Developers anxious to build a hotel in Saline put the full press on the city’s planning commission and it paid off when the body voted to approve the final site plan.
Jim Junga, Mark Kuykendall and Jim Haeussler were among those in attendance from the hotel group. The group has an agreement to purchase city land on East Michigan Avenue and hopes to build a $9 million, 63-room Best Western Premier hotel and a new Ace Hardware store.
City planners and the Saline City Council previously approved the preliminary site plan for the project. At Wednesday’s meeting, it appeared final site plan approval might be delayed until things turned after a tense rebuke from the builder. City Superintendent Gary Roubal recommended the final site plan – with a memo given to commissioners just prior to the meeting. In addition, the recommendation was contingent upon the developer resolving more than a dozen issues.
“I’ve never seen more unresolved issues (on a recommended site plan) in my time on planning commission,” Planning Commission Chairman Bill Beardsley said.
Superintendent Roubal attempted to minimize the number of issues by stating they were mostly housekeeping items. Mayor Brian Marl, a proponent of the development, called on the planning commissioners to see past the issues.
“Some are routine housekeeping issues that can be followed up on. If you look at the substance of the issues, I don’t have an issue with proceeding tonight. Overall, this is a good plan,” Marl said.
Marl then asked the planners to think about what kind of city Saline wants to be.
“This project has the ability to be transformational for that end of our community. There’s a fundamental question at play. What kind of reputation do we want for our city? Are we a community that embraces new investment and is accommodating? Or do we create a reputation of being a hindrance, of creating obstacles?” Marl asked.
The Mayor’s argument didn’t get far with his council colleague Dean Girbach, council’s liaison to the commission. Girbach, who was the lone city council member to reject a motion to extend the city’s purchase agreement with the developers in September, said he was uncomfortable with the recommendation because of the last-minute information dropped on the commission.
“There was a lot of information received at the last minute. City Council does not accept that and planning commission should not accept it,” Girbach said, before refuting the Mayor’s larger point. “In the past, projects have been rushed through. Information has been incorrect.”
Girbach has been vocal about the stalled development and derelict home on South Monroe Street.
He noted the city has already made several concessions to help the hotel development along, lowering its asking price and agreeing to move utilities.
“We want to accommodate (the hotel) but there are concerns listed that clearly haven’t been answered yet at this point in time,” Girbach said.
Beardsley said that he, like the mayor, wants to be welcoming and embrace new projects.
“I think we are. We’ve shown that. I like this project. I think I like this plan. But I don’t like the process,” Beardsley said.
The city hired a OHM to review the engineering. In a Dec. 1 memo to the city, OHM wrote “We do not recommend final site plan approval.” OHM recommended a punch list of 26 items that should be addressed before a site plan was approved.
The developers apparently went to work to address those issues with Superintendent Roubal. But OHM has not yet reviewed their work.
“This is a really important project for our community. Feel like we need to protect integrity of process, make sure not missing anything. I don’t think we’ve had opportunity to do that,” Beardsley.
Roubal the city will be protected because the developers will need to demonstrate they’ve completed the remaining tasks before the city grants a building permit.
Commissioner Cheryl Hoeft agreed with Girbach and Beardsley that planning commission was given a lot of information to digest. She suggested voting to postpone.
Mayor Marl suggested if commissioners needed more time the commission should meet next Wednesday. Beardsley asked if OHM will have had a chance to review the plans for the city by then. Roubal said he wasn’t sure, because the firm is busy and the holidays are approaching.
That’s when Jim Haeussler stepped up and said he and his partners would like to meet privately.
“Our sales agreement we signed has a drop dead date (Dec. 18) and a major investor is going to walk,” Haeussler said.
The five men left the council chambers to speak privately in the hall.
When they came back, Haeussler issued what was close to an ultimatum.
“We’re under the gun. We’ve already extended (the purchase agreement with the city). We’re not going to anymore. The investor said, ‘That’s it.’ We’ve got almost $3 million sitting in accounts waiting to go,” Haeussler said. “So we’re just very, very disappointed. Some of these comments could have been done (during the preliminary site plan review). Why is it here? We just wasted all this time. So we respectfully request a vote.”
The message clear: Approve the site plan tonight or the hotel project was in jeopardy.
Beardsley said he understood Haeussler’s frustration, but said the city has a process. He said he didn’t see the point in rushing site plan approval -- especially when the project was likely going to require a variance from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals. And, Beardsley noted, it seemed like the developers were going to have a hard time meeting the standard of “hardship” required of those seeking a variance.
But Haeussler’s point resonated with the planning commission.
Mayor Marl again reiterated the need to approve the site plan.
“I don’t deny it was less than ideal to receive the information as late as we received it. I don’t deny or debate that the process could have been better. But I come back to the point I made about this being a transformational project. Do we move forward and grow our tax base and attract jobs? Or do we not?” Marl said.
Roubal and Beardsley finally untied the knot when Roubal made it plain that one of the most talked about issues – a loading zone for the proposed hardware store – didn’t even need to be resolved at this meeting. Junga is still at least nine months away from beginning construction of his new building.
For the purposes of the site plan, planning commission agreed to separate the hotel and hardware store.
The commission voted 6-2 in favor of approving the site plan. Girbach and Beardsley voted no. Commissioner Dan Troyka abstained.
The hardware store site plan will be dealt with at a future meeting.