New Council Moving Quickly on Blight, Rentals Issue, Campaign Contributions’ Ethics, and Protected Trees

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015, 7:52 am
Alice Dreger

Image: Some of the blighted buildings downtown that may be demolished if a new "dangerous buildings" ordinance passes.

The new East Lansing City Council meets for the first time this evening, and their first agenda indicates this Council intends to move quickly on a number of politically hot issues, including blighted vacant buildings downtown, the ethics of campaign contributions, and a question of whether the City or the State should have say over whether landlords can make certain changes to nonconforming rental houses.

Tonight's meeting, set to begin at 6:30 in City Hall, will begin with City Clerk Marie Wicks swearing in the newly elected members of Council: Erik Altmann, Shanna Draheim, and Mark Meadows. These three will join sitting Councilmembers Ruth Beier and Susan Woods in electing from among the five a new mayor and mayor pro tem for the City. (Mayor Nathan Triplett was not re-elected, and Mayor Pro Tem Diane Goddeeris retired from Council at the end of her term.)

The published agenda for this meeting is somewhat surprising because it includes on the “consent agenda” a number of items not previously discussed at Council. Typically, items on the consent agenda are voted on without any discussion, and so the consent agenda usually only includes extremely minor issues (like street closures for fairs) and items previously discussed by Council.

Tonight’s consent agenda calls for the setting of a public hearing on December 1 of a new “dangerous buildings” ordinance aimed at letting the City knock down abandoned and dangerous buildings, like those occupying the blighted area at the corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue.

According to a memo from City Attorney Tom Yeadon, Beier asked for a development of a draft ordinance on this issue. Yeadon says that the Michigan Supreme Court has “upheld a City of Brighton provision which provided that when the city manager or his designee has determined that a structure is unsafe and has determined that the cost of repairs would exceed 100% of the true cash value of the structure as reflected on the city assessment tax rolls in effect prior to the building becoming an unsafe structure, such repairs shall be presumed unreasonable and it shall be presumed that the structure is a public nuisance which may be ordered demolished without option on the part of the order [or owner?] to repair.”

This sets the stage for the City potentially knocking down some or all of the privately-owned blighted buildings in the “Park District.”

The consent agenda for tonight also calls for a public hearing on December 1 to discuss a new ethics ordinance regarding campaign contributions. The ordinance, if passed, would “prohibit the acceptance of certain campaign contributions” and “require the council members’ [sic] to disclose campaign contributions in excess of one hundred dollars from businesses when voting on issues affecting that business.”

“Business entity” is defined in the draft ordinance as meaning “any commercial, industrial, or charitable establishment or organization in any form, whether organized for profit or not for profit, and shall include any owner, officer, representative or manager of a given business.” It would thus seem to apply, for example, to developers, labor unions, and non-profit organizations with business before Council.

Tonight’s consent agenda also includes introduction of a possible new ordinance regarding “nonconforming uses and structures,” with referral of the issue to Planning Commission, Housing Commission, and the University Student Commission. Rental nonconforming properties have been the subject of recent controversy because stalled work on this has led to local landlords seeking a state-level solution that would override City control.

According to a memo from City Attorney Tom Yeadon, Meadows was the person to ask to have this on the Council consent agenda. Meadows had been the Housing Commission representative to the working group the City had convened to discuss this issue last year. The addition of this to East Lansing City Council’s agenda is viewed as a way to signal to State legislators that the City of East Lansing is working to resolve this issue locally and is thus not interested in having the State control the issue.

Finally, the Council also has on the consent agenda a plan to hold a public hearing on December 1 on the subject of protecting particular trees in East Lansing, namely those with “unique and intrinsic value to the general public due to their size, age, historic association or ecological value.” Under the proposed language, a “protected tree” would be any tree designated as such by Council. Trimming or cutting of a protected tree would require a special permit.

This evening’s meeting also includes a public hearing on the issue of deer management. Technically the discussion focuses on a proposed ordinance change meant to allow for the killing of deer by authorized personnel within City limits, but in fact the discussion is expected to be more wide-ranging, encompassing the question of whether the DNR- and USDA-recommended culling is the right approach. (Read more on the plan.)


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