The cynical among us assert that this proposed charter amendment is an effort to allow Republicans and others espousing beliefs that differ from those of Democrats to run for local elections without having to reveal what they really believe.

The optimistic among us believe that, by eliminating party labels and establishing a route to a competitive race in November, local voters will be more inclined to become educated about candidates and more engaged in local politics, and will turn out more heavily in local elections.

Most other cities in Michigan have non-partisan local elections. That is because state law now requires that only major (read that as non-local) parties appear on the ballot. This relatively new law was established after the Human Rights Party won seats on City Council in 1972 and 1973. 

Does straight-party voting really matter?

In a state that does not allow early voting or no-reason absentee voting, straight-party voting saves significant amounts of time, especially in urban areas. But it does more than that. It increases the number of votes cast in down-ticket, local partisan races.

Of course, there’s no easy way to say by how much straight-party voting increases vote totals in November elections. But there’s an easy way to see the impact. If the First Ward in 2014 – the most recent even-numbered year where this would matter – nearly half (1980) of the votes that the Council candidate received were cast through straight-party voting. Another 2215 votes were cast specifically for her. 

I just have to imagine 1980 people in line to vote. Ticking each box off one by one, checking names and party affiliation, as others wait in the cold and dark for their turn at the ballot.  How many minutes would this add to the line – and not change the outcome for local races?   How many voters would just go home, or to work, or to the ball game?  And 2014 was a gubernatorial election, with both Governor and US Senator on the ballot, increasing potential turnout.  Presidential election years are potentially worse.

Does partisan ID really matter?

One theory is that non-partisan races will be more exciting and more interesting, and will increase turnout. A related theory is that better candidates will run if those candidates don’t have to identify as Democrats. 

 I don’t really buy that last idea. People who don’t want to identify as Democrats can still run for City Council and Mayor, and they can still win. This is especially so if straight-party voting is eliminated by state law. Because each voter would need to actively select each candidate, someone running as an Independent (as did Jane Lumm in the Second Ward) could be competitive and could win. And someone running under a different party label (Michigan recognizes Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, US Taxpayers Party [UST] and the Natural Law Party [NLP]) could, at any time in the future, be elected – especially since Michigan has eliminated straight-party voting. 

Because I have biases, I always try to check my facts. So I did a little math on the number of votes cast for partisan vs. non-partisan elections, too. On the general assumption that each person who voted for School Board candidates voted for four (and not two or three) candidates, I divided the number of votes cast – in total – for school board in the First Ward by four, which is the total number of votes anyone could cast. That number was 2811. I know that it may not be an accurate number, but I bet it’s reasonably close. 

The total number of votes cast for the Democratic candidate was 4195. 

This simple comparison is revealing to me, because there can be a lot of publicity for school board candidates, and very little for the council candidates running in November, particularly if there is no contest. It seems very clear to me that more people voted for a Democrat than they did for non-partisan school board candidate.

There’s more than that, however. It’s not about the number of votes alone, at least, it shouldn’t be.

If we took a general poll of people in Ann Arbor, there could easily be consensus about what problems the City should be solving – but the way we prioritize those problems would differ from person to person, from philosophy to philosophy. And the way we think the City ought to solve those would also be different. Just as the Democratic Party has been wrangling over its platform this year, trying to find a way to emphasize some problems and solutions over others, so do Democrats. When I vote for a Democrat, I believe I’m voting for a person who will support the issues I want the elected officials to prioritize  and the types of solutions I believe will work.  If those aren’t the positions candidates really hold, I want to elect someone else.  I use party labels to tell me what local and national positions a candidate will hold.   So do many others.

Right now, voters in Ann Arbor expect local candidates running for election to reflect the positions that their party has taken. And right now, that means Democrats are more reflective of the values Ann Arbor voters hold than are Republicans – or Greens or Libertarians (and don’t get me started on the US Taxpayers or the Natural Law parties . . .) That may not always be the case. How well a national party reflects local interests changes.

There are other considerations

Many people are horrified by the amount of money spent (and therefore raised) for political elections.  The State of Michigan recently increased the maximum amount a donor can give for primary and general elections (from $500 to $1000 in each).  And the cost of running a local campaign continues to increase at the same time it becomes increasingly difficult to reach voters.  Presidential campaigns are discussing the damage done by relying on donors who give to have access (Donald Trump gave to Hillary Clinton for that reason, after all).  How much more money do we want to spend on local elections?  (5 primaries and 5 general elections could easily pour over $100,000 into campaigns, given how much has been spent in recent years.)

If a candidate doesn’t  have great social connections, she or he may. be unable to raise sufficient funds to be competitive.  On top of that, I wonder whether we should be selecting candidates based on how well off their friends and connections are.  (PACs and corporations can give even more than individuals, after all.)

Another consideration that I haven’t seen addressed is that, in races where fewer people vote (such as non-partisan races) the number of people actually selecting candidates is reduced, not increased.    

But why do only Democrats win Council seats – and isn’t that a bad thing?

Democrats win because people in Ann Arbor vote for Democrats. They expect those Democrats to reflect their viewpoints – within the context of the Democratic Party, of course.

But Democrats don’t always win. Jane Lumm, the Independent Council member from the Second Ward, has won repeatedly – each time against a well-funded and well regarded Democrat. She wins because she prioritizes problems and recommends solutions that a majority of voters in the Second Ward support. She does not run as a non-partisan candidate, and many of her voters remember when she served on Council as a Republican. The voters who support her – who may otherwise support Democrats – believe she is most effective for them on Council.

That’s the way politics works.

Some people use local elections as spring boards to greater things. Several people on Council have, in the past, run for judge or state representative. If we elect people to local offices without knowing where they stand on issues that are larger than potholes and storm water, we have not done ourselves any favors. 

The elimination of straight-party voting opens the door for Independent candidates to run and win in local elections. And whether you think that’s a good thing, it’s a true thing.

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National Blog Month, or why I’ve not been writing about deer and zoning

In the past few months, I’ve made several false starts on this blog, writing about the things that keep me from my sleep.  And I’ve discarded them all.

Part of the reason for these discards goes back to my initial commitment – that I wouldn’t write about issues facing City Council.  I made that decision because I didn’t want any reader to get the idea that my mind was firmly made up before a decision came to the Council table.  And on those issues, I want to continue learning and researching right up to (and sometimes beyond) the night the Council votes.

Maybe you cannot imagine how difficult this task is.  I sometimes think that, working hard to learn all about an issue is the easy part – not closing my mind to alternative viewpoints is the truly painful task.

I’ve skirted my self-imposed rule several times – once when I wrote about what I’d learn about deer management, and again when I wrote about zoning and private property.

I’ve attempted to maintain a positive view, even when I’ve been frustrated by national and state-wide politics.  And I’ve seriously avoided writing about local politics.  It’s the decent thing to do.

A part of me wants to shout, ‘I’m taking off the gloves!’ Perhaps that’s because it has been a particularly rough couple of months.  I have had to weigh my commitment to this community and seek to find a way to reach a defensible decision on issues as complex as killing deer – when I live with the deer so cheerfully – and approving the construction of more housing – when the increased demand for housing keeps driving up the cost of housing, making it harder and harder for people to live here.

I’m going to stick to my personal vows.  But before I conclude, here are some more tidbits to digest:

On the deer

The Council has already taken a position on whether to kill the deer.  It reached that conclusion last August.  At the same time, the Council made a commitment to find a way to allow a deer cull, by either implementing a moratorium on the ordinance regarding firing weapons in the City or by changing the ordinance.

There are those who state that contraception cannot work on a deer population that moves freely.  That’s an interesting assertion, as we haven’t defined what we expect a cull or contraception to accomplish (the City Council endorsed both efforts).

Killing deer removes those deer’s reproductive capacity, forever.  As a view of the future, that means that 100 does won’t have 100+ fawns the next year; and those does and fawns won’t have more fawns the year after that or the year after that.  Deer make babies, that’s all there is to it.  Killing 100 deer one time won’t make a long-term difference; killing deer

every year will result in a smaller deer population.

Contraception also affects deer’s reproductive capacity.  As does sterilization.  If contraception is used on the same deer, year after year, those deer don’t reproduce at their previous rate.  In fact, their reproductive capacity (as a group) nearly ends.  Of course, if deer are sterilized, there reproductive capacity becomes an effective zero.  (There are a few documented failures.)  Unlike the culled deer, however, they remain on their teritory with their family groups.  Other deer don’t migrate in as fast.

Killing deer creates an immediate drop in the deer population; migration from outside the area and between subareas still occurs.  Sterilizing deer creates an immediate drop in population growth, but does not affect the number of deer already in the area.  Using contraception on deer also causes an immediate drop in population growth, but must be repeated every year or every other year on the same deer, so deer must be tagged and tracked and monitored into the the future.

Deer that are sterilized or given anaesthetic / tranquilizer and then a contraceptive shot may die.  Shooting deer absolutely means the deer will die.

Council members have accepted the responsiblity for these deer, just as I have for my cats or – sadly – for those mice I trap in my house.  I don’t know any gleeful members of Council, when it comes to this decision.

On zoning and site plans

Zoning is considered a legislative role; because it’s about the law, the Council votes twice on zoning changes.  If the council turns down a proposed zoning change at first reading, they are also deciding that they don’t want to hold a public hearing or allow the public to publicly influence their decision.

Site plans apply that zoning.  Site plans may be discussed by Council separately from zoning; the zoning may already be established, and the site plan then implements what the zoning allows.

One of the problems we face is that zoning necessarily uses a 6 inch paint brush to define what our community will look like in the future.  Site plans follow, adding the fine detail.  But the shape of the community has already been determined by the zoning.

Some cities, in an attempt to seriously control the shape of their community, create smaller and more precise zoning categories.  Some rely on the good will and economic self-interest of developers.  Ann Arbor has been more inclined toward that latter view.  Local developers and architects may have a self-interest in improving the quality of life in our town; other developers may have more self-interest  in building something that has a greater, more immediate financial return on their investments.

From time to time, someone will ask ‘why do you allow out-of-town developers (or the University of Michigan) to buy up all this land?’  The answer, of course, is that the City generally has no say.  Private financial arrangements – including sale of land – do not receive the City’s permission, nor do such deals need it.

At other times, someone will ask ‘why are you (the City) building all these buildings?’  The City isn’t building them – private property owners on private property are building because they believe there is a demand for what they are building.  Housing, office, hotel – all of these can be in demand for years before the market determines that the potential profit has increased sufficiently and that building more of what is in demand now makes sense.  There can be a lag of more than 5 years between the time a need is identified and new construction occurs to satisfy that need.

It is not legal for the City to delay a project, to reject it if it fits the zoning in all its particulars, or to create insurmountable barriers to development.

It is incumbent on the City, though, to create well-defined master planning documents that can guide the direction in which the community wants to grow.  And to confirm from time to time that there remains support for pursuing those goals.

Enough about that.

If you want to think about the problems the City faces and find ways to address those problems, invite me to have a cup of tea or coffee with you.  Remain civil even as we try to find common ground.  Repeat until we have reached an agreement.

And remember that those of us in public life chose it – hopefully for the best of reasons.

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Preserving Ann Arbor

On Monday, June 1st, the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission will once again recognize those businesses and property owners that have restored and preserved their historic properties.  

This annual recognition of  our heritage deserves more attention.  (The link will take you to the handout for the awards.)

When modern architects and urban planners talk about developing walkable, human-scaled, mixed-use communities, they are describing our community in its 19th Century form – a form that, at the time, was standard.

That form was changed to accommodate the auto (more than any other 20th Century change, the prevalence of the auto requires large areas to store autos when not in use and extends the distance people will travel in order to shop or work or play).

I live in an old house, with its many charms and problems.  I might want some 21st Century frills now and then, but this house works well for us – it’s not too large, and not too small (like the house of the Three Bears, it is Just Right).  I live in a neighborhood with a pretty good walk score (46), a better transit score (53) and an excellent bike score (81).  It’s about 20 minutes by foot to Central Campus, Medical Campus and downtown, and only a 10 minute walk to the parks along the river.  And if I lived on the other side of the river, I know the walk score would be much higher.

This is the type of neighborhood modern urban planners encourage – and we already have it, as well as the fairly densely constructed residential pattern.  In Ann Arbor, my neighborhood is not that unusual.

A recent series of comments – that I’ve made and that others have made – reminds me that, if we want Ann Arbor to be home for an eclectic, interesting population of all ages and inclinations, we have to ensure that the housing fits all our needs, across the spectrum of economics and life.

That’s what ensures the quality of life we all seek.

And of course, for someone like me, a recognition of where we came from is vital as we talk about where we are headed.





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Everything I’ve learned about deer and deer management


The City issued its report on Deer Management on Tuesday, May 12. 

This isn’t a spoiler alert.  As of April 18, 2015 I still have not seen the City of Ann Arbor’s proposed deer management plan.

But some Some of us have been complaining for years about the deer in our yards; others have been marveling at having urban deer.  And in the past year, the City has taken an official look at deer and their impact on human residents’ quality of life.

Several people have asked me how I will vote on the plan.  And that depends on what is included in the plan, and how confident I feel about the impact the plan will have as we try to improve human residents’ quality of life.

I see deer in my yard nearly every day.  I’ve changed my gardening to adapt to the deer – and to the raccoons, woodchucks, squirrels, rabbits and snakes.  I’ve left the nesting birds alone, even as they dive-bomb me to warn me away from that area I want to weed.  Of all the animals in my garden, I like least the bees – but that’s because I’m allergic.  I plant flowers to attract bees, and cheer them on.  I just don’t want them near me.

Is there a deer problem?

There is clear, anecdotal evidence that the number of deer within Ann Arbor City limits has grown.  Because there is no historic deer count – no one took a deer census 20 or 10 or 5 years ago – all evidence for increased numbers of deer is based on anecdotes such as ‘I’ve never seen them in my yard before last year (or this year).’  But for those who have seen more deer and larger numbers of deer in all seasons, no other evidence is needed.

How bad is the deer problem?

For years, the deer have been in isolated areas – near North Campus, near the Huron River.  Those who garden near where the deer are have reported damage to their gardens.  The area of those complaints is growing.  Harsh winters in the last two years have seen deer moving in larger foraging areas, because the ground has been deeply covered by snow.  Deer eat whatever forage is available; in spring, they go after tender buds and shoots; in summer, they eat their preferred foods – including apple trees, hosta lilies, oriental lilies and onions.  And in winter, they will eat anything they can reach, including spruce trees – which are not a preferred food.  To my surprise, I learned that arborvitae are on the ‘deer love this’ list– and I learned that deer can be very picky about which hosta lilies they eat, sampling this one and devouring that one.

Forest foods for deer

20 ways to keep deer out of your yard

Dealing with deer in the garden

Where are the deer?

Today, most of the deer sightings and reports of vehicular accidents involving deer are on the both sides of the Huron River and the northern half of the city – primarily in the First and Second wards.  This spring, more reports of deer on the south side of town – notably in the Packard and Platt area – have come in.  There deer are in every ward, but not in every neighborhood.  The City expects a management plan will initially affect the areas of higher population – the north side of town.

What about accidents?  Are the deer a menace to drivers?

For years, the number of reported accidents involving deer and cars (or deer and bikes) has been fairly stable – hovering around 30 accidents a year.  Last year that number grew to over 50.  For what it is worth, this is not a large number of accidents as a portion of all accidents in Washtenaw County involving deer and cars.  Ann Arbor’s population is about 1/3 of the entire county’s population, and there are about 1000 annual accidents county-wide involving deer.

2013: Car-deer crashes continue to drop.

2014: Washtenaw County among top counties with deer-vehicle crashes.

What about Lyme Disease?

At this moment, there are no reported incidents of Lyme Disease being acquired in Washtenaw County.  Lyme Disease is present in northern Ohio and Western Michigan.  While Lyme Disease may be a future concern, it is not a current risk.

What damage have deer done to our natural areas?

This is one of the more frustrating things I learned.  Because deer eat, deer eat whatever they want to eat – native plants, cultivars, plants in natural areas and plants in gardens.  They eat in new and established rain gardens, in ‘butterfly and bee’ gardens, in professionally landscaped yards and in yards gone more to weeds.

There is anecdotal evidence of large stands of Trillium Grandiflorum and other native plants being eliminated by deer over-browsing.  There is also anecdotal evidence of willow and hardwood saplings being consumed, so no new trees can grow.  But the City has not undertaken a comprehensive study of deer damage in parks; it will be difficult to demonstrate the change in habitat if we have no ‘before and after’ evidence.

There is information available that can be generally applied.  There are deer exclosures (fenced areas to keep deer out) at the Botanical Gardens and at Leslie Science Center.  But whatever is being learned by creating these areas has not been shared by the City with the public.

The best indicator I have that eliminating significant numbers of deer will benefit our natural areas comes from this un-related study of the effect of wolves on habitat.  Not all natural areas will change significantly, but some areas will return.  In my mind, of course, I’m replacing wolves with human hunters.

Why not sterilize or relocate deer rather than kill them?

Right now, the MDNR does not allow relocating deer.  It also does not allow a community to use contraceptive or sterilization methods on does.  While the City might pursue sterilization or contraception, getting permission from the MDNR to attempt interventions that are still experimental in other states could easily take years – and many more residents of Ann Arbor might be affected in the interim.

Contraception, while possibly very effective in the future, is not a quick fix.  Deer may live as long as 11 years; most of those are reproductive years.  If deer reproduction is significantly reduced, it still will not affect the desire to immediately reduce deer population.  A community would see an absolute drop in deer numbers only after 5 or more years – years during which the community would pay about $500 to $1000 per doe per year for contraception.

The only way currently available to the City to reduce the absolute numbers of deer in an urban area is to hunt and kill them.

Sterilization at Cornell University

Contraception and political/social factors

Where will the hunt be?

The City has not determined that there will be a hunt.  But if there is, the City will need to identify one or more areas far enough away from residential uses for the hunt.  The area(s) will need to be cordoned off during the hunt, so random visitors are not placed at risk.  And during the months leading up to the hunt, the City will likely encourage a contractor to habituate the deer to the area by providing fodder – luring the deer to that specific area would be necessary in order for the deer to be present in sufficient numbers during the designated day(s) and night(s) of the hunt.

Who will do the hunting?

City staff expects that any hunt would require a contract with a group of sharpshooters.  These sharpshooters would help determine the best possible location(s) for a kill site, build hunting blinds in trees, create feeding stations to bring the deer to the kill site and make them comfortable there, and then, at an appointed time, kill the deer.  The time is likely to be mid-late winter, before does have given birth but after the regular hunting season.  No nursing fauns would be orphaned, if all goes according to plan.

What happens to dead deer?

One of the requirements for a cull by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (which must authorize an urban deer hunt) is that all the meat be donated to food banks.  It is not for sale, and is not for a hunter to take home.  If the City Council approves a cull as part of the deer management plan, then any meat will likely go to Food Gatherers or a similar group.

Deer don’t just die from hunting – or from car accidents.  I hear about deer dying in folks’ yards.  Some people have asserted that the deer died of starvation or illness.  Either could be true, but there is currently no report of deer illness in the City, and with the rich landscape available, there is likely to be little risk of starvation right now, even with harsh winters.  The harsh winters, though, might encourage deer to wander farther in their search for food – bringing them into the yards and neighborhoods away from the Huron River.  Right now, there is no entity that will remove a dead deer from your yard – without you paying them to do so.

Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease in deer

Chronic Wasting Disease in deer

Deer Management Plan documents

Below are a few of the different deer management plan documents that I’ve read.  Most of the plans are similar in their elements.

Onalaska, WI

Ames, Iowa

Meridian Township, MI

Wisconsin Urban Deer Management

MDNR Quality Deer Management Program

MDNR Deer Management Plan

A guide to making an urban deer management plan

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Water, snow and you

When I started thinking about why I was hearing so many complaints about snow on streets, sidewalks, and crosswalks, I focused on the quality of city services.  But in the course of looking into the issues surrounding snow in our community, I realized that I really needed to look at water – whether liquid or fluffy.

The amount of precipitation falling on our community has increased – significantly.

  • The average annual amount of liquid precipitation (that’s rain, melted snow, and melted ice) for the seven decades between 1905 and 1974 was 30.5 inches.
  • The average annual amount of liquid precipitation for the four decades between 1975 and 2014 was 35.8 inches.
  • And the average annual amount of liquid precipitation in the last decade – from 2005 to 2014 – was 38.9 inches.

That’s a big increase – and the City infrastructure and services must regularly address ways to deal with all that water.

liquid-precipitationThis isn’t news, but it is important.

It’s not news because we’ve all noticed that there are problems effectively anticipating how much snow we will confront each year, and how much rain we can expect.  What is a 100-year storm, anyway?

It is important because the City’s biggest projects over the last few years, and the City’s biggest ongoing infrastructure changes, all deal with water.

And that is where I want to start.

If you are impatient to see the survey results, you may skip ahead.  I hope that you will stick around a little longer, though, to see what I learned.

When I moved to Ann Arbor in 1973, many of my neighbors were talking about the 1969 flood that caused so much damage – and that resulted in some significant changes in City infrastructure projects.  I recall seeing photos in the Ann Arbor News of a section of water main being replaced – and the water main was constructed of wood.  In the years since, I’ve seen massive infrastructure projects, each of which included storm water components.

If water has always been in the thoughts of City engineers, how to deal with that water has not been simple – ever.  The standards continue to change, and our expectations also change.  And – equally important to my mind – the conditions have changed.

This shows up in a number of policy changes.  For just a moment, glance at the changed requirements(from 2010) if you were to add 200 or more square feet to your house.  In addition, the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner established revised storm water standards for new developments in an effort to decrease the impact new developments’ impervious surface can have on a community’s infrastructure; Ann Arbor, in turn, adopted and applies these new standards.

What has this to do with whether the City ought to plow your sidewalks?

I wanted to understand why our expectations about snow had changed.  One measure might be whether we were more pedestrian-oriented than in the past.  But in 1905, when many residents did not own vehicles and used public transit and walked, there was no expectation that City government would remove all the snow within 24 hours from streets, much less from sidewalks.  (Just getting sidewalks installed in many neighborhoods remains a challenge and a discussion point.)  And when I moved to Michigan, I was surprised to learn that Ann Arbor didn’t get a lot of snow – and what we did receive generally melted pretty quickly.  Dealing with that snow was a lot easier – and not just because we were all younger.

That was then.  This is now.  And the amount of annual snowfall has nearly doubled in the past 11 decades.  More significantly, it has increased in the last four.

  • The average amount of snowfall recorded in the seven decades between 1905 and 1974 was almost 34 inches.
  • The average amount of snowfall in the four decades between 1975 and 2014 was 57.45 inches.
  • And the average amount of snowfall in the last decade was 64.74 inches.

snowfallNo wonder we are so grumpy about the snow.

There are a lot of pieces to the snow-removal puzzle.  And talking about snow on sidewalks is just one.  Of the over 2000 individual newsletters I sent out – and the additional people who responded from Facebook and Twitter notices – I received 172 survey responses.  As an opt-in survey, that’s pretty impressive.  Of course, this was an opinion survey – you had to have one and had to want to share it with me before you would even click on the link.  It’s not a random-sample survey, it does not predict any future actions, but I found it illuminating.

Survey results

Should the City take on the responsibility of plowing sidewalks?  161 individuals responded.

Would you be willing to pay more, through a millage (which would be limited to pay for this function, only), in order for this to happen?  127 individuals responded.


These responses, of course, do not mean that the Council will vote to place such a millage on the ballot.  I believe they reflect our frustration with the amount of snow, the lack of snow melt (what ever happened to that January thaw?), and the effects on individual property owners as the City attempts to plow more often and more thoroughly.  Asking about whether we would be willing to pay more for more services is a way to measure how important we see the issue.  Right now, you can already pay to have your sidewalks and driveway plowed (note – the driveway is always the property owner’s responsibility).  You and your neighbors can jointly hire a company to clear the snow on your whole block, or in your entire neighborhood.  Subdivisions and condominium associations routinely hire companies; many landscaping companies survive the winter by providing winter maintenance.

I believe we need to look at this question differently – what is the impact of increased precipitation on my neighborhood, the watershed, the streets and sidewalks, and my ability to travel in my community?  And what should the City’s responsibilities be in this changing weather pattern?  In a broad sense, those questions are being addressed by the City’s various stormwater study efforts, by the Green Streets policy, and by efforts to improve both stormwater/meltwater systems and our general snowplowing concerns.

In your words

Many of those who responded to the survey included comments and insights.  Here are some of the messages I heard:

Businesses already build in clearing costs of sidewalks, parking lots, etc.  I would most support the clearing of sidewalks in residential neighborhoods.

The City ought to clear bike/foot paths. Residents and businesses ought to clear their sidewalks.

I’m already paying a private company $75 a season to clear the snow off the sidewalk in front of my house.  I’d just as soon give that money to the city.

It depends on cost and if taxes would be raised/by how much.-Rental properties are also an issue. The city would likely hire contractors anyway and I can do that myself.

Sidewalks, no. Homeowners can do that. Public paths, yes.

The city should either get serious about enforcing its ordinance, or take it over and do it for everyone.  Either way, the city should take over clearing out crosswalks when the city is plowing snow into them.  The city causes as much of the problem on sidewalks as scofflaw homeowners do.

The city should enforce the rule that people have to take care of their sidewalk for the pedestrians, though! People who do not want to shovel can hire someone to do it. Some of us take pride in doing it for our neighbors and enjoy the exercise.

Yes for low income and elderly – the rest of us should be able to manage our own sidewalks.  But there is another issue – cut throughs on big snow berms.  Sometimes sidewalks are clear, but if you park you can’t cross to the sidewalk – perhaps the city should do this piece.   Sometimes Cedar Bend Drive off Fuller actually gets snow-bermed in.

I live in Water Hill and the all-volunteer, crowd funded (public-radio style) experiment has been wonderful. I admit I thought this was a dumb idea at first, but it has been amazing.

My problem is that we do not have any sidewalks in our neighborhood. I would not like to be taxed for this service.

This is a safety issue and would make the city more walkable–a good goal. Your estimate of $22 annual increase in taxes each year seemed like a very reasonable cost. Anything under $50 per year would be o.k. as a cost for clearing all sidewalks.

Special assessment would be better, so that those who have sidewalks along their property pay.

Taxes are too high already in A2.

That is exactly why I said NO.  I do not want to pay anymore taxes.  The city needs to do a better job plowing the streets—getting closer to the curbs so mail persons who deliver by vehicle can actually drive up to the mail box.

I have come to not trust politicians or the government when they want to increase taxes.

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The Greenbelt – an update

This is a little dry – much more crowded with information than just viewpoint. There’s no mention of food or flowers (except in this sentence) and little humor. But I could not think of a good way to get this information out to a broader audience, and I think it may be important in the future.

I’ve been asked several times whether the City could use Greenbelt funds to acquire land within the city – land, that is, that someone wants to develop. The answer, of course, is yes – but that is not all there is to the question.

Recently I asked the City staff to prepare an update on the Greenbelt millage – especially timely as the City has ten years of history with this effort now. And a recent article (October, 2014) in the Ann Arbor Observer also provides an update as well as an historical overview.

I’m not going to go into all of that history. But I do want to address some concerns I’ve heard, and to provide this update.

The Greenbelt Program was approved by City of Ann Arbor voters in November 2003 to provide funding for the preservation and protection of open space, natural habitats and working landscapes both inside and outside the city limits. The program has protected more than 4,300 acres of farmland and open space surrounding the City of Ann Arbor, and has leveraged over $21 million through grants, landowner donations, and other locally funded programs.

To learn more about the Greenbelt Program, visit

Isn’t this millage all about preventing development?

Well, yes, to a great extent, the millage was approved as a way to preserve some agricultural land outside Ann Arbor as well as an opportunity to add more park land to the City. Some people believed that, by approving the millage, they were also approving increased development in the City. Others did not think development was that inevitable, but wanted to make certain that agricultural land could remain as agricultural land, by decreasing the incentive to owners to sell. Selling development rights to the City – like selling land for parks to the City – is voluntary. A decision to purchase is based on some firm criteria.

Can the City spend Greenbelt funds inside the City?

Absolutely. When voters approved the millage, it was for the Greenbelt and Parkland Preservation Millage, and the expectation is that the City would use a portion of the funds within the City for Park acquisition, while it would use another portion outside the City to preserve agricultural land and open space.

Isn’t it supposed to be 1/3 spent in the City?

Yes. In a way. But that was not part of the millage language. Just under 1/3 of the funds spent so far have been used to buy land for parks within the City. (Some other land has been donated during the recent past.) According to the report just provided by the City, the total spent so far is $28,517,596. Of that, almost $9 million (just about 30%) has been spent in the City to acquire or enlarge City parks.

Can you buy this land even if the owner doesn’t want to sell?

Generally speaking, property owners approach the City about having the City acquire the land – or acquire the development rights. Owners have been willing to sell – in some cases, eager to sell. But the City has to evaluate the land to determine whether it meets the criteria for natural preserve or recreation area.

How does the City decide where to buy land?

The City’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) Plan – a component of the master plan – includes areas of the City where the Park Advisory Commission believes the City needs another park. Decisions about land acquisition for new City parks – or to add to an existing park – are made by the City Council, but the Park staff and the Park Advisory Commission play a significant role in making recommendations about the value of any proposed purchase.

The PROS Plan establishes criteria for land acquisition for parks:

  • City-wide System Balance/Geographic Distribution as well as Open Space Convenient to each neighborhood
  • Natural resource protection
  • Open Space and Green Space imagery/aesthetics
  • Enhance access and linkage
  • Protection of the Huron River, watersheds, and water quality
  • Recreation Value and Suitability for intended use
  • Method of Acquisition/Direct Costs
  • Provides for Future Needs/Growth
  • Long Term Development and Maintenance Costs

The Greenbelt Plan also establishes criteria for land acquisition:

  1. Preserve large blocks (1,000 acres or greater) of farmland within five focus areas
  2. Preserve land along the Huron River and major tributaries
  3. Leverage dollars whenever possible through landowner donations, grant funds and local partners. Secondary priorities outlined in the Greenbelt_Strategic_Plan_2013.docx include the supporting local food and specialty crop production, and preserving critical “viewsheds” or corridors surrounding the City.

What are development rights?

A Purchase of Development Rights program, or PDR program, is a voluntary program that compensates owners of agricultural property for their willingness to accept a permanent deed restriction (through a conservation easement) on their land. The conservation easement limits future development allowed on the property in order to preserve the agricultural value and open space value of the land. The value of the development rights is the difference between the value of the land based on its development potential and the value of the land after easement.

How long are we going to be paying for this?

The millage will continue for the next twenty (20) years; it was approved for a period of thirty (30) years 10 2003. In 2031 or so, the residents of Ann Arbor might – or might not – consider renewing the millage.

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Truths about planning for development

When I started this blog, I intentionally determined that I would not write about current issues facing City Council. I’m going to stick to that – but am going to walk a fine line. I hope. I’m writing this piece because – well, it helps me to think things through as I organize my thoughts. And also because there has been occasional pressure to develop a parcel here or there in our community, and I hear from the folks who don’t greet these new developments with enthusiasm. Frequently, they ask questions that indicate they don’t understand how developments are approved or rejected. I’m hoping to clarify some of that.

I have divided this post into four parts: The role of the developer / owner; the role of the City’s staff; the role of the public; the role of the City Council; and Frequently Asked Questions. And you can skip ahead to read these, if you want.

But before I get into the details, I have a couple things to point out.

First, please note the title I gave this piece – “truths about planning for development.” I think it is important to recognize that City zoning regulations and master plans are created with the expectation that more development will occur – and to establish which types of development are preferred for which locations.

Second, we live in a country that clearly reveres both capitalism and private property rights. And our state and local planning, development and building rules reflect this reverence. If you own property, you have a right to do what you want – with certain restrictions – and to make money while doing it.

The role of the developer

I tend to use ‘developer’ and ‘owner’ interchangeably. Of course, any prospective developer is not necessarily the owner. Sometimes, owners are trying to sell their land, and the developer has an option to buy – if the development is approved. Sometimes the owner hires a developer to plan and build a project, intending to continue to own the land. But developers must have the permission of the land owner – or be the land owner – in order to proceed through the development process. No one would allow a developer to plan a project that would be built on someone else’s property – because of that reverence for private property.

I hear concerns from residents that developers have already invested large amounts of time and energy – and money – in a design before the public even knows such a prospect is on the horizon. And so, it’s difficult or impossible to convince the developer that his plans are wrong. Each step along the way the developer has to respond to City regulations. Recent queries about the cost to develop in Ann Arbor have resulted in a likely cost – for a large development – that can be significant. This highlights one of the conflicts about development – because, if we are encouraging more development, we should reduce the initial cost to the developer. That’s a direction several people in the community would take. They believe that, by reducing costs, the City will see more investment in the design of the buildings. But that brings up an interesting issue – building design. Since most of us never see the insides of the buildings we pass, we want buildings that improve the way our community looks and works. And many of us are dissatisfied with the investments some developers are willing to make in our community. This adds to the tension around proposed projects.

Developers are not looking to build projects in Ann Arbor in order to make our community a better place to live, work, or enjoy. Their primary goal is to use property to build wealth. I’ve found that expecting a developer to be altruistic – to spend more to make a better design, offer more amenities to the community, or develop a less-intensive use of the site – is, well, unrealistic. It’s delightful when it happens, but not something I expect.

Before submitting any plans to the City

There are a number of times before a developer submits plans that those plans can change. Frequently, developers are savvy enough to meet with City’s staff and learn of any issues with the proposed site. They read the master plan and the zoning documents prior to putting any pencil to paper, and design their plan to meet their understanding of the local rules.

If the project is large enough, it will require a ‘site plan’ – and if it requires a site plan, it will require a citizen participation meeting. After that public meeting, developers may alter their plans in order to address local concerns. They are not required to do so, though. If the project is on currently undeveloped land in a township island, the land will need to be annexed before it can be developed as part of the City. If the project is downtown (in either the D1 or the D2 zoned areas) the project will also need to come before the Design Review Board directly after the plans are submitted – so the developer will need to schedule that meeting with the Design Review Board.

After submitting plans

Certainly developers must meet zoning code requirements and ought to design to match the master planning documents. There are a lot of these (seven, right now, with updates) – and ideally, there are no conflicts within these documents.

Developers are required to meet with City and County staff to hear recommendations and concerns about everything from fire department access to storm water management, from master plan conflicts to street design and traffic; these meetings are public, and the public may speak during public comment time. Because each meeting is scheduled separately for each development, meeting notices are posted but easy to miss.

Developers may ask to meet with City Council members, members of the public, business interests, the City Administrator, school officials, the planners from the University and the route planners for AAATA. These are not required meetings, but a developer may want to learn about obstacles and opportunities. And these are not public meetings, although they need not be secret.

The developer’s plans may change during this process, but a full set of plans – traffic, landscape, storm water, lighting, building location, building elevations, internal layout – will be submitted to the City electronically. These plans are available for public review on eTrakit. New documents will be added as a project moves forward – and since I haven’t found a consistency for how these documents are named or organized, I encourage you to look at what’s there for any project or street that concerns you.

The role of the City’s staff

A lot of people react to City’s staff comments as if they were supporting and promoting a development. I certainly have had that feeling. But the City’s staff are focused on making certain the development fits all of the City’s rules and regulations. That means, they tell the developer that his proposed project does or does not meet the terms of the ordinances and the local building code. They review the master plan, and indicate whether the proposed development meets or conflicts with the expectations in the master plan. Their role is to say “how,” not “no.” Here’s how you can do this . . . here’s how you need to make room for . . . here’s the requirements for . . .

The City’s staff members are also engaged in the drafting of the master plans, although these plans are the result of input from City residents and must be approved by City Council. I look at the master plan as a bible (in that non-religious sense) that includes aspirational statements, ideas, and firm expectations. Sometimes, these are in conflict with each other, because we may want to preserve existing neighborhoods and still promote dense, infill development.

Before plans are submitted

City’s staff can express irritation when developers don’t meet with them early. Although those meetings are not required, a review of the development process guidelines make it clear that meeting with staff before submitting plans may reduce the ways in which a proposed development is out of alignment with the City’s expectations. By meeting with prospective developers, they can begin to make certain that any proposed development fits the goals in master plan as well as the rules in the ordinances.

If the developer must hold a citizen participation meeting, the staff will provide a list of all residents living near the project site, the adjacent neighborhood organizations, and various organizations who want to be informed about each proposed project. The developer is responsible for the notification; the staff are not involved in planning for or presenting at those meetings. The developer is required (by ordinance) to submit a report on that meeting; this report goes to Planning Commission.

After receiving plans

Working with other members of state, county and City staff (fire, solid waste, traffic and streets, forestry, parks, storm water, etc.), the planning staff will review and evaluate the plans. Are there enough properly designed entrances to the site? Does the calculation for storm water detention match the impact of this new project? How many additional cars need to be stored on this site? How many additional car trips will be generated? Where is the nearest bus stop? And so on.

The City’s staff advises the developer when and how the design must change in order to comply with local ordinances. That’s their job. And if the site plan does not comply with local ordinances, the staff will work with the developer to correct those out-of-compliance problems. In the end, though, it is up to the developer to make changes so the project reflects the City’s zoning regulations and – I hope – meets the expectations reflected in the master plan. If the developer doesn’t make those changes, the staff will recommend to the Planning Commission that the project be rejected – or postponed until compliance is assured. (Planning Commission does not approve or reject proposed developments. The commission refers the proposed development to the City Council with a recommendation that it approve or reject the development.)

When the project is recommended for rejection, the City’s staff will continue to work with the developer to ensure that any development follows the City’s ordinances and master plan. If a proposal is not recommended for approval by the Planning Commission, though, the developer may still decide to bring that development to the City Council for a final decision.

The role of the public

In general, attitudes toward new developments vary with time – or maybe I should say ‘decade.’ Because ‘housing starts’ are a measure of economic health, it shouldn’t be a surprise that zoning ordinances enable and direct new development more than they prohibit it. But many people remain surprised that new developments can be proposed for that vacant land they drive past, and that such development is allowed.

Because the public ought to have the ability to make certain that new developments do improve the City in one form or another, the City has a Planning Commission that is appointed – and it’s made up of people who care about development and – in some cases – who understand building practices, architecture, urban planning or other specialties. But often members of the Planning Commission don’t have any special training. They read the ordinances, ask questions, listen to responses from staff and the developer – and make a recommendation.

There is a significant role in general for public engagement and public participation. Residents volunteer to serve on Master Plan study committees and subcommittees. Residents attend meetings and provide feedback on preliminary Master Planning documents before those documents go to the Planning Commission or – later – City Council for discussion and (possibly) approval. The Planning Commission and the City Council both hold public hearings on Master Plan documents – and although many people seem to believe these bodies aren’t listening, Master Plan documents are amended after those public hearings to reflect the concerns of those who attend the meetings.

After all, Master plans should reflect the community’s ability to absorb more development while defining the direction such development should take. If you are concerned about the potential for development in our community, apply for the Planning Commission, volunteer to help draft the master planning documents (these are refreshed periodically), or bring up concerns about an area before anyone proposes it for development.

Before plans are submitted

Sign up for notices from the Planning department using the Email Alert Subscription services. You may select from a variety of notices, including notices about proposed developments and public meetings. I recommend both Planning Petitions Under Review and Planning Update.

When developers send out postcards inviting the public to citizen participation meeting on the development, it’s a good idea to go or ask someone else to go. No one likes to be blind-sided by a new project. If you attend, ask a lot of questions. Follow up with the developer, even if you cannot attend (contact information is on the postcard). Ask to see the developer’s report on the meeting – and, if you were in the audience, make certain that report is as accurate as possible.

If you have concerns that extend beyond the development – concerns about natural features, storm water, traffic congestion and infrastructure – make certain you ask the City about those concerns. I encourage asking members of Council. The Council members can, in turn, ask those questions of the City Administrator and, if there are problems in an area, make certain those problems are being addressed without regard to any impending development. Developments, after all, should not cause problems, and existing problems should be corrected. Period.

After the developer submits the plans

The plans that the developer shows at the citizen participation meeting may be different from those actually submitted to the City. And, after the developer meets with City and County staff, those designs may change again. These plans are available to the general public on eTrakit and – for a more detailed look – are kept on a table in the north lobby of City Hall.

Attend as many public meetings related to the project as possible. Ask questions. Meet with or call the developer if you are not satisfied with the answers.

Read the City Code to see if there are problems that a developer cannot overcome that would prevent this development.

(Keep in mind that the developer’s goal is to create wealth through increased use of this property. To do that, the developer must get the plans approved – which means they must meet current City ordinances and address issues in the master plan.)

The Planning Commission

Planning Commission members are nominated by the Mayor and appointed by City Council, and represent the various interests found in the community. They are members of the public who serve for three years – and may be reappointed.

Planning Commission members should be familiar with the master plans and a variety of ordinances, including zoning, parking, storm water management, private and public streets and natural features. The staff’s role is to work with developers to make certain that any plans fit the City’s ordinances. The Planning Commission members can take into consideration a number of other concerns – such as the design of sidewalks, plans for storing snow, the quantity and quality of any landscape materials, drainage, and the effect of the proposed development on adjacent properties.

The Planning Commission holds a public hearing before discussing any proposed project. This public hearing is an opportunity for the general public and the adjacent property owners to address concerns and highlight opportunities that the development would bring. Some public hearings are very sparsely attended – maybe one person wants to talk about a gas station addition, for instance, and that person owns the gas station. But others are quite intense, as residents speak to the negative and positive affects the proposed development could have.

Planning Commission members must apply the existing rules to any project. Those rules include state and local regulations. And in the end, they send a resolution to City Council recommending that the Council approve – or reject – a proposed development.

The role of the City Council

City Council members are elected to be representatives for the public. I’d like to pretend that we elect representatives who reflect the entire spectrum of skills and interests found in the general public – but we tend to elect people who are likeable, professional, educated – and who have plenty of time to give to their communities. Elected officials have to constantly remember that they do not just vote their own views, but that they listen to and vote for the views of the community. At the same time, elected representatives – City Council members – must follow the law.

The approval process

For several years, the most contentious new developments were planned unit developments (PUDs). Because these types of development include rezoning property as well as approving a site plan, each project had greater scrutiny (because it didn’t fit the existing zoning). The rezoning – which is an amendment to the zoning ordinance – meant that the Council would discuss the proposal at two different Council meetings and would hold a public hearing on the rezoning – as well as on the site plan. People began to think these two readings and two public hearings were standard on all projects. They are not.

Council members have absolute discretion if a developer is proposing a project that requires a ‘planned unit development’ (PUD) because that projects rezones a specific site in a way that does not meet existing zoning code. If Council members vote in opposition to a PUD, they need to identify the ways in which this development does not meet the City’s ordinances. But, since the developer is requesting a PUD rather than to build to fit existing ordinances, the Council is not as constrained in its decision to approve or reject.

If a proposal fits existing ordinances (what many call a ‘by right’ development), it’s more difficult for the Council to reject. Creative Council members will comb the master planning documents and the City’s ordinances, seeking ways that the proposed development does not truly meet the letter (and the spirit) or the regulations. They will seek advice from the City Attorney’s office and the Planning staff about whether the staff believes this proposal is in compliance – and may learn more about why the staff recommends approval or rejection.

Since the City rezoned the downtown, most proposed downtown developments are ‘by right’ and fit the zoning. That means that there will be a public hearing only on the site plan – one reading, one meeting, one public hearing. The same is true for most non-downtown proposals – the developer will present a project that fits the ordinances and is considered ‘by right’ – and the public will be heard by the Council on the night they vote on the proposal.

The Council members will be advised that they must act in accordance with the existing ordinances and will learn more than they might want to know about how the courts evaluate those dreaded terms ‘arbitrary and capricious.’

In the end, Council members will vote individually on the project, keeping in mind that they are responsible for the City as well as responsible to the citizens.


Can’t we buy this land using Greenbelt money?

Greenbelt money is finite – but even if it were not, there are a couple of things to think about. The seller must be willing to sell to the City. The price must be reasonable. And, of course, if this is to park land rather than public land which could be developed in the future, the impact to the City’s budget (for design and maintenance of the park) must be offset by the benefit to the community (is a park needed there? Is this a special terrain or unique location?)

Can’t we take this land using eminent domain, and make it a park?

Cities can use eminent domain to acquire property, but need to be able to defend any challenge in the courts by indicating how this use benefits the community as a whole. Each opportunity must be weighed against the impact to the City if challenged in court.

Can’t you (on Council) just say NO?

Council members may vote NO – but they really are constrained by existing land use regulations (zoning, streets, parking, etc.) and the master plan.

Can’t you (on Council) just change the zoning / parking / storm water management regulations so this development isn’t in compliance?

The Council may amend an ordinance at any point – but if it appears that this amendment is triggered by a specific development or developer, the Council may decide to defer amendment until no affected developments are pending. Because the courts take private property rights into consideration (and in the US, private property is important), trying to stop developments by changing the rules is – well – frowned upon.

Can’t we make the developer include affordable housing (or senior housing or family housing)?

The operative word here – and in other questions – is ‘make.’ The City could decide to require affordable housing units (or senior or family) (a percentage, for instance) of all new residential housing proposals. At this time, no such requirement exists. So at this time, the City cannot require that.

Can’t we make certain there is no affordable housing (or student housing) in this project?

The City’s concerns are that the proposed project fits the various regulations. The current regulations prevent discrimination against any resident who pays the rent or makes the purchase price. I wouldn’t want the City to allow discrimination against students or the poor – because I wouldn’t want the City to allow discrimination against people based on their religion, their appearance or their first language.

Can’t we make the developer build a different project?

We’re back to that rule of private property. If the developer proposes a project that fits the current ordinances and meets the standards of the state building code, the City cannot require that he build to a higher standard. For instance, the City cannot require that a developer build to LEED (or any other environmental) standards.

Equally, if the developer proposes an apartment building for an area zoned for multi-family (stacked) units, the City cannot require that he build single-family detached homes.

What does the Design Review Board do?

Several people have asked about the role of the Design Review Board. The Design Review Board is advisory – and it offers advice to the developer on the design of a proposed development in the downtown. It does not even see proposals that are outside that area. And because the board is advisory (to the developer, not to the Planning Commission or the City Council), the advice is just that – not something to which the developer is required to pay attention.

Although some discussion has occurred about extending the Design Review Board’s role, it’s mostly been about adding ‘teeth’ – that is, requiring that the developer comply with the Design Review Board’s recommendations So far, though, the rules for this board have not changed. Whether the City will ever extend its oversight to the entire development process is completely unknown.

What about annexation – must the City annex? Must the City zone the way the developer wants?

You can read a history of annexation and the City’s expectations on my website. You may also look at the information provided to developers here.

Generally speaking, the Planning Commission may recommend approval for annexation and zoning – but will look at the master plan and determine the desired density while it does so. A recent Planning Commission discussion about annexation, housing type and density included discussion of the number of required curb cuts, the design and placement of any internal streets, the amount of added impervious surfaces, the quality of internal walkways, the location of parking – and whether any of these would be improved by annexing in and zoning for R1D (small lot detached single family) rather than R3 (townhouses).

The City Council may agree with the recommendation of Planning Commission regarding the zoning – but may also return it to the Planning Commission for reconsideration. Ideally, the City will annex the property and zone it in such a way as to fit the expectations in the master plan.


The City’s staff, Planning Commission and City Council must all work within the current regulations. Nothing prevents changing those regulations, though, except that it’s a bit difficult to change regulations to prevent a specific development from going forward.

The City doesn’t really have any vision for its development future that is not in the master plans. If you believe that the direction the City is following is misaligned with the future you want to see, then let’s work together to change the master plans and rewrite the ordinances.


The Michigan Planning Enabling Act of 2008

The Michigan Municipal League’s manual for new Planning Commission members

The City of Ann Arbor’s Submittal Requirements for new developments

The City of Ann Arbor’s Citizen Participation requirements

The City of Ann Arbor’s master plan elements

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The piece for The Ann

Of course, I was flattered to be asked by The Ann to write an opinion piece, offering the incoming president of The University of Michigan an idea of what his priority ought to be. Especially since they asked on Thursday, August 6th.

And of course, I expect The Ann is asking a broad variety of people in local government and business to offer advice. Unsolicited advice, that is.

So I wrote my 400 words (well, 416) – and I’m sharing them with you, before The Ann even takes my photo.

Mr. Schlissel, tear down this wall

The University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor should be tightly connected. There is no moat around the University. The students, faculty and staff live in the City; the University and the City depend upon each other in so many ways.

But instead of a synergistic relationship, there’s almost a rivalry – with the big, bad University frequently ignoring the concerns and the needs of the City. The figurative wall grows higher each year as the University expands its staff, its student body, and especially its footprint.

So, my advice to the new UM President is – Mr. Schlissel, tear down this wall.

While City services can always benefit from more revenue, the community will benefit more from UM staff, student and faculty engagement. This is a wonderful community, made richer by the University – richer in intellect and opportunity and creativity. But, as is true for many moderately successful communities, we have problems – and those problems are ones the University can help us solve.

How does a Midwestern city build an infrastructure that can stand the freeze and thaw cycle, especially as the climate changes? How do we design safer streets – so traffic travels at the best speed for the conditions, and bike riders and pedestrians (many of whom are going to and coming from the University) are safe? How do we meet the (sometimes conflicting) need for quality of life and new development? How do we address a growing need for housing affordability? What new opportunities are there for reducing our energy consumption?

I know the University has encouraged some staff to work in impoverished communities to help solve problems – and Ann Arbor is certainly not impoverished. But Ann Arbor is close and convenient, a community that can serve as a testing ground for innovative solutions.

This relationship is not a one-way road. Many of us actively engage the University for work, for culture, for the entertainment offered by athletics. But there is always room for more. Note how many residents eagerly signed up for the driverless-car studies. Consider how many others are just waiting for an opportunity to help the community and the planet by engaging new ideas developed by the University.

Your neighbors want you to respect our needs and to honor the very qualities that make the people choose to study and work here – the great neighborhoods, vital downtown, amazing parks and strong economy. Mr. Schlissel, we have a unique opportunity to develop a positive and non-confronting relationship. But it’s your move.

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Advice for the candidate (circa 2014)

Every election results in winners and losers. I have worked for more campaigns than I can count, and I always found a way to celebrate election night – because someone I supported always won.

Or because there is always another race, another year, another issue that matters.

It’s not as much fun being a candidate (that’s my view) as working for a candidate and then being able to walk away. I know, I know, some folks can never just walk away after an election – they hold grudges, think about those who didn’t support or supported the wrong guy. And it doesn’t seem to matter to these folks who won or lost. But being able to move beyond a campaign can make the winner – and the loser – better, stronger, more responsive representatives. And that should be what we all want.

I’ve won – and I’ve lost – elections. So here’s my advice, learned through my own and others’ experiences at this. And, while I’m not perfect (and I don’t always take my own advice) I hope this will provide some useful guidance.

Some thoughts on what to do when you win an election.

Be magnanimous in victory. Call your opponent(s) and have lunch or a drink together. Get past any hurt feelings. While elections are not about you – they are about those you serve – it is difficult not to feel personally attacked at some point.
Be thoughtful of others’ feelings. And maybe this is the first thing to say to yourself. Because no one likes a selfish winner. And because you still need to work with those who opposed your election.
Your opponent probably had some good ideas – about things that can be improved and about your weaknesses. Take those ideas to heart, even if you decide later that they don’t work for you.
Build more bridges. Strengthen your ties to the community. After all, you may want to be re-elected.
Whoever supported your opponent is not your opponent. You still need to listen to their voices, even as you disagree. Don’t write off a section of the electorate.
Don’t neglect sending out all the thank-you letters and notes that you didn’t have time for. Call or write your volunteers, thanking them personally for their labor.
Pay the bills, and – especially if you plan to run again – make certain you finish the campaign season with happy vendors and people who want to work with you in the future.

Some thoughts on what to do when you lose an election.

On election night: Be gracious in defeat. When you are confident about the results, call the winner and congratulate them. Even better, if you can, go in person to offer congratulations. Being gracious in defeat is always an asset; your supporters are more likely to be gracious and get over the defeat more quickly. And the other guy has supporters who will see your qualities, and may later work with you in another election or another cause.
Your opponent’s supporters are not your opponent (notice a theme, here?). Don’t hold grudges. If you feel strongly that your campaign suffered as a result of negative actions by the other side, remember that people get passionate about the direction they want to see politics take.
Shake hands, smile, and get over it. It was never about you, anyway. It was always about the voter’s vision, and whether you captured it.
Don’t fault the voters for not turning out. Don’t blame the weather. Or the bad cold you caught while walking in the rain. If things had been perfect and everyone who could came to the polls, you might have lost, anyway. Sometimes you don’t deliver the right message. Sometimes you don’t deliver that message as well as another.
Finish all those neglected thank you letters and notes.
Contact your volunteers, and thank them, too. Some may be feeling a bit depressed about the outcome – but remember, it’s a vote, not a cataclysm. And it’s how democracy works.
Pay the bills, file the campaign reports on time, and think about what to do with any remaining dollars in your campaign fund. Those dollars represent the people who supported you, and their vision for a better government. Find a way to use those dollars to help realize that vision. (And read the manual on campaign finance to do that legally.)
When you feel recovered, get back involved. You had something – something that others’ supported – and you need to bring that something back to the table and get things accomplished.

Really great candidates can both win and lose. So can mediocre candidates – the ones with great campaign staff but no ideas. And while money plays a role in elections, just having a lot isn’t enough – those dollars must be spent wisely.

If running for office is like having a job interview that lasts for months (and that’s how I look at it) then remember the elation of getting a new job and the resolution that comes from losing a job for which you were perfect just because the other candidate interviewed better. And get back to whatever passes for normal life for you.

And thank you for running.

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April 4, 1968

There are these life-changing events, events that somehow affect the way one thinks and acts. For me, one of those life-changing events took place on April 4, 1968 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

It’s not easy at this point – 46 years later – to remember how I felt as I decided to attend a campaign rally for Bobby Kennedy. I had a dinner invitation at a friend’s house, and I knew I’d be on my own for several hours after that dinner. I’d read the Indianapolis paper’s coverage of his planned speaking stops, and knew where to go. But going to the speech was secondary to my plans for the evening, not primary. I was more interested in seeing my friend.

I thought Bobby Kennedy was both inspirational and aspirational – but I wanted to hear him address the practicalities. Not just what our country should be and where it should change policy, but how we were going to do that. I wanted to learn what he could do to address the issues that were facing our country then – racial disparity, a foreign war, economic upheaval, an educational system that was not meeting our expectations.

I was not impressed with the field of candidates that year. I already felt disillusioned by national politics. I was looking for a reason to become passionate about the election to come – although I was still too young to vote, I wanted to advocate, or volunteer, or somehow make a difference.

There is no idealist more committed than an 18-year-old. Or so I think now.

April 4 was cool and rainy, typical for Indiana. My friend and I walked to the event – down Meridian to 16th, then over to the Herron Art Museum and 17th. I arranged to meet my parents at Herron for the ride back home.

What I wanted, and what I received, were very different. I wanted a speech that would be longer on ‘how’ to achieve the goal of a more just country. What I received – as the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination began to filter through the crowd – was a speech that united the crowd, that unified the community, and that gave me hope for the future – a future that could hold equity and brotherhood and kindness and forgiveness.

We left the rally quietly, talking about what we had heard and felt.

You may not remember this speech, but I do.

Almost exactly two months later, on June 5th, Bobby Kennedy was killed. I spent the time between his death and his funeral isolated in my room. I stopped thinking of myself as politically engaged. I felt powerless to change the climate of hatred and violence.

And eight years later, a casual encounter with a neighbor made me realize I could make a difference, here in Ann Arbor, my adopted home.

Every year on April 4th, I quietly mark this anniversary. And I remind myself that I live in a community that remembers, a community that embraces his message:

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country. . . ”

The Indianapolis Star’s coverage of the anniversary.

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