Source: Sherman Publications

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Twp. looks to attract new development

by CJ Carnacchio

April 13, 2011

What can be done to make it easier for property owners and developers to do business in Oxford Township?

That was the central question last week as the township's Economic Development Subcommittee (EDSC) met with some of the community's primary property owners to discuss future land use in the community and how to streamline the approval process for new development.

The meeting was part of the township's on-going efforts to jump-start the local economy and increase its stagnant tax base by attracting new development.

"We're trying to steer the Titanic here away from that iceberg," said EDSC member Todd Bell, who also chairs the planning commission.

"We're trying to encourage people to come here," said EDSC Chairman Jack Curtis, who also serves on the planning commission.

Curtis believes there are "six nuggets" that can be used to market Oxford to businesses and developers. Those nuggets include schools, parks, fire department, the village, the fiscal responsibility of the township government, and the diversity of available housing.

Most of those in attendance agreed the township's creation of the EDSC to address and attract future development was "a great step forward" as Dick Zanotti put it.

Zanotti represents the Levy Corporation/American Aggregates, which owns 2,038 acres in the township, of which 1,217 are located along M-24.

Zanotti appreciated the township taking a proactive approach to future development because the Levy Corporation wants to be "active in planning what goes on at our properties."

"We create pieces of property, not just take the gravel out," he said.

Larry Schultz, a commercial broker with the Farmington Hills-based Friedman Integrated Real Estate Solutions, said the most helpful thing the township can do is have a site plan approval process that's quick and easy.

"I'd love to bring more business into the township," he said. "I've got stuff listed I'd love to sell."

Schultz, who lives in Metamora and has three boys in the Oxford school district, cited Troy as a role model. He worked on a deal there that took only 90 days to gain city approval.

"The only thing Troy did was grease the skids to get this thing through," he said.

Oxford Township could attract more development if its approval process took 90 days as opposed to eight or nine months, in Schultz's opinion.

"That's where a lot of the perception of the township being difficult to deal with comes from," he said.

To help speed things along, Schultz suggested the township avoid doing things like dictating what sort of landscaping a development should have.

"That's what turns off these guys doing commercial development," he explained. "They'll typically end up landscaping a property pretty nicely. But if you tell me I need 10 deciduous trees in the front of my building to help screen it from sight . . . why am I building on M-24 then? I want the frontage."

Jim Wilson, who owns an architectural firm in downtown Oxford, said the local approval process has become "radically quicker" in his experience.

He indicated that it used to take about 18-24 months to get a project approved.

But that wasn't the case when it came to converting the old James Lumber property on E. Burdick St. into the new Burdick Street Landscape Supply & Equipment.

That approval process only took about five months, according to Wilson.

"The communities are getting a lot better," he said.

Curtis noted a concerted effort was made by the township to gain approval for the new McDonald's restaurant within a 90-day window and it happened because everyone worked together.

Bell and Curtis explained how the planning commission had previously recommended that each of its members could serve as a "rotating liaison" between developers and the township in an effort to expedite the approval process in every case.

This liaison's role would be to serve as the "single point of contact" between a developer and the township, and point out problems with site plans before they went before the planning commission.

Ultimately, the liaison idea was rejected by the township board.

However, some of those who attended the EDSC meeting liked the idea, so Curtis recommended they e-mail township Supervisor Bill Dunn and maybe the township board will reconsider it.

Zanotti said he understands that those who live in a community have a "more critical view" of it than a developer.

"I don't have that possession that someone sitting on a planning commission does," said Zanotti, who helped create the massive Waterstone development when he worked for REI. "I understand the need for scrutiny."

But there's room for improvement on both sides of the fence in Zanotti's opinion.

To him, the township could "streamline" its approval process "a bit more," while developers could spend less time trying to "pack in" as much as they can on a piece of property and more time adding things like amenities and open space.

Zanotti noted that "one of the major stumbling blocks" to developing in Oxford is the M-24 corridor and that's why the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) "has to be a partner here."

"There are some people at MDOT that are good people. Sometimes they get a bad reputation," he said. "Some of the ones that were bad have left."

Zanotti noted that working with MDOT comes down to "understanding their philosophy."

"Their philosophy is they want points of contact with the highway. They don't want 20 points of contact," he said.

"Points of contact" include driveways, side streets, entrances/exits, etc.

As for future land use, Bell said one of the township's goals is to have a "well-balanced community" in terms of development, which means a mix of residential, commercial and industrial, so as to lessen the tax burden on homeowners.

"The taxes are a lot less on the residents and . . . more weighted to the business owners (in a balanced community)," he said.

To help promote this balance and make it easier to develop property in the future, the EDSC is recommending that the future land use designation of some parcels be changed to allow for a "mixed use," which can encompass the current zoning or similar uses.

Rather than going though the lengthy process of getting property rezoned, the planning commission can approve a project if it fits the "mixed use" designation, meaning the use is similar to the current zoning, according to Curtis.

"You're not going to take mixed use (property) that's zoned commercial and turn it into manufacturing," he noted.

These mixed use areas will include big portions of the M-24 corridor along with parcels along Lakeville Rd. and at the intersection of Seymour Lake and Baldwin roads.