Wacker Chemical’s plans to build its $68 million North American headquarters in Avis Farms on Textile Road will head to the Pittsfield Township board without a recommendation from the township planning commission.
The planning commission voted 3-3 on Wacker Chemical’s proposed rezoning for its planned unit development plan. Planning chairperson Matthew Payne, vice-chairperson Ann Harris and Stanley Young voted for a motion to deny rezoning. Roland Kibler, Mike Petraszko and George Ralph voted against the motion. Deborah Williams was not in attendance.
Wacker Chemical plans to have 300 employees the proposed 140,622 square-foot building on an 18.5 acre parcel. About 70 percent of the building would be used for office space. Wacker Chemical officials insist chemical production will not be done at the site, however, they do plan research and development.
The proposal has the support of many, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Ann Arbor SPARK. But it doesn’t enjoy much public support from Pittsfield Township residents, who are uneasy with the idea of a chemical company building in their backyard.
21 people spoke during a lengthy public hearing. 15 of the comments were from Pittsfield Township residents. 12 opposed the rezoning. The two Pittsfield Township residents in favor of the rezoning were the owner of Truck Hero and a Wacker Chemical employee.
Darcy Berwick told the commission the proposed development was not consistent with a master plan that prioritizes preserving natural spaces and with a township electorate that voted for a millage to acquire land for more parks. She said she’s also concerned because Wacker Chemical won’t tell residents what chemicals will be used on site.
“We don’t want it. We don’t need it. The risk is too high for our health and our environment,” Berwick said.
Stephanie Atkinson told the commission it was a mistake to allow the development. She said it would be an eyesore. She also said that Wacker Chemical is untrustworthy, taking tax breaks to build in Lenawee County while planning to shift jobs to the Ann Arbor area. Atkinson also said she had concerns about chemicals which will be used on site, or transported to the site.
“Accidents happen. We cannot afford to let that happen,” Atkinson said, noting the proximity to marshes, parks and homes on wells.
Christina Lirones echoed those concerns and added that the development does not follow township’s PUD plan.
Still, the plan had its fair share of supporters. A presentative of Ann Arbor SPARK read a letter of support from the Truck Hero CEO and Pittsfield Township resident Bill Reminder. The plan also has the support of Avis Farms owner Wayne Avis. He said Avis Farms developments have been very respectful of the community and of nature. He recalled adding $50,000 to one project save an old Oak Tree. Avis also said the Wacker Chemical building wouldn’t have the same impact as other buildings.
“Thomson Reuters is much bigger with more parking. These folks (Wacker) are not proposing anything with near that much impact,” he said.
The proposal also has the support of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has written to Pittsfield Township Supervisor Mandy Grewal in support of the project
Ryan Hunt, of the MEDC, said the state strongly supports Wacker Chemical’s proposal, believing the “project was vital to the economic strategy, statewide and in Southeast Michigan.”
He said Gov. Whitmer visited Wacker Chemical’s research and development facility on Wagner Road and was impressed with safety standards.
Wacker Chemical CEO David Wilhoit addressed the planning commission. He said he understood neighbors’ hesitance and wanted to earn the trust of Pittsfield Township residents. He told planners that Pittsfield Township offers Wackher Chemical a place to grow its future.
“Pittsfield Township offers the quality of life that our employees and future employees will seek for growing and raising families and pursuing their careers,” Wilhoit said. “The success of this innovation center hinges on attracting highly qualified people who care about Pittsfield Township and making Michigan a stronger and better place.”
Wilhoit said that innovation taking place at Wacker Chemical will benefit the township.
“Where there is innovation, businesses, economies, companies and communities prosper,” he said. “With this state of the art research and design center, Wacker is making a commitment not only to our employees, but to Michigan and the country to discover new innovations that will fuel more growth, better paying jobs, and a more robust economy.”
Wilhoit also said Wacker Chemical’s innovations make for a greener planet. He also said Wacker Chemical’s innovations are used in solar power, cell phones, helping people with allergies, 3-D printing and more.
Planning commissioners voted in May to not recommend the rezoning request. But since then, Wacker Chemical altered its proposal to comply with zoning standards.
Last week, after listening to public comment, planners went about judging the rezoning request against 11 standards, as required by ordinance. The biggest sticking point seemed to be whether or not the proposal conforms to the township’s master plan. Commissioners Payne and Harris both took issue with the idea of combining three parcels into one, and building one large building instead of three smaller buildings.
“It’s super important because it speaks to our culture and what we want in the township. We want to blend business, residential and open space. We’ve seen communities where it’s gone wrong. Even in this community we have housing against business that’s not work out well,” Harris said. “I take rezoning very seriously. I don’t feel comfortable that this is the appropriate time to rezone this.”
But Commissioner Kibler and Petraszko disagreed.
“Offices and research are functionalities that fit in this area,” Kibler said said.
Petraszko said he thought it was a logical change to the master plan.
“This is a North American headquarters. This is prestigious. I’m impressed with the adjustments they’ve made. They’ve bent over backwards. I’m convinced they’ll do the job safely and responsibly,” Petraszko said. “This is a big deal – a big decision. And I don’t want to take this away from the Board of Trustees. This might be something we want to punt (to the township board.”
Commissioner Payne noted that whatever the commission recommended, the board would have the final decision.
“The board might want to take our recommendation or they may consider broader perspectives,” Payne said.
Although it wasn’t by design, the board essentially “punted” anyway by virtue of the 3-3 vote.
The matter is expected to be on the township board agenda in September.