Feb. 13 2013 12:00 AM

Council members push city attorney to decide if Niowave violated its zoning permit

Lansing City Councilman Brian Jeffries and Council President Carol Wood have asked the City Attorney’s Office to investigate whether Niowave violated its zoning permit when it built a controversial pole barn next to its Walnut Street School headquarters.

Jeffries, who chairs the Development and Planning Committee, and Wood say Niowave’s 14,000-square-foot pole barn violates the 2006 special land use permit the company received in order to convert the school to laboratory use.

“The use cannot change the essential character of the surrounding neighborhood. It has to be keeping with the natural environment of the lot. It has to protect and preserve the residential neighborhood and not have negative impacts on the quality of life for the residents,” Jeffries said as he listed off terms of the SLU. “It doesn’t meet any of those conditions.”

Wood agreed with Jeffries and said the permit had been violated. 

The opinions of Wood and Jeffries fly in the face of what Lansing zoning administrator Susan Stachowiak said at the Development and Planning Committee meeting on Feb. 6. She said the use of the pole barn — not the appearance — is dictated by the SLU. 

“Use has always been and still is in compliance with the SLU,” she said. “Use has never been an issue. Appearance is not addressed anywhere in the SLU.”

To settle the debate, Jeffries has asked Don Kulhanek, the interim city attorney, to look into the matter. The Walnut Neighborhood also sent a letter to the City Council asking for the same thing late last year. Kulhanek said in an email Tuesday that the only condition of the SLU involved dealing with playground equipment that was formerly on the site.

Jeffries appears to refer to a list of findings that Stachowiak has said only applies to the original school building.

Jeffries said if Niowave is found to have violated the SLU, it could be pulled from them. Niowave could not be reached for comment. 

At this point, residents of the Walnut Neighborhood are not only frustrated with Niowave — they’re starting to get fed up with delays from City Council. A one-page ordinance that would prevent Niowave-like situations has stalled for the last two months. The ordinance would mandate Council notification and public hearings on proposed SLU construction over 1,000 square feet. 

“It’s always been about two issues from the very beginning,” said Mary Elaine Kiener, a Walnut Neighborhood resident who’s been at the forefront of the struggle. “First was fix the façade — do something for the neighborhood that’s stuck with this. Second, make sure other neighborhoods are protected so that this doesn’t happen to them. And we’re still there, we’re still frustrated.” 

The ordinance began to take shape late last year, but with former City Attorney Brig Smith’s departure coupled with the hiatus of the holiday season, Kulhanek said in committee that there has been some catching up to do. 

But Jeffries isn’t having any of that. He said he’s been “very disappointed with the process” 

“Any further delay is unacceptable — period,” Jeffries said. “We’ve kicked it around, clearly vetted it, now it’s just a matter of putting pen to paper and drafting an ordinance. It’s only one page, we’re not asking for wholesale revision of SLU ordinance. All we’re asking for is an amendment to the existing ordinance, and that should not require the time it has taken. It’s clear what the issue is, all we need to do is get it up for a vote.”

Jeffries said he wants to get the ordinance done before the Council starts to tackle the city’s budget. Running parallel with the ordinance is Niowave’s personal property tax exemption request, which is worth about $230,000. Niowave pulled the request late last year but it’s back on the table. Jeffries said the Development and Planning Committee will set a public hearing on the exemption at the next committee meeting on Feb. 20. 

Due to inaction from the city and Niowave’s silence since Thanksgiving, Kiener decided to lawyer-up and hire someone to look into the SLU matter herself. In early January, she retained Charles Drayton of Fraser, Trebilcock, Davis and Dunlap to see whether she and the neighborhood had a “legal leg to stand on.” 

Drayton, who was at the Development and Planning Committee on Feb. 6, said Niowave may be violating of some city ordinances.