July 11 2012 12:00 AM

When Niowave moved in, the company agreed to conform to the look and feel of the neighborhood. Why don't the same standards apply now? Or do they?

When Niowave Inc. sought to open its headquarters in the old Walnut Street School just west of Old Town, the Lansing City Council granted a special land use permit in 2006 to do so with the understanding that Niowave’s presence wouldn’t change the character of the neighborhood. 

Six years later, neighbors are saying that’s exactly what the company did by building a 14,000-square-foot metal pole barn on the same piece of land as the renovated old school the company uses as its headquarters.

Indeed, the head of the Lansing Planning Board questions whether the pole barn should have been built.

“I was surprised to see the building go up,” Chairman John Ruge said Tuesday. “We’re going to look into it and see what went wrong and not have it happen again.”

But Lansing zoning administrator Sue Stachowiak says critics are wrong that the 2006 agreement should have prevented the pole barn. She said the agreement only governed what occurs within the original building and not the pole barn.

It’s a matter of building use (as a laboratory) versus building appearance, she emphasized Tuesday. “The use is very compatible. Just because the building is ugly doesn’t mean the use is not appropriate for that location. …”

But Ruge said the agreement “can be interpreted differently. If you’re building a huge building, you’re changing what you got the SLU (special land permit) for,” he said.

He said he would take up the issue at the board meeting that was scheduled for Tuesday night.

Stachowiak said she would tell the board that the pole barn doesn’t violate the special land use permit. She added that the permit is “done and over with” and a revision is “absolutely not” necessary. She said the city can’t regulate “architecture, design or materials.”

The following four criteria are part of the special land use permit for Niowave approved at the Council’s Aug. 28, 2006, meeting. By unanimously approving it, the Council said that:

• The proposed laboratory is compatible with the essential character of the surrounding area, as designed.

• The proposed laboratory will not change the essential character of the surrounding area.

• The proposed laboratory will not interfere with the general enjoyment of adjacent properties.

• The proposed laboratory will not be detrimental to the use or character of the property under consideration and the surrounding area in general. 

Stachowiak said these have nothing to do with how the building looks, but what it’s used for. Reports have said the new building will be used to test new particle accelerators.

Lansing City Attorney Brig Smith could not be reached for comment.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero wants the public to see the expansion as part of a larger, more positive economic development story.

“It has my 100 percent support,” Bernero said Monday night. “No development is perfect. Rarely if ever does a development please everyone. You look at every project in its totality. I want Niowave growing in the city.”

When asked if he’d mind having the pole barn in his backyard, Bernero said: “Not a bit. We used to have stamping plants” in neighborhoods. “It’s the sound of money. That’s what economic growth looks like.”

However, it’s possible Niowave’s success may hurt property values in the surrounding Walnut Neighborhood. Mark Hahn, who lives adjacent to the pole barn, said that a real estate appraiser said his property value could decrease by as much as 40 percent. The appraiser did not want to be identified for this story.

Robert Leahy, a residential property appraiser with the Old Town-based Central Michigan Appraiser Service, told a similar story.

“They’re not looking at the well being of those few people who own houses” next to Niowave, Leahy said referring to the city. “They’re looking at the well being of people who own the building.”

Leahy was uncertain about exact changes in value, saying it would be difficult finding a home in a similar situation with a newly built pole barn next door. 

“What that would be is an adverse condition that affects the livability of the home — does the property generally conform to the neighborhood?

“That pole barn over there doesn’t help any of those neighbors,” said Leahy, who has done residential appraisals in the city for 12 years.

Stachowiak said “I have no idea” if that’s the case and it would take a further review.

Bob Trezise, president of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, disagrees with Leahy. “When speaking about the building, it’s not just the aesthetic quality. Aesthetics are very important, but I do think the building needs to be understood for the 25 new jobs it’s going to create. … I’m somewhere in the league of ‘things aren’t always perfect,’” he said, adding that rehabilitating the school had a positive impact on nearby property values.

Within a month in 2006, the Council unanimously approved rezoning the land and the special land use permit and three different tax abatements that the Lansing Economic Development Corp. website says made up nearly $1 million in public investment.

One of those abatements — an exemption on personal property taxes — expires on Dec. 31. Niowave is seeking a new six-year abatement on equipment that will be located in the large pole barn, which is up for a public hearing on July 23.

Jerry Hollister, Niowave’s chief operating officer, said in an email Monday: “We have not finished our landscaping of the site yet (and probably wont until we get some better prospects for rain). Once complete, the landscaping should help some of the concerns.”

He said he will continue to discuss concerns in upcoming meetings with neighbors.

Fourth Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko, who represents the neighborhood, said that based on what she’s heard: “Neighbors feel wronged. 

“I think they (Niowave) need to somehow make amends with the people around them whose trust they have breached to continue in the spirit of being a good neighbor.”