August 21, 2013 - Tim and Karey Collins breathed a sigh of relief last Tuesday night after the Oxford Village Council gave an "A-OK" to move forward with plans of relocating Merge Gallery & Art Studio from its current location downtown, to the old grain elevator at 33 Pleasant Street.
"We're just really excited to wrap up the purchase agreement and get moving on the remodeling and the construction," Karey said. "Nobody is in a bigger hurry to get it (construction) done and moved in there than me."
By a 4-1 vote, council took the village planning commission's recommendations under consideration and approved the PUD agreement – rezoning the property from a mix of industrial and residential to an underlying commercial zoning (C-1), along with the lease agreement of the municipal-owned 0.431-acre grass-covered vacant parcel located at 27 Pleasant Street. Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth voted "no."
Under the terms of the lease, Merge would construct and maintain a 22-space parking lot on the parcel, but the village would retain ownership. Parking would be for Merge customers, Polly Ann Trail users and the general public. The village is leasing the property to Merge for $1 per year for 25 years with two, 25-year renewal options.
Helmuth took issue with the lease agreement.
"I'm thinking about the depreciation of the parking lot. After 15 years you're looking at repaving," she said "I don't want our lease agreement to go past the life of the parking lot."
Included the agreement is a 6-foot SimTek Ecostone fence along the entire length of the southern lot line on 27 Pleasant St. This will divide the proposed parking lot, from the residential properties.
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.
"The zoning requirement only requires fencing for the first 120 feet to block the lights of the headlights," Karey said. "We've come to an agreement on the Sim Tec Ecostone Fencing to block the headlights, requirement is only four foot (high), neighbors requested six foot, we agreed to six foot."
It was suggested by some of the planning commissioners the fence run along the entire 231 foot property line for the sake of consistency and appearance, with the additional 111 feet be paid for by the village, since the municipality will continued to own the land. At approximately $53 per foot, the village's portion would be approximately $5,900.
That suggestion did not go over well with council members.
Councilman Elgin Nichols supported the project and the recommended 120 foot Sim Tec Ecostone wall, but any additional fencing and cost be incurred by the village.
If the village takes on $6,000 it's your (taxpayer) money we're using for this," Nichols said to the audience. "We don't have to do that. I am certainly against doing it."
Council President Tony Albensi agreed.
"The additional fencing is not required by our ordinance," explained Albensi. "It was recommended by the planning commission to do that, but for those monies to come from the Village of Oxford taxpayers (I am opposed)."
The fencing has been the main topic of debate and concern among neighbors around the property. However, not all neighbors are opposed to the project or even saw a need for additional fencing to be paid for by Merge. Laura Traylor, who lives on Lafayette Street believes the existing wood fence along with some arborvitaes planted by Merge would do justice as a barrier.
"I'm frustrated because Merge is putting in a lot of money and it's going to enhance our area where this building has been vacant for so long. People gathered, raccoons have gathered and having a vibrant area for Polly Ann Trail users for our kids, for retirees (to enjoy) art (and a) coffee shop it's a win-win," she said. "I'm of the opinion they revert back and just allow the arborvitaes and berm along the wood fence and leave it, no need to have additional fencing."
Christine Ellis who lives on Davison Street agreed.
"I can see the warehouse from my front porch. I look at the broken down building with all the stuff that goes on there and I am so excited with Merge coming in and then I can say I live in the art district of town. If an issue on a fence has the potential of derailing this I would be so disappointed. There seems there should be a reasonable solution to this," she said. "A reasonable solution is to fill that gap of existing fence, plant the bushes and trees to help support that, that sounds like a good idea to me rather than the township pay for a redundancy."
However, fellow neighbor Tanya Heuser, who also lives on Lafayette Street was quick to point out that the current wood fence is a private fence.
"The problem with the existing fences is they are private property. They are not yours. We paid for them, now what happens if the parking lot goes in and car just decides to drive through it whose fence is it then? Are they (Merge) going to replace it? Probably not. Are they going to repair it? Probably not," she said. "Then it's going to become 'oh no this is my fence today, but it's your fence when it needs to be fixed and maintained'."
"A masonry or stonewall is required in the ordinance between a parking lot and residential, not a vinyl fence, not a wooden fence, not shrubbery. Shrubbery is not going to block lights at night or protect your kids playing in the backyard when someone decides to have a wine tasting event and one has too much to drink and presses on the gas pedal," continued Heuser. "Those fences if (this project) gets approved will be down tomorrow. Then what are you going to do? You'll have to replace it with something."
Another neighbor Curtis Fields, who lives on S. Washington Street said a fence should be the least of peoples concerns.
"Shouldn't it be about people cleaning up the whole area over there instead of worrying about lights? People drive up and down that road every day and lights haven't been an issue," Fields said. "I know it has to do a lot with money and people's happiness, but to me it's about the community. I export products from Richville down to White Lake and Waterford to do my work. These people are trying to keep business here, not just for them, but for us and they're to be commended for that."
Lafayette street resident Josh Smokovitz also lent his support.
"The offering of the business sounds pleasant and I could see my wife and I walking our four-year-old daughter who loves to paint, color and build over there to partake in a future art class or little kid's art party," he said. "I like coffee, so I dig the coffee bar aspect, too.
"I'm in support of the business and its parking lot. My main concern is however, that the council does what it takes to reduce the potential for disturbances in our neighborhood," Smokovitz added. "Whether Merge is here for two years or 20 years and I hope it's the 20 years, the parking lot will affect us and our neighbors and our property. I do ask you take this into consideration as you go forward with the parking lot."
Residents weren't the only ones tired of fence talk.
"I think we need to do everything possible to get this project through," said Councilman Elgin Nichols. "I think it's been dragging on way too long because of a fence."
"I couldn't agree more," responded Council President Tony Albensi. "I am completely supportive of this project and willing to support a motion that said approve this without the extra fence. That's where I am at right now."
Nichols made the approved motion, which excluded the additional fencing and cost to the village.
"We were very thankful for all the neighbors who came out and got up and supported us," Karey said. "We're really excited about moving into the neighborhood and glad the neighbors want us there," she said. "I spend half of my time there (at the studio) so I feel like it's my second home and I want to be a nice neighbor."
Trevor graduated with degrees in English and communications from Rochester College. He wrote for his college and LA View newspapers before joining The Clarkston News in May 2007.