The City’s Response to Recent Claims about the New Zoning Code

Posted on July 8th, 2024

Recently, the City received questions about claims and information circulating about the City’s new zoning code. Several of these claims are false and misleading. It is important that Harbor Springs residents have the correct information before making decisions, so we have provided responses to some of these claims below. Of course, there are many claims circulating and we have not responded to them all. If you have a question about other claims you’ve heard or read, please do not hesitate to contact City Hall.

Claim: The City updated its Zoning Code because it has budget problems.

Response: Not true. The basis for this claim is a 2021 presentation by the City Manager to City Council, which had requested an overview of all possible revenue generating options. One of several options reviewed included expanding the taxbase by changing certain aspects of the Zoning Code. However, the City Manager did not recommend changing zoning to generate more revenue and neither did City Council. The City explored other options, instead. That presentation can be viewed here

In 2021 and 2022, the City weighed whether (and how) to cut spending or raise revenue to balance the General Fund budget. The voters eventually approved a 5-year public safety millage in November of 2022 and the City is now in a financially stable position.

 

Claim: The City did not consider reducing expenses.

Response: Not true. Council considered cutting $120,000 from the General Fund budget, but residents strongly opposed those cuts. (See the December 13, 2021 and December 20, 2021 Council Minutes.)  Council thus continued pursuing ways to generate revenue.

 

Claim: The City faced a budget shortfall and spent an extra $100,000 on the electric substation.

Response: Not true and also needs more context. First, the revenue vs. expenditure question was strictly about the General Fund, which does not fund electrical projects like the electric substation. Electric projects are funded through the Electric Fund, which is funded by electric rates (not taxes) and is separate from the General Fund. There has not been a budget shortfall in the Electric Fund. Second, the City was not facing any type of budget shortfall in the General Fund when the final decision about the electric substation location was made. Third, we are not sure where the “$100,000” figure comes from, but Council did select a costlier location for the new substation outside of the City limits after discussion and hearing residents’ concerns about the two locations inside City limits (one next to the police station and the other in a wooded lot near Kosequat Park). (See the January 15, 2024 Council minutes.)

 

Claim: The City has a budget shortfall but is soliciting $800,000 in donations for a bike path.

Response: The City is not facing a budget shortfall and is raising money for extension of the regional bike path into downtown Harbor Springs. Most large parks and recreation projects are funded through donations because we do not have the tax dollars to pursue these beneficial desired projects that are not necessary infrastructure projects.  To avoid unnecessary tax increases and strain on the City’s budget, the City has fundraised for several parks and recreation projects in the past few years. The bike path project has been in the planning stages for over a decade, with the community weighing several options. The City ultimately decided to utilize the spillway (which was built to take City property out of flood risk) as the M-119 crossing because it is the safest option, as opposed to crossing M-119 at street level. This project cannot happen without donations/grants. Please check out the Little Traverse Wheelway Extension webpage for more about the project and the City’s collaboration with Harbor Way Inc. to raise funds for the bike path. 

 

Claim: The City keeps on changing its reasons for why it updated the zoning code.

Response: Not true. The City’s main reasons for updating the Zoning Code in 2022 when it embarked on this effort were to modernize it and align it with the Master Plan. In February of 2022, when the City’s previous planner retired, the City released an RFQ for a new planner with one of the main duties being to update the Zoning Code “for alignment with Master Plan goals.” In July of 2022, the Planning Commission reviewed dozens of zoning topics they wanted to review during the update. In October of 2023, the City posted notification of public information sessions about the Zoning Code update, indicating that it was updating the Code “to align it with the Master Plan, to clear up ambiguous and vague language, and to make it more user-friendly.” The City’s January 2024 newsletter stated that progress had been made “modernizing the Code, aligning it with the Master Plan, and sorting through inconsistencies and ambiguities.”

In February of 2024, the City released this document detailing the reasons for making specific changes, and in March released this document emphasizing the main reasons for updating the Code (Master Plan and simplification). In April, the City published a presentation on how the proposed Zoning Code aligned with the Master Plan. 

The reasons have not changed. As the Planning Commission decided on specific changes, it became more detailed on explaining why it was making specific changes and the potential impacts of those changes, but the motivation underlying the Zoning Code update did not change.

 

Claim: City Council and Planning Commission did not respond to residents’ concerns about the proposed Zoning Code.

Response: Not true. At several meetings, the Planning Commission and City Council heard residents’ concerns and made several changes to the proposed Code, such as: eliminating accessory commercial units; creating an agricultural overlay district; creating a Bay Street residential overlay district; removing flag lots; increasing minimum dwelling size; removing triplexes from a zoning district; restructuring downtown building heights; and removing chickens from residential neighborhoods. 

Moreover, the City Manager directly addressed three dozen questions and comments by residents opposed to changes in the proposed Zoning Code in the May 20 City Council packet. See pages 30-41.

 

Claim: The City is updating the Zoning Code as the final step to become a certified Redevelopment Ready Community (RRC).

Response: Not true and needs more context. First, the RRC includes 30 best practices. One best practice is aligning the City’s Zoning Code with the City’s Master Plan, but State law also requires zoning ordinances to be based on a Master Plan. Therefore, aligning the Zoning Code with the Master Plan is something that should be done regardless of RRC status.

Second, there are RRC requirements for zoning ordinances in three main areas: housing, concentrated development, and green infrastructure. After a detailed review by our planner, the City’s previous ordinances already met the housing and concentrated development best practices, and there were Master Plan and Tree Plan goals to meet green infrastructure standards. Thus, while the RRC process does have zoning implications, those zoning implications were already attained or already aligned with the City’s goals. You can read a March 2024 overview of the City’s involvement with the RRC here.

Finally, the City has to meet a few more best practices, including approving an Economic Development Strategy and a Boards Member Training Plan, meaning that updating the Zoning Code was not “the final step” to becoming a RRC certified community.

 

Claim: The City did not properly or adequately notify all residents about the Master Plan update and the Zoning Code update.

Response: Not true. In 2020, the City mailed every Harbor Springs household a letter encouraging them to take the Master Plan surveys. In that letter, the City notified all residents that the Master Plan “revisions will help shape the City Zoning Code.” Further, the City held dozens of meetings on both the Master Plan and Zoning Code update, and these meetings were advertised on the website, social media, at City Hall and other locations throughout town, in newsletters, e-mail notifications, and more. Residents were able to participate in person and via Zoom and could watch the meetings on YouTube. Here is an April 2024 presentation on the Zoning Code update process and timeline.

 

Claim: The City did not rely on the Master Plan surveys when crafting its Master Plan; or, the survey responses were not representative of the Harbor Springs population.

Response: Not true. The Planning Commission reviewed and discussed the survey results, which helped shape the goals and objectives of the Master Plan. However, survey results were just one tool used by the Planning Commission; the PC spent several meetings reviewing, analyzing and discussing demographics, statistics, trends, research, and other information that assisted the City in updating the Master Plan.

Further, surveys are intended to give the City a general sense on where the community stands on certain issues, not to determine the exact breakdown of how residents think about a specific topic. While the City’s surveys were taken by city residents, township residents and visitors, the surveys provided an option for individuals to identify whether they were a city or township resident. This breakdown allowed the City to determine how City residents felt about an issue compared to non-City residents. In many cases, opinions were generally aligned.

The City cannot verify that online survey takers are indeed members of a household in the city limits, but this does not take away from the input given and insight received from survey takers. City residents and homeowners were targeted with direct mailings and social media posts; and based on the responses, it can be reasonably assumed that most individuals did not lie about their residence, although inevitably some may have.

You can review the Master Plan survey results here.