Re-examining special land use permits

By Sam Inglot

Now the Niowave saga has City Council members saying special land use permit requirements need revising

Wednesday, July 25 – Lansing City Council members said today in a committee meeting that revisions are necessary to the city’s special land use permitting process so that it includes aesthetic requirements on properties.

At the end of a Development and Planning Committee meeting today, both Council President Brian Jeffries and At-Large Councilman Derrick Quinney said because of the heated debate over a 14,000-square-foot pole barn built in a residential neighborhood by Niowave Inc., aesthetic requirements should be included in land use permits. Walnut Neighborhood residents say the new building is a “monstrosity” that doesn’t fit with the look of the rest of the area.

The city needs to “put something in place so that we don’t have this situation arise in the future,” Quinney said.

When Niowave opened its headquarters in the former Walnut Street School, 1012 N. Walnut St., in 2006, the move was contingent upon a rezoning of the parcel as well as a special land use permit to allow high-tech laboratories on site. There were no conditions set forth in the permit that addressed the look of the school or future buildings, even though it’s based in a residential neighborhood just west of Old Town. Several criteria within the permit address the need for the facility to maintain with the character of the surrounding neighborhood, but Lansing zoning administrator Susan Stachowiak has said those criteria only apply to use of the building, or what goes on inside.

Jeffries said the city used to discuss land use permits with neighborhood residents to get input and work with them during construction projects.

“That has been lost and it’s not done anymore,” he said. “We need to get back to that process. We have to sit down and work with neighborhoods.”

Jeffries said the “level of trust” in a neighborhood between the city and residents “goes away” when they feel misinformed or left out of the conversation. He was adamant that the city “comes up with suggestions or amendments to land use ordinances that would address issues like this” in the future.

Bob Johnson, director of Lansing’s Planning and Neighborhood Development Department, said he was open to the idea of modifying future land use permits. Currently, only the use of the property is monitored, he said — companies like Niowave are free to do as they please when it comes to the looks of a building.

Council members are talking about the future, but residents who live near the new facility — like Dale Schrader — said they “didn’t get much” out of the meeting. They were able to pose questions to Council members and officials from the Lansing Economic Area Partnership and Niowave.

“All we’re asking for is a nice faade to make it fit into the neighborhood,” Schrader said.

Beth Grimm, finance manager for Niowave, said so far no plans have been developed to address the concerns of the neighborhood, but that the company is looking into it.