At the Saline City Council meeting on Monday, council members wrestled with three big issues and several smaller ones. The ones that generated the most discussion were: a proposed study to identify the cause of odors at the city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP), proposed rezoning of land at 911 N. Ann Arbor Road and health insurance renewal for city employees and retirees.
Few issues have inflamed passions (and sinuses) like the odor problem for neighbors of the WWTP. Recognizing this, the city earlier issued an RFP (Request for Proposals) to study the source of the smell and recommend fixes.
The only company that provided a comprehensive proposal was Webster Environmental Associates of Louisville, Ky. Jim Ross, a representative from Webster, presented this plan at a work meeting on November 3.
In public comments, Jim Roth, a near neighbor of the WWTP, came forward to both thank Council for addressing this issue and to complain about both the expense and the proposed time period. Webster’s study would cost about $98,000 and would not be complete until August of 2017.
“That means that we’re going to have to wait until sometime in 2018 before these odor corrections can actually be made, Roth said. “That’s a long long time.”
Roth said he thought the study could be done more quickly and cheaply by city staff using “odor meters.” Odor meters are handheld devices that can measure the concentration of certain specific gases in the air.
Mary Hess also criticized the cost of the proposal, adding that this expenditure “has nothing to do with fixing the odor.” She and Roth both suggested that septage accepted by the WWTP from private waste haulers has been a significant contributor to the odor problem.
At the previous work meeting a similar objection came up. City manager Todd Campbell had said that they had tried short cuts before and it resulted in failure.
The issue of septage has also been discussed before. Mayor Marl pointed out that although there have been voluminous complaints about odors over the past year, the septage operation has been shut down during that time (with the exception of one test delivery).
Marl addressed the odor issue, by supporting the need for a thorough study and making a promise.
“I regret that this analysis is going to take as long as it will,” Marl said. “I regret the cost of this analysis. More importantly I regret that in the past, as it relates to mitigating odors, the city overpromised and under delivered.”
“I will make this promise to my constituents and those that are in the audience this evening as well as my council colleagues. Once the recommendations come back, I will work with any and all stake holders to move expeditiously to resolve the problems and deficiencies that they identify.”
Council voted unanimously to approve and authorize the study by Webster.
Council Rezones Ann Arbor-Saline Road Property
Another controversial issue addressed by Council was the petition by builder Danny Veri to rezone 2.5 acres at the northwest corner of Ann Arbor Saline Road and Saline Waterworks Road from PB (Professional Business) to R-3 (Multifamily Residential). This had been narrowly approved five days earlier by the Saline Planning Commission.
As at the planners meeting, the issue was reviewed positively by City Engineer Gary Roubal. This time Roubal gave a broader explanation of the rezoning implications.
Under the current PB zoning, residential construction would still be permissible, allowing up to 14 individual housing units to be constructed on the site. However, clustering housing units as the builder proposed would require the R-3 designation.
Council member Janet Dillon asked what assurances Council has that the plans won’t “morph into something else.” Roubal replied that any specific plan would still have to be approved by the planning commission and Council.
Council member Heidi McClelland asked about the possible development of the 7.35 acres on the southwest corner. Roubal pointed out that that land is actually in Lodi Township and is currently zoned agricultural. If it was annexed to the city it would come in as R1-A.
Several neighbors of the proposal, including Jack Simms and Ed Andrews, spoke against the rezoning. They suggested that it would hurt the appearance of the corner and create traffic problems. Some neighbors feared that the project would be for “Section 8” housing, i.e., government subsidized housing for low-income residents.
Veri addressed some of the concerns. He said that the development would be for young professional, empty nesters, aging baby boomers and others.
“Section eight is not even remotely in our wheelhouse,” Veri said.
In response to a question about wetlands on the parcel, Veri said that no more than 1,800 square feet of wetland would be affected, which he said is well within legal allowances.
When asked if he would be willing to work with the types of housing allowed in the present zoning, he said he would not be interested.
Mayor Pro Tem David Rhoads moved to approve the rezoning to R-3, seconded by council member Jack Ceo. Rhoads said he like the project because it would expand the city’s housing stock, would allow 16 more families to join the community, and was consistent with land use in the surrounding neighborhood. He also noted that “nothing can be done that does not adversely affect somebody.”
Dillon remained skeptical about the ability to control what sort of development might go in after rezoning is approved. Council member Dean Girbach did not like the idea of piecemeal rezoning of parcels without first addressing and perhaps revising the City Master Plan.
When the issue came to a vote, Girbach and Dillon voted “Nay,” while the rest of Council voted “Aye.” The rezoning was approved.
Health Insurance Prices Increase
Health insurance renewal had already been discussed at length in a Council work meeting in October. So deliberations on this issue were mostly for the sake of informing the public.
At the work meeting, David Huntzicker of Kapnick Insurance Group had explained the options available to the city and he was again present at this meeting. He noted that the price of the current contract with Blue Cross had gone up 15.3 percent with no change in policy benefits.
The increase was because of a change in the way the company calculates premiums. The city used to benefit from a favorable claims experience with the company, but in the new model this credit is no longer applied.
In addition, other companies that were asked to bid on insuring the city’s people refused because they said the ratio of retirees to active employees was too high.
Council members expressed their concern that insurance costs for retirees would continue to escalate, but they were intent on upholding promises made. They discussed a few other options, but found no clear solution.
They voted unanimously to retain the current plan with the newly inflated price.
Girbach Suggests Non-Discrimination Ordinance
One other issue worth noting was brought up by Girbach. He said that the Council should expedite the suggestion that Marl had made in his mid-year State of the City address to develop a nondiscrimination ordinance.
Girbach expressed dismay at things that are happening in our culture at a national and state level that are making people feel excluded. He said that some of his friends are scared.
“Hopefully, I’m going to show that our community is continuing to be a growing, accepting community,” Girbach said. “It’s time to show that in words and in writing and in an ordinance that we are a community that supports all our citizens, whether they are gay, whether they are straight whether they are of different religions . . .”
The next City Council meeting will be held next week on November 21 at 7:30 p.m.