GREILICKVILLE — Elmwood Township planning commissioners held off on deciding whether plans for a massive apartment complex meet zoning regulations.
Commission members agreed at a recent meeting that they want more information on a handful of topics, including where wetlands are on the 87-acre property.
They also want to see a traffic study completed before they approve the site plan, and hear township Attorney Peter Wendling’s opinion on whether REI Construction’s plans fall within the zoning ordinance’s density cutoff for multifamily residential land.
That came after REI Construction co-owner Jon Laureto presented plans to the commission and asked whether they comply with township zoning. He spoke after audience members implored commissioners not to approve the project over nearly an hour of public comment.
The proposal’s massive size didn’t escape planners’ attention. Commissioner Kyle Trevas told REI Construction co-owner Jon Laureto the project’s 598 apartments would massively increase housing in the township.
“Your project is going to be a 20- to 30-percent growth in housing units, itself,” he said. “It’s going to have an effect, so we have to really think about what it’s going to do to the roads and what it’s going to do to things.”
The planned phasing of the project — Laureto previously said plans are to build the complex over several years — caused confusion over how to weigh the project’s potential impacts. Township Attorney Peter Wendling said commissioners needed to look at the project as a whole, and not just the effects of its first phase.
Questions over phasing particularly focused on how to weigh traffic impacts. Leelanau County Road Commission Managing Director Justin Kelenske wrote that no improvements to either Carter or Grandview roads to build 110 units planned for the first phase. But the road commission could require improvements, traffic studies or more for future phases, he wrote.
The entire project also could fall within Michigan Department of Transportation jurisdiction — David Hendershott, principal civil engineer with project designer Paradigm Design, said MDOT informed him the state agency has jurisdiction over projects that generate more than 100 trips during peak traffic.
Laureto said the road commission has specific thresholds for when improvements and studies are required, and would review those each time REI Construction applies for a permit for each phase.
Wendling said a traffic study could “torpedo” the permitting process, but agreed with Trevas that planners wouldn’t get to see it before approving the site plan. Planners have the ability to require a traffic study, as the township master plan recommends one and site plan standards require them to be in line with the master plan, Wendling said.
Requiring a traffic study is only a recommendation, Wendling said, but it’s one on which commissioners seized.
The project’s announcement stirred controversy, especially among those who live nearby. They organized an Oct. 29 meeting to voice their concerns and consider their next moves, and several neighbors of the property were at the planning commission meeting.
Several commenters said the project could generate lots of traffic on roads that already see backups. They also objected to building on land with steep slopes, wetlands, a designated trout stream and acres of mature trees.
Tom Steele, who gave an East Carter Road address adjacent to the proposed site, captured much of the sentiment. He called approving the proposed site plan “reckless and irresponsible,” and said there are too many unanswered questions about storm runoff, wetlands and traffic.
“It seems the developers want to get the site plan approved without answering these very real concerns,” he said. “Site plan approval without the answers is like putting the cart before the horse.”
Planners also asked about environmental issues. Amanda Elliott said she wanted to see wetlands delineated for the entire property, not just areas near planned development.
She also pressed Laureto on how many trees he planned to keep in areas that would be cleared for building. Laureto replied some mature trees would be kept and others planted, also adding most areas would only be cleared in anticipation of building another phase.
Heather Smith, baykeeper for the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, said she was encouraged to see REI Construction considering low-impact stormwater solutions but still had concerns. She didn’t think blanket approval for the entire site was appropriate, and asked for a number of conditions if it was approved. Those included keeping all buildings and structures outside of wetlands, save a planned road crossing, retaining a certain percentage of trees and not clearing steep slopes.
Commission board Chairman Rick Bechtold said planners want to hear more about wetlands, traffic impacts and other sticking points at a future meeting. He thanked Laureto for being willing to work with planners on what Bechtold and others agreed is the largest development proposal in years.
“We are maybe being extra cautious because this is really a big deal, and we want it to be done well, as well as you want it to be done well,” Bechtold said to Laureto.