City planners appeared cool to a plan to rezone two properties, including the historic Hoyt-Ford schoolhouse, for a distillery and spirits business that would overlook Mill Pond.
Chris and Trish Molloy, owners of Hoyt-Ford Properties LLC, appeared before planning commission June 12 and unveiled their plans for Mill Pond Spirits, a small distillery and tasting room that would be located in the old schoolhouse.
The plan is to convert the schoolhouse into a spirits tasting room where people could enjoy local and Michigan spirits. The garage would be used for infusing, flavoring, bottling and aging spirits. A second piece of adjacent vacant property, currently owned by W.W. & R.A. Wedemeyer Trust, would be used for parking, gardens and perhaps a storage building. The Molloys hope Mill Pond Spirits will provide a place where the community and visitors can gather to enjoy the beauty of Mill Pond, while learning about the history of the school house while enjoying locally-produced and sourced craft cocktails, spirits, food and music.
“We think it would allow the story of the schoolhouse to be told to a broader audience, while allowing the public to enjoy the wonderful view views of Mill Pond,” Trish Molloy told planning commission.
Some of the spirits would be made from walnuts growing on a tree on the property.
The Hoyt-Ford School House was built in 1856 on Macon Road in Saline Township on land leased by the DePuy and Hoyt families. It closed in 1917. In 1943, it was purchased by Henry Ford and reconstructed at 600 W. Michigan Ave., across from his mill (now known as Weller’s) and soy bean oil extraction plant. The school was used to educate children of his employees. Both the plant and schoolhouse closed in 1947.
The Molloys have owned the property for 17 years. The school property is zoned for professional business. For years, it housed Design Hub, a local marketing firm.
The second piece of property is an undeveloped, grassy field located behind homes on Michigan Avenue and Whitlock Street. It’s zoned for residential.
During public comment and during a public hearing on the rezoning request, residents spoke in opposition to the plan. Most of the opposition seems focused on the plan to rezone the Wedemeyer property located on what’s called Water Street – a platted road that was never constructed. That property would have a parking lot that, presumably, would spill on to Whitlock Street – a quiet residential street.
In addition, the property is right behind the backyard of two Whitlock Street homes.
Mark and Erin Clauser have lived on Whitlock Street for 12 years. Mark Clauser said approving the rezoning request would amount to “spot zoning,” or rezoning property in a way that’s at odds with the city’s master plan. Clauser said current zoning creates a necessary transition zone between commercial and residential zoning.
“Changing the zoning would provide an unjustified benefit to one particular property owner while undermining the property rights of others,” Clauser said.
He said rezoning the property could lower property values, increase traffic and have a negative impact on the quality of life for people – especially children – who live on the street.
Erin Clauser said neighbors have circulated a protest petition that has been signed by a “vast majority” of the nearby property owners.
Whitlock Street resident Lisabeth Harcourt also expressed concerns about traffic and the safety of children.
Glena Lilley lives on Whitlock Street. She said she appreciates the idea of creating a gathering place on the historic property, but she’s worried about what the rezoning might mean down the road.
“Five years from now, if a new developer comes in, they could do something much different with commercial zoning,” Lilley said.
Angie and Kyle Zill live on Whitlock Street with their two daughters.
“It feels perfect for us. It’s a beautiful quiet neighborhood. We bought the house five years ago when the neighboring property was zoned R1C. I trusted these zoning laws. They’re here to protect us. I never thought the zoning would get changed. If I would known it would get zoned C2, I’d have been hardpressed to make that purchase,” Kyle Zill said. “We’re asking you to protect us, the citizens, and keep this city the way we love it, the one we chose to live in.”
Some spoke about the plans for the Michigan Avenue property. Janet Dillon said the schoolhouse is located on a part of the road that already suffers with from a traffic pinch point. She advised to review traffic studies when considering the rezoning request. Tony Toarmina lives a few doors down from the schoolhouse. He, too, spoke of the potential traffic issues.
Mayor Brian Marl sees a lot of value in the proposal put forth by the Molloys. He’s been in discussions with the Molloys about the property for more than a year. He sees the property as important in many ways – historically, economically and strategically.
“A tasting room with tight controls can be transformational – especially for the west side of Saline, which is not as economically vibrant as downtown or the east side corridor,” said Marl, who has a vote on the city’s planning commission.
Following the meeting, Marl talked more about the potential of making greater use of one of the city’s most beautiful settings. Marl said the property was under-utilized today. He spoke of attending one of the Great Gatsby Regatta fundraisers held at the schoolhouse a few years ago.
“It was a wonderful setting with a great ambiance,” Marl said.
But, as planning commissioner Bill Beardsley pointed out, city planners aren’t charged with reviewing business plans, however exciting they might be. Instead, it’s the planning commission’s job to consider what might be allowed if a property is rezoned. Beardsley said that while people might like the idea of a tasting room, planners have to consider all of the other uses that might be allowed with the rezoning.
The Molloys know there are a lot of challenges involved with the property. There’s not a lot of parking – which is why they want the Wedemeyer property for a parking lot. The traffic could be difficult – which is why they want the Wedemeyer property and a second way to access the property.
City Councillor Dean Girbach, also on planning commission, noted that more pavement on the site would cause more runoff – and wondered how that might be engineered on a tricky site.
There are also questions about the city’s historic easement on the schoolhouse. The Molloys granted the easement to the city years ago when the property was zoned for professional business. Girbach indicated the easement was a compromise the Molloys offered the city to safeguard the historic property in exchange for rezoning.
It’s unclear how that plays into the decision facing planners.
It’s also unclear what kind of limitations the Molloys will face in altering the layout of their property. Chris Molloy talked about potentially moving the small garage building to another part of the property to create a little more room. But city planning consultant Chris Atkin, of Carlisle Wortman and Associates, noted the property was listed on the National Historic Register. He said changes would needed to be approved by the Department of the Interior – a process which can be difficult.
Councillor Girbach suggested the city council should have reviewed this proposal through the lens of the historic easement before it was brought to planning commission.
Planning commissioner Cheryl Hoeft said that based on what she’d heard, she was not yet ready to approve the rezoning request. She said she understood concerns of neighbors and the Molloys and recommended the parties engage in communication to see if a solution might be reached.
Mayor Marl agreed with Hoeft’s recommendation.
“Some dialogue is necessary. People have to give a little bit. I think there’s a way to preserve the character and integrity of the neighborhood while creating a destination that will benefit city residents – especially the residents on the west side of town,” Marl said.
Marl said the city’s Historic District Commission would review the proposal and city council would discuss any potential changes to the historic easement agreement.
Planning commission voted to postpone action on the rezoning request to the July 24 meeting.