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PC gives OK to military vehicle repair operation
60 to 80 new jobs expected

by CJ Carnacchio

October 19, 2011

Oxford Township planning commissioners last week took a step toward boosting the local economy and creating new jobs by giving their approval for a proposed business that plans to repair and refurbish U.S. military vehicles used overseas.

"This is a great opportunity for the community," said Randal Bellestri, a partner in Diamond Assembly and resident of Naples, Florida. "We're anticipating maybe 60 to 80 jobs out of it."

"It's just something that we really need," said Planning Commissioner Jack Curtis.

Diamond Assembly is proposing to utilize about 100,000 square feet of the building Bellestri owns at 715 N. Lapeer Rd., across from Meijer.

The building currently houses three other businesses Great Lakes Elite Gymnastics & Cheer, Midwest Auction Galleries, and Relume Technologies. They would remain in the building with Diamond Assembly.

Years ago, it used to house Odyssey Industries and before that, Sea Ray, the boat manufacturer.

Diamond Assembly would basically repair and refurbish a variety of military vehicles used in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

"Whatever they might need, whether it's a gun rack, axle, undercarriage, panels, whatever the case may be," Bellestri said.

The whole thing is part of a three-year program. "There's supposed to be about 4,000 vehicles total," Bellestri said. "We're not going to get the whole program."

Bellestri indicated that he and his partner, Rochester Hills resident Steve Roach, are "hoping" Diamond Assembly will get 20 to 30 percent of those vehicles.

"The better we perform, the more vehicles we can get is what it amounts to," he said.

As for the types of vehicles, Bellestri told commissioners "most of these are going to be jeeps, humvees (and) there's a couple subs that we've heard about smaller submarines."

"No tanks or anything like that," he said. "No heavy vehicles."

Roach echoed Bellestri's statements.

"There's a lot of ATV-type vehicles, four-wheelers, things of that nature," he said. "It's not tanks and armored-type vehicles."

Despite their optimism about the project, Bellestri stressed it's not a done deal yet.

"We do not have funding," he explained. "The federal government is kind of looking at its baskets of money right now. I can't even guarantee you that this is going to happen at this point."

However, Bellestri noted Diamond Assembly has "very good chance" based on the fact it's received "all the other approvals" necessary.

"They've been out to the site. They like the site. They like what we proposed to them. But they are waiting for funding."

Commission Chairman Todd Bell asked if the funding was made available tomorrow, how soon could Diamond Assembly start its work?

"I would think within 60 days they would start shipping some vehicles," Roach said. "I was on the East Coast a couple weeks ago and the vehicles are starting to come in from Afghanistan, Iraq and overseas."

The plan is to ship the vehicles to Pontiac via railroad, then haul them by truck up to Oxford. "We're the only ones in Michigan, supposedly, that are going to be doing this," Bellestri told the commissioners.

Curtis told Bellestri this program could be a good educational opportunity for students in the automotive program at Oxford High School. "Maybe you can do some internships with that automotive class?" he said.

"We would definitely be open to something like that," Bellestri replied.

As for the job-creation aspect of his business venture, Bellestri told the commission that Diamond Assembly plans to give top hiring priority to veterans.

"A lot of military people do not have jobs," he said. "We are going to try to focus on . . . those type of people in the area because they served the country and they deserve to go to work."

Because 715 N. Lapeer Rd. is zoned Research-Office (RO), the idea of using a portion of it for military vehicle repair/refurbishment had to go before the planning commission to determine if such a use was appropriate given the current zoning.

"This is one of those uses that's at the discretion of the planning commission," said Planner Brian Oppmann, with the Ann Arbor-based Carlisle/Wortman & Associates.

Oppmann himself had no issue with the proposed use. "Essentially, what they're going to be doing is occupying the interior of a building. It's like a re-occupancy," he said. "I think this is a good fit for this building. It's a reuse of the building."

Oppmann advised commissioners they could either require a site plan for Diamond Assembly be submitted to them or have the project handled administratively through the township Building Department.

In a 5-2 vote, commissioners deemed it was an acceptable use for the current zoning and that it could be handled administratively.

Commissioner Kallie Roesner opposed this motion for a number of reasons, chief among them was the lack of a site plan and the possible impact on neighboring residential properties such as the condos to the west.

"We need a site plan for this building," she said. "If it was in the middle of an industrial complex, I wouldn't be so concerned, but it's not."

"I want to make sure it's aesthetically pleasing," Roesner noted. "What is it going to look like when it's done? That's my fear."

Roesner didn't like the idea of handling the whole thing administratively because there would be no opportunity for public input.

"I want to make sure that everyone has a chance to have their voice heard," she said. "If we do (it administratively), it will eliminate the public . . . It will never come back to planning commission and I think it should come back to planning commission."

A few commissioners, including Roesner, expressed their concern about the proposed fenced-in, outdoor storage area for vehicles depicted on a rough sketch of the Diamond Assembly site and how this could impact surrounding properties.

But Bellestri told commissioners it's not a definite part of his plan.

"I just put that on there just in case this thing took off," he explained. "We're not sure we're even going to need that."

Bellestri indicated he can probably fit 80 to 90 vehicles at a time inside the building.

But should Diamond Assembly perform so well that the government gives it more vehicles than the indoor facility can hold, Bellestri wanted to be prepared.

Whether Diamond Assembly has to come back to the planning commission for approval of a fenced-in, outdoor storage area should it need one will depend on the height of the fence.

If the fence is 8 feet tall or less, it can be built under the existing township ordinance, according to Oppmann.

However, if it's more than 8 feet high, the planner said it must come back to the planning commission for approval.

Bellestri told commissioners if he does need an outdoor storage area, it would be guarded by the military. not going to get the whole program."