Above: Sheds for sale at Home Depot in Okemos
“I feel like East Lansing often can’t find a problem [for which] it won’t write an ordinance,” Councilmember Shanna Draheim said, expressing her frustration about how many laws East Lansing’s City Council has considered and passed.
Ordinance 1391, an ordinance to define storage buildings and allow sheds and storage buildings as permitted uses in the downtown area, was being considered at a public hearing by City Council when Draheim made the comment. This followed months of discussion by the Zoning Board of Appeals, Planning Commission, and the Downtown Development Authority.
Some restaurant owners in the downtown area feel they need sheds to store items for their businesses outside of their main buildings. They store such things as empty beverage bottles for return, propane canisters, and grease—items for which there is either not enough space in their main buildings, for which there might be a fire hazard, or which attract vermin, including fruit flies. Some also use sheds to store grounds-keeping equipment, including snow removal equipment, like shovels and bags of salt.
According to City Planning staff research, businesses in the area at issue that currently have sheds include Crunchy’s, the 7-11 convenience store, El Azteco, 5 Guys Burgers and Fries, Bell’s Pizza, and Los Tres Amigos. (See map and photos.) At issue are buildings in the B2 and B3 business districts.
Opponents of the sheds say that the structures detract from the beauty of the downtown business area and present complications for zoning regulation. Some have also expressed the worry that, if sheds are allowed, “shed proliferation” will occur in the downtown area.
The saga of Ordinance 1391 began almost a year before the March 7, 2017, City Council meeting where Draheim made her comment. It began with an appeal by Paul Vlahakis to East Lansing’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) after the shed at his El Azteco restaurant, shown below, was found to be in violation of City code.
Vlahakis then appealed to the ZBA and explained that his business needed a shed to store empty beverage bottles away from the kitchen and to store propane tanks for outdoor heaters, as they cannot be stored in the building.
In September 2016, City Council proposed Ordinance 1391 and referred it to Planning Commission. The Ordinance, if passed, would have made some sheds legal.
In October and December, Planning Commission took up the draft ordinance and twice referred it back to City Planning staff. Planning Commission considered allowing sheds but was concerned about the proposed ordinance being too restrictive with regard to building material and color. The Commission also had fire-protection concerns.
On January 11, 2017, Planning Commission took up draft Ordinance 1391 for a third time. The Commission discussed the sheds’ locations near alleyways and other buildings. The Commission also discussed the aesthetics of the sheds, especially in comparison to the dumpsters near most of the sheds in the downtown area.
Staff explained to Planning Commission that dumpsters are allowed, and noted there are no requirements about color or material for them. By comparison, draft Ordinance 1391 sought to regulate the color and material of sheds to make them more attractive.
Planning Commission ultimately voted 7 to 1 to recommend that City Council approve the draft ordinance, essentially recommending sheds be allowed in the B2 and B3 districts, but with some restrictions on color, size, and material.
On February 26, 2017, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) discussed draft Ordinance 1391 and the members of that commission decided that they did not approve of sheds in the downtown area. They felt that sheds do not fit into a urban environment such as the downtown area. Some members of the DDA felt that business should design their buildings such that they can store everything they need indoors. (It is not clear this is possible with some flammable items such as propane containers.)
Finally, on March 7, 2017, City Council took up the draft ordinance. At City Council, Mayor Mark Meadows said that he was opposed to allowing sheds in the downtown area, and, although she expressed frustration with the number of laws in East Lansing, Councilmember Draheim said that she felt that allowing sheds would take away from the efforts by the DDA to beautify the downtown.
City Council ultimately voted 4-0 against changing the law, essentially forcing the City to now enforce the law as it existed—effectively making sheds illegal. Councilmembers Meadows, Draheim, Susan Woods, and Erik Altmann were present for the vote. (Ruth Beier was absent.)
None of the sheds in the downtown area are grandfathered in. According to a City staff member at Planning Commission, because the City has now documented the sheds, the City will now be obligated to enforce the illegality of the sheds.
City Planning Director Tim Dempsey told City Council that staff would give businesses several months to phase out the sheds. Restaurant owners now using sheds will have to either move what is stored there inside their main buildings or build legal extensions on their buildings.
Kepler Domurat-Sousa was a participant in Eli's Summer Youth Journalism Program.
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