Developers of the proposed Saline hotel cleared another hurdle Monday night When Saline City Council voted 4-2 to grant a 60-day extension on a purchase agreement between the developers and the city. The city is selling land immediately east of The Oaks shopping center to Sauk Trail Ct. Properties. A new $9 million Best Western Premier Inn and Ace Hardware store is planned for the property.
Mayor Brian Marl, and Councillors Jack Ceo, Christen Mitchell and Heidi McClelland voted to approve the extension. Councillors Dean Girbach and Janet Dillon voted against the motion. Councillor Linda TerHaar was absent.
Marl and Girbach spent some time rehashing the arguments they made last Wednesday at planning commission, when they were on opposite sides of the vote to approve the final site plan for the hotel. While the city council members showed support for the concept of the hotel, some showed disappointment at they way the developers made their case at in from of city planners, with Girbach accusing them of “intimidation.”
Council originally agreed to sell the property in September of 2016. Since then, the city has agreed to extend its purchase agreement three times. The last, in September of 2017, was supposed to be the final extension.
Builder Jim Haeussler, of Peters Building, told council why they needed the extra time. Haeussler said the developers still require a variance from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals and that they need time for closing procedures.
“We’re anxious to close and get started as soon as possible once we have this last item ironed out,” Haeussler told council.
Councillors Girbach and Dillon both asked how there was now time a ZBA hearing and a 60-day extension when last week the developers exerted pressure on the planning commission, essentially telling the planners they needed the site plan approved that night or they would lose a major investor.
“We needed the approval based on the funding we’ve raised. (Our investors) needed some insurance. The people who have their money in there needed to know the hotel portion was going through,” Haeussler said. “They’re willing to wait while we iron out the rest of the site plan.”
Dillon wondered what kind of precedent was being set.
“We’ve made so many provisions to see this through. People are going to assume this is the norm in the city. That we are willing to do this for every project. I’m excited for the hotel and for the new Ace. And I’m happy to see growth. But I’m concerned about the procedure,” she said.
Councillor McClelland said she too was in favor of the hotel project, but she’s not happy about the way this project has been pushed on the city.
“It feels like we’re always up against the wall. I know there are a lot of moving pieces, but I feel like the process is always being rushed,” McClelland said.
Councillors Ceo and Mitchell both expressed support for the hotel project. Ceo, in particular, was specific to the motion on the table.
“I support this motion to extend the terms of the contract so this issue can be settled before the Zoning Board of Appeals. I believe it’s fair. They’ve worked this long on this project,” Ceo said.
Girbach’s criticism was pointed.
He said the developers’ claims that the planning commission sprung issues on the developers at the last second were inaccurate.
“The information they needed to correct was made available to them during the preliminary site plan review. They did have time to address the issues and they did not do it,” Girbach said.
Girbach also questioned why the planners were told they needed the site plan approved by Dec. 18 – when the last purchase agreement extension was set to expire.
“I was disheartened by a statement made to the board, to intimidate. We were told the closing had to happen by the 18th in order to move forward,” Girbach said. “I am concerned members appointed by council to this body were being told these things and convinced to rush their decision.”
Girbach said past rushed decisions have proved problematic. He pointed to the Fairdene development on South Monroe Street, beside People’s Park.
“I’m not saying the hotel is not a good project. But we have a process and I feel like we’re circumventing the process,” Girbach said.
Marl said he was in favor of granting the extension for many reasons. He said lending institutions and financial contributors want assurance the project is moving forward. Marl said this project has been the most scrutinized project in recent Saline history
“This project actually began almost two years ago when (the hotel developers) met with me and Mayor Pro-Tem David Rhoads to discuss their vision. This project has been appropriately vetted and scrutinized over a two-year period,” Marl said.
Marl said it was important to take a “big-picture” look at the project.
“Look at the potential benefits. We’re taking a parcel that has been off the tax rolls and turning into property that will generate tax revenue. It’s going to create jobs and provide an amenity that will improve the quality of life in the community,” Marl said. “We’re just inches from the goal line.”
John Olsen, Executive Director of the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of the project.
“The feedback I have received from the 400 area businesses who are members of the chamber has been nothing but positive. This will be a gamechanger for the community. The economic developments can not be underestimated,” Olsen said. He told council that he knows the developers behind the project and said they are good men and supporters of the community.
Resident Mary Hess criticized the city for ignoring the advice of its engineering consultant, who recommended denying the site plan approval until many issues were resolved. She intimated that not every development receives such favorable treatment.
“Part of governing is like the scales of justice. The reason she is blindfolded is because the same rules apply to everyone,” Hess said.