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PC recommends Merge PUD approval with conditions

Karey Collins, owner of Merge Studio & Gallery, hopes to breathe new life into the old grain elevator at 33 Pleasant St. by transforming it into a thriving art-based business, complete with amenities for Polly Ann Trail users such as parking, restrooms and outdoor seating. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
August 14, 2013 - The stone is faux, but the recommendation was real.

Last week, Oxford Village planning commissioners voted 5-1 to recommend that council approve a request from Merge Studio & Gallery to rezone 27 and 33 Pleasant St. so the business can relocate there.

If approved by council, the properties would be rezoned from a mix of industrial and residential to a planned unit development with an underlying commercial zoning of C-1 Transition.

Included in that recommendation was a requirement that a 6-foot SimTek EcoStone fence be installed along the entire length of the southern lot line that divides 27 Pleasant St, which is proposed to become a parking lot, from the residential properties next to it.

"It's an artificial, faux stone," explained village planner Chris Khorey, a senior planner with the Northville-based McKenna Associates. "It's not flimsy. It's a serious, well-constructed piece of fence."

The fence is meant to meet the requirements of the village ordinance and satisfy the neighboring residents who want sufficient screening to buffer noise and protect their privacy, yet not be so financially burdensome to Merge that the project is scrapped.

Merge's owners, Karey and Tim Collins, are in the process of purchasing the old grain elevator, located at 33 Pleasant St., for $100,000, so they can move their 18 N. Washington St. business there and expand it.

The 5,000-square-foot vacant space would be extensively renovated to house an art gallery, studio and classroom space, a coffee shop, a small second-floor apartment, some retail space for lease and a 312-square-foot outdoor seating area open to Merge customers, Polly Ann Trail users and the public.

Merge has worked out a proposed lease agreement with the village for the municipal-owned 0.431-acre grass-covered vacant parcel located at 27 Pleasant St.

Under the terms of the proposed lease, Merge would construct and maintain a 22-space parking lot on the parcel, but the village would retain ownership. The spaces would be for Merge customers, trail users and the general public.

It's proposed the village would lease the property to Merge for $1 per year for 25 years with two 25-year renewal options.

Residents who live next door to the proposed parking lot requested that a 6-foot masonry wall be constructed, per village ordinance, to separate it from their properties.

"We're asking for this to protect our homes, our children and our privacy," said Tanya Heuser, who lives at 34 Lafayette St. "This is a village ordinance. It has been a standard in other commercial developments within the village."

The village zoning ordinance requires a 4-to-6-foot high masonry wall be constructed whenever a commercially-zoned property abuts or is adjacent to a residential district.

The reason is to provide "a solid, year-round barrier . . . to effectively block noise, light and other impacts between land uses of differing intensities," according to the ordinance.

However, the ordinance also provides that "a greenbelt buffer, berm or evergreen screen may be utilized in place of a wall, subject to the review and approval of the planning commission."

Heuser believes the lot will bring nothing but trouble to the area.

"Not only will this proposed parking lot be unsightly to our neighborhood, it will also make our home values depreciate," she told the commission. "It will also bring many problems to the homes that are adjacent to this property such as loitering, abandoned or condemned vehicles, drinking, smoking, littering, broken beer bottles."

Karey Collins made it clear that a masonry or brick wall was simply not in their budget. A brick wall alone could cost $30,000.

She was willing to erect a 6-foot white lattice-top vinyl fence instead. Such a fence would be 120 feet long and cost an estimated $4,300.

But Khorey recommended a 6-foot SimTek EcoStone fence instead because it will offer improved screening, noise reduction and "better meet the intent of the zoning ordinance."

The cost estimate for the EcoStone fence was $6,400 for 120 feet. Requiring Merge to install this fencing is part of the proposed PUD agreement that the village council was expected to vote on at its Aug. 13 meeting.

"It's a compromise that meets everyone's needs and we can be flexible because of the PUD," Khorey explained to this reporter.

"With a PUD, we can be creative with the ordinance in order to get the best development possible. The PUD gives us wiggle room."

However, 120 feet only covers separating the proposed parking lot from the adjacent residences.

Some planning commissioners believe the EcoStone fence should run the entire length of the southern property line, which is 231 feet, for the sake of consistency and appearance.

"I think it will make for a much better presentation," said Commissioner John DuVal. "If we're going to develop a parking lot there, we need to put our best foot forward."

However, DuVal doesn't believe the entire financial burden for the fence should fall on Merge's shoulders. He suggested the other 111 feet of fencing should be paid for by the village since the municipality will continue to own the land.

"I believe the village is responsible for the balance of that parcel," DuVal said.

At approximately $53 per foot, the village's portion would be approximately $5,900.

Village Manager Joe Young indicated the municipality would be willing to work with Merge on this issue.

However, it would ultimately be up to the village council to approve any expenditure of tax dollars for the fencing.

The proposed PUD agreement states that Merge will pay for the first 120 feet and "the village will pay for the remaining length of the fence."

Collins told this reporter she and her husband are willing to pay for enough fencing to provide screening for the parking lot, but not the entire length of the property. She views that as the village's responsibility.

Heuser also requested that the proposed parking lot contain signage prohibiting loitering, skateboarding and parking after 10 p.m. "The teenagers do hang out there," she said.

Placement of signage would be the responsibility of the village, not Merge.

"Given that it is a public parking lot, the village can add any signage that's necessary at a later date," Khorey said.

Despite her requests, Heuser would prefer the Merge project be denied.

"This is a residential neighborhood; it should remain a residential neighborhood," she told the commission. "Downtown is specifically designated for businesses and this is where businesses should stay."

Oxford Village Police Sgt. Mike Solwold felt differently. He lives in that part of town and he wrote a letter to the planning commission supporting the Merge project.

In his letter, Solwold described the old grain elevator as an "ugly building" lacking in upkeep and the target of defacement by teenagers.

"I have personally purchased paint to cover graffiti so people walking along the Polly Ann Trail or citizens in the neighborhood didn't have to read or stare at unnecessary art," he wrote.

"As a resident and employee, I strongly support the (Merge) project for whatever it's worth," Solwold noted.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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