City Manager Expressed Worry to Mayor about Pursuing State-Level Zoning Change, but Did Not Advise Council

Tuesday, November 24, 2015, 6:17 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Image: City Manager George Lahanas and former mayor Nathan Triplett

Results of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request obtained today shows that, in August, City Manager George Lahanas expressed concern to Mayor Nathan Triplett about legislation being pursued at the State level that would, in Lahanas’s words, “gut our zoning.” But Lahanas and Triplett did not advise the City Council that such discussions were going on at the Statehouse, nor did they advise the East Lansing citizens who had served on a committee about the matter.

The matter concerns “rental nonconforming” houses—houses that were designed to be single-family, owner-occupied homes but that are now used as rental properties. These houses are most common in the “urban” neighborhoods of East Lansing, including Bailey, Red Cedar, Oakwood, South Marble, and Chesterfield Hills. The State legislation in question, HB 5041, still today being considered in the Michigan House of Representatives, would give East Lansing landlords the right to make changes to their properties that currently are prohibited under local zoning, and would thereby take away the ability of East Lansing to locally regulate this issue.

Landlords want the right to make certain improvements that they say would ultimately benefit all stakeholders, including renters, neighbors, and the City taxpayers, because the taxable values of the properties would go up. But Neighborhood Associations have worried that these changes could degrade quality of life in their areas. At the request of landlords, the City held two meetings of urban neighborhood representatives and landlords, but no specific action resulted from these meetings. Frustrated, the landlords moved to find a solution via State-level legislation.

The new FOIA result shows a text message exchange between City Manager Lahanas and then-Mayor Triplett from August 19, 2015, several months before the November election that ultimately unseated Triplett:

Lahanas: “[Director of Planning] Tim [Dempsey] said this would be terrible for us. Spoke with [City Attorney] Tom [Yeadon] to confirm. He said all communities should oppose. Guts our zoning.”

Triplett: “Sigh. So much for finding a way forward. I’m going to need a more detailed explanation than that. More than just conclusory descriptions.”

Lahanas: “You’re going to [be] best off talking to Tom on precisely why it causes us problems. I got it second hand from Tim.”

Triplett: “And I got suggestions from Tom how how to fix the bill draft.”

Lahanas: “K. Thanks. R u going to meet with them first to try to collaborate? If that doesn’t work, then use Jeff [McAlvey, the City’s paid lobbyist] and the mml [Michigan Municipal League]?”

Triplett: “Already in process.”

Lahanas: “Great.”

Although Lahanas and Triplett knew about these State-level discussions that might “gut our zoning,” according to City Councilmember Ruth Beier, Councilmembers were never notified by Lahanas or Triplett of what was going on. Members of the rental nonconforming discussion groups were also never notified by the City of this development. (I was on the discussion group.)

The FOIA obtained today shows that on Election Day, November 3, Lahanas was again concerned about what was going on at the State level. Lahanas wrote to a member of the Michigan Municipal League that morning, “If you can’t wait for the [new] East Lansing City Council to weigh in I would say that our position is to oppose the bill.” He said he would convey the same to the City’s paid lobbyist, which he did.

The lobbyist, Jeff McAlvey, sent a report back to Lahanas the next day, after the State-level House Local Government Committee had met. McAlvey reported to Lahanas:

“Several East Lansing landlords testified in support of the bill saying they owned non-conforming rental houses and East Lansing was not allowing them to make improvements for the benefit of the tenants and the neighborhoods. The bill sponsor, Rep. Lee Chatfield, (who is also the chair of the committee) indicated that the bill was tailored to apply just to East Lansing.” (Chatfield is a Republican representing the 107th District.)

McAlvey went on, “The landlords and Rep. Chatfield also indicated that they had worked with Mayor Triplett on this legislation. They also claimed that the bill contained recommendations of an East Lansing task force that were never adopted by the City Council.”

At the committee hearing, McAlvey formally registered opposition on behalf of the City of East Lansing, as he was instructed by Lahanas to do. The Michigan Township Association testified in opposition to the bill.

According to McAlvey, “The Municipal League was neutral because they had just seen the bill and wanted to consult with East Lansing.” Triplett had been elected as President of the Michigan Municipal League, but since losing his East Lansing office on November 3, he has been replaced in this position by John B. O’Reilly, Jr., mayor of Dearborn.

According to the minutes from the November 4 House committee meeting, the following East Lansing landlords either testified in support of the bill or filled out a card to indicate support for the bill: Mark Fisk, Matt Hagan, Nancy Marr, Jeff Hudgins, Dave Gutow, Owen Irvine, Joe Goodsir, Colin Cronin, and Jim Cuddeback. Many of these were donors to Triplett’s campaign, but not to other campaigns.

Mark Meadows is now Mayor of East Lansing, and the East Lansing Council is set to take up this issue again tonight, at City Council’s work session, which starts at 7 p.m. in City Hall. On this issue, Meadows previously told ELi, “I am completely opposed to this statutory approach which is an avoidance of the community process and a direct attack on local control,” although he did not object to the objective of “improvement of rental property without loss of grandfathered density.”

 

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