By CAITLIN DeLUCA
LANSING — Traverse City voters are deciding how to regulate the height of city buildings, in a vote with statewide implications.
The local decision is whether to require voters to approve the construction of any city buildings more than 60 feet tall. The proposal is supported by Save Our Downtown, a group that says citizens should decide when such buildings are allowed.
It is opposed by Stand Up TC, a group that says the proposal is illegal. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette recently bolstered their argument, warning in a letter to Traverse City officials that the proposed amendment to the city charter conflicts with the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act.
If the measure is approved and can withstand legal challenge, it could mean that other communities are more likely to do the same thing, said Mark Wyckoff, senior associate director of the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University.
“It could open the doors for citizens in other cities to attempt this local route in order to change what they want to,” Wyckoff said.
It depends on the politics of the city and whether the city is changing from small town to becoming bigger and more urbanized, Wyckoff said.
But other cities may be gun shy until this proposal is proven legal or illegal, he said.
“We really believe the system in place today works,” said Mark Eckhoff, treasurer for Stand Up TC.
“We don’t understand why you would change the city’s charter and violate state mandates on how buildings should be handled and change a system that works,” Eckhoff said.
Jay Zelenock, a Traverse City attorney that represents Save Our Downtown, said that a city’s residents should have a choice on the process and that the state’s attorney general doesn’t decide such things.
“No courts have addressed these issues,” he said.
This is not the first time a city went around state law. “The appellate courts in the Grand Rapids decriminalizing marijuana case have recently expressly approved of a use of a city charter amendment to limit the authority of city employees of taking actions that would otherwise be lawful and authorized under state laws,” Zelenock said.
Wyckoff said though this process is unusual, it isn’t necessarily the first time it’s happened.
He is worried about the effects it could have on the city if this proposed zoning law is not legal.
“From a management standpoint for the city, that’s the worst case scenario,” Wyckoff said.
“If this passes, there is going to be huge uncertainty for the municipal side because they will be obligated to follow this new requirement, which may be unlawful, which they won’t find out unless somebody like a developer legally challenges it.”
Zelenock says it’s important for citizens in cities to stand up and do what they think is best.
“While I wouldn’t tell other cities in Michigan how to operate, this [changing the city charter] is absolutely a useful tool to authorize the voters to limit, expand, shape and control their city employees and give the voters control over what’s done or not done with their tax money,” Zelenock said.
This can open up the door for other cities to make changes that work around state laws that aren’t convenient for them should this proposal pass, he said.
“It’s about what’s best for citizens and their tax money,” Zelenock said.
By CAITLIN DeLUCA