TRAVERSE CITY — Ric Zehner supports Proposal 3, and has a sign in his front yard stating as much.
Zehner, a longtime Traverse City resident, said he favors adding a popular vote requirement for any development project in the city taller than 60 feet.
If the proposal passes, city commissioners couldn’t approve a tall building project until a majority of city voters approve it in an election, according to ballot language.
“If you vote no, you’re going to have high-rises in Traverse City, more high-rises in Traverse City than we have now, and more than we want,” he said. “I don’t want more high-rises in Traverse City.”
The ballot measure has spurred a passionate debate that has spilled into the public eye at city meetings, on social media and, in many cases, voters’ front lawns.
Property manager Mark Nixon has “yes” and “no” signs for the proposal posted at one of his rental homes, and said he sees merit in both sides of the argument. He sees why voters want more of a say in what’s built in their community, especially for projects that involve significant public subsidies. And more tall buildings could dramatically change the downtown’s look and feel.
But Nixon said he’s an ardent New Urbanist and favors mixed-use and mixed-density development. Multi-story buildings with retail in the first floor, offices in the second and residences in the upper stories use land more efficiently and are less dependent on car travel.
“The big question for me is how does this design for a building, or any other property that ordinance is going to be included in voting on, how does that protect the public interest or enhance the public interest,” he said.
Ultimately Nixon said he plans to vote against the proposal, adding it could harm the cause of preserving the city’s character and hinder city planning efforts.
Brenda Quick is a member of Save Our Downtown and proposal backer SOD Campaign Committee. She said the ballot initiative stems from an earlier fight over the Pine Street Development One plan, the approval of which spurred a lawsuit and petition drive to amend city zoning ordinances.
Ballot organizers sued after the city rejected petitions that sought a referendum on the city’s zoning ordinance to block tall buildings. But 13th Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers denied the ballot effort in December because a Michigan city’s zoning codes can’t be amended by referendum.
So Quick and other campaign committee members organized another petition drive, this time for a city charter amendment that would limit city commissioners’ power, she said.
“Pine Street brought issues to the forefront and people started paying attention, and becoming informed,” she said. “When they became informed, they wanted to be involved in the process.”
Rodgers vacated part of the zoning permit for the 100-foot-tall building in March, ruling city officials hadn’t followed the special land use permitting process. The project’s developers are appealing the ruling.
Requiring a public vote on any building taller than 60 feet would be a de facto height limit, said Minervini Group partner Raymond Minervini II. Developers already spend a lot of time and money planning a project, and requiring a vote could add an unreasonable cost and delay.
“We need to be clear: virtually no developer would ever go to the public with a vote for the project,” he said.
Minervini said a developer could be deprived of their rights to build by a “no” vote. He fears the public could be influenced by other factors besides a building’s design, including bias against the developer. Proposal 3 is bad government, and an end-run around zoning laws based on an arbitrary height limit already exceeded by several buildings both existing and planned, he said.
Munson Medical Center’s planned Family Birth and Childrens Center is one such building, Minervini said. Save Our Downtown has endorsed the project, which would be built close to the Grand Traverse Commons, The Minervini Group’s main project.
T. Michael Jackson also is a member of the pro-Proposal 3 groups and said he became involved after city commissioners approved Pine Street One in the face considerable constituent opposition. That building would be visible from his Sixth Street home.
“A lot of us want to preserve what Traverse City is all about,” he said. “That’s neighborhoods, small-town character, sidewalks, trees. People come here to get away from high-rise environments.”
More tall buildings could hurt the city’s tourism industry, Quick said. She called it the area’s most important industry and cited a study that estimated its impact on the region is more than $1 billion.
A faltering tourism industry could hurt the local jobs market and, in turn, property values.
Zehner said he has lived in Traverse City since 1973 and has watched how the city has grown since then. He’s worried more people could bring in more problems like crime and drugs as the city grows by leaps and bounds. He compared it to studies showing how adding animals — rats in particular — in an environment cause problems to multiply.
At the same time, Zehner said the city will continue to grow. But he fears high-rises aren’t right for the city, and bigger isn’t always better.
“I’m not a ‘lock the gate’ type person,” he said. “People are welcome to come. Sometimes people have the attitude around here of, ‘stay home, send money,’ but I don’t have that attitude at all.”
Planning Commission Vice Chairwoman Linda Koebert said the current process takes complicated decisions out of the hands of an electorate that often votes by gut feeling or emotion. Elected representatives have a duty to sort through lots of information, then listen to public comment before making tough decisions.
“One thing I’ve learned as a planning commissioner is that nothing, when you really learn about it, is as easy as you want or really think it is when you’re just sitting around having coffee complaining about it,” she said.
Koebert said that while democracy can be messy and slow, city residents shouldn’t lose faith in the process, nor in a representative government. She heard or read comments from nearly as many supporters for Pine Street One as detractors lodged.
“I think when people don’t agree with you, they have a tendency to say you weren’t listening,” she said.
Proposal Three could prevent Traverse City from becoming more than just a tourist destination, Koebert said. She wants to see it become a regional hub as well, one where young professionals can find high-paying jobs.
Proponents and detractors of Proposal 3 have counter-arguments to the other side’s arguments; anti-Prop 3 group Stand Up TC calls the proposed charter amendment illegal, citing a letter from the Michigan Attorney General’s office stating as much. Quick and Jackson rejected that claim. Quick said the letter was from a staff attorney and several proposals previously deemed illegal by the Attorney General’s office have held up in court.
Quick said she believes voters can make an informed decision, that the requirement would just add another step to the process and that developers would want to know if the public supports their project. But Nixon said he wonders if developers would be willing to pay thousands for a special election or wait for a regular one. Voters also could be required to do considerable homework to inform themselves, especially if there are several proposed buildings.
The debate has stretched beyond one election season, and both sides have lengthy lists of arguments for their viewpoint and against the other. Each side claims the other advocates an idea that could ruin the city’s future, but neither completely agree on how that future should look.
“This is an important issue to the future of the city, so most of all I hope people vote,” Jackson said.
Adopting Proposal Three would add the following language to Section 28 of the Traverse City Charter:
"It is hereby declared that buildings over 60 feet in height are generally inconsistent with the residential and historical character of Traverse City. Therefore, any proposal for construction of a building with a height above 60 feet, shall not be approved by the City or City Commission, until after the proposal is submitted to and approved by a majority of the City electors at a regular election, or at a special election."