SHIAWASSEE AREA — Municipalities throughout Shiawassee County made sure to leave their mark in 2019, albeit in a variety of ways.

Some communities took action to allow new forms of business — including the medical and recreational marijuana industries — while others sought to implement tools — such as tax abatements — to draw investment to longstanding vacant properties.

Local governments also received a considerable amount of feedback from constituents this year, most notably when the Owosso City Council considered a single trash-hauler proposal and when Caledonia Township approved the site plan and special use permit for a proposed $30-million solar farm along Lyons Road.

With a new year on the horizon, let us take a look back at some of the major governmental developments of 2019 in and around Shiawassee County:

The marijuana industry

In 2018, voters in Michigan opted to legalize recreational marijuana — approximately 52 percent of voters in Shiawassee County expressed support for the measure.

On Nov. 1, the state of Michigan began accepting recreational business applications, and on Nov. 13, the state’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency announced that recreational marijuana sales would begin Dec. 1.

Regarding medical facilities, state law requires municipalities to take action to allow businesses or they are automatically banned. In the case of recreational businesses, if a city or township does not make a decision by the end of this year, it automatically opts to allow them.

To date, Owosso, Chesaning and Laingsburg are the only area communities that have opted to allow marijuana businesses. Owosso has established an ordinance permitting medical businesses, while the city of Laingsburg and village of Chesaning have opted to allow both medical and recreational facilities.

Of those three, Chesaning — the first in the area to opt in to allowing the marijuana industry — is the only municipality to have marijuana facilities up and operational.

Village Administrator Troy Feltman noted that from the outset, the Chesaning Village Council saw the marijuana industry as a tremendous economic opportunity.

“I think it was purely a calculation on their part of nothing is happening for years here, if anything, we’ve had industry leave, and they saw this as an opportunity, without question,” Feltman said. “I think we did a very good job up front, being transparent with not only the public but with the businesses coming in, saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to require,’ and we’ve stuck to that. We pride ourselves on being business friendly and I think that reputation got out into the industry.”

On the flip side, a number of cities and villages have decided to opt out of allowing medical and/or recreational marijuana facilities — at least for the time being — including Corunna, Durand, Perry, Morrice, Byron, New Lothrop, Bancroft, Vernon, Lennon, Ovid and Elsie.

On Oct. 7, the Corunna City Council unanimously voted to place a one-year moratorium on recreational businesses, temporarily banning the establishment of facilities. The city previously opted out of allowing medical marijuana businesses.

City Manager Joe Sawyer recommended the recreational moratorium to the council, since the state has yet to implement a permanent set of rules for recreational businesses.

“The challenge is without all the rules written, and new uses and new environments being created, that it’s hard to regulate when you don’t quite know what’s coming down,” Sawyer said. “At the same time, you don’t want people investing in a business because then you’re going to have challenges of grandfather clauses…If you don’t opt out and they create a new use and we didn’t specify that use so somebody does it…To come back and do it after the fact, they’ve already been licensed for it, so you get into the issues of grandfather clauses and eminent domain.”

Drawing Investment

In an effort to draw investment to a number of vacant and decrepit properties in the city, the Corunna City Council unanimously voted on Aug. 5 to establish a Commercial Redevelopment District encompassing the entire downtown. The implementation of the district allows individuals looking to renovate damaged or outdated commercial property the opportunity to apply for a property tax abatement for up to 10 years.

“I think it’s great, and I’m glad it was unanimous too,” City Planner/Assessor Merilee Lawson said in August. “It gives me tools as a city planner. I get people coming to me, you know, wanting to invest and they ask ‘Are there any programs out there?’ This allows us to help promote people who are actually interested…They don’t come along that often.”

The establishment of the redevelopment district falls under Michigan’s Commercial Redevelopment Act. Once a city or village establishes a district, property owners with obsolete or vacant land within the boundaries can apply for tax abatements.

If an individual property owner’s application is approved, he or she will receive a commercial facilities exemption certificate.

Under an exemption certificate, property taxes would essentially be frozen at the current assessed value prior to renovations for up to a decade. The precise length of the abatement depends upon the individual application, Lawson said.

To be eligible for an abatement, an applicant must demonstrate that the building investment will result in a 20 percent or more increase in the property’s State Equalized Value (SEV), i.e. the investment must raise the taxable value of the property.

On Aug. 20, the Corunna City Council unanimously approved a second Commercial Redevelopment District encompassing all of the multi-family zoned land along Norton Street, including the former Pleasant View site, 729 S. Norton St., as well as a vacant field south of that property.

On Dec. 11, the city’s plan to use the Commercial Redevelopment Districts as a tool to attract investment came the fruition, as officials announced that the city entered into a purchase agreement with Fiddler’s Green — a nonprofit organization that provides housing for veterans — for the sale of the former medical care facility.

Fiddler’s Green will purchase the property for approximately $500,000 — including closing costs — according to City Manager Joe Sawyer. The nonprofit organization intends to convert the existing 63,177-square-foot facility into a veterans housing community.

The organization also intends to apply for the commercial redevelopment tax incentive, Sawyer said.

“I feel this is a great fit for the building, and for the community. It is nice to see the facility that has provided over half a century of service to our loved ones now move forward in service to our veterans,” he said. “The configuration and design of the facility are well suited for the Fiddler’s Green veteran housing community model, and the use conforms with uses allowed in the current (multi-family residential) zoning district.”

The city of Laingsburg also looked at ways to improve its downtown in 2019, and — thanks to Michigan State University Extension’s First Impressions Tourism Assessment (FIT) program — city officials say they now have a better understanding of how people view their community from the outside.

The purpose of FIT is to help communities learn about their strengths and weaknesses through the eyes of first time visitors, and during the months of May and June, five unannounced tourists spent time in the city of Laingsburg to document their perspectives.

The assessment was funded by Prosperity Region 6, a seven-county partnership that includes Shiawassee, Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Tuscola and Huron counties. For taking part in the program, Laingsburg’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) was awarded $2,000.

On Nov. 25, more than 90 area residents packed into Laingsburg American Legion Post 248 as MSU Extension hosted a forum to present the results.

At the conclusion of the forum, City Clerk/Treasurer Paula Willoughby — who led the charge to apply for the FIT assessment — said she believed the city is headed in the right direction.

“I just feel extremely validated,” Willoughby said, “I feel like everything we’ve been working on, they talked about the signage and the roads and the website, I mean, all of those things are things we’ve invested in and I feel like they validated all that we’ve been doing…It feels really good.”

Owosso talks trash

During a Sept. 30 meeting, Owosso City Council members discussed challenges with the city’s current trash collection ordinance and potential solutions.

At the time, City Manager Nathan Henne encouraged the council to consider a contract with a single trash and curbside recycling hauler to cover all of Owosso once a week.

Currently, the city’s trash collection ordinance allows residents to contract individually with a hauler of their choice.

The result: Garbage trucks from seven or eight trash companies rumble down Owosso streets on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the city’s designated trash days.

However, the local rule doesn’t require residents to hire a trash hauler at all, though it does say they must not allow trash to accumulate and must store it in an appropriate receptacle to await transport to a landfill.

Following the September meeting by the council, it didn’t take long for area residents to voice their opinions on the matter, with many taking to social media to express their displeasure with the possibility of a single trash-hauler in Owosso.

With the widespread negative reaction in mind, members of the city council deemed the single trash-hauler proposal “off the table” during a Nov. 4 council meeting, though — in an effort to gain more public insight and squash any misinformation — the city opted to hold a public forum featuring local residents, trash-haulers and council members on Nov. 12 inside the public safety building.

During the two-and-a-half hour meeting, Owosso residents delivered a nearly uniform message to city officials on trash collection practices: Do a better job of enforcing the rules.

Residents also articulated that they wanted to keep their current trash service and objected to the possibility that local trash-haulers could be put out of business by a single-hauler system.

On Dec. 16, council members voted 4-2 to end any discussion or consideration of a single trash-hauler in Owosso.

Taking a stand against solar

Perhaps the most grassroots effort against potential change in Shiawassee County in 2019 was led by a group of residents living in the Crestview Heights subdivision in Caledonia Township.

Faced with the prospect of a $30-million solar farm in their backyard — as the Caledonia Township Board granted both special use and site plan approval to Lake Mary, Florida-based Renergetica on May 2 — residents chipped in the fund the $600 non-refundable administrative fee for an appeal, citing concerns of an inadequate decommissioning plan and the potential for pollution, among others.

After a six-month-long appeal process — spanning May to November — the Caledonia Township Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) approved a decommissioning cost estimate, the final issue that was yet to be resolved, on Nov. 7, granting Renergetica the ability to move forward with construction.

The proposed 200-acre solar farm, once finished, is expected to produce 26.8 megawatts of electricity, which could power up to 26,000 homes. Renergetica plans to build the project on property leased from two different landowners. The property extends from Cornell Road south to Lyons Road and would abut the Crestview subdivision along the northeast portion of the project.

Despite losing the appeal, residents were able to gain a considerable amount of concessions in the form of an increased decommissioning cost and increased visual buffering around the site.

Eric Weber, a resident of Crestview Heights who led the charge for the appeal, said he’s proud of his fellow neighbors for voicing their concerns.

“All of the people that have been affected by this are really great, genuine, sincere people that live here because they love the area and they love the natural setting,” Weber said. “They just want to live their lives in an area of peace and solitude and sanctuary. When that’s disrupted, that makes all of us nervous, that makes all of us unsettled, because, you know, our backyards, our front yards, wherever we chill out, that’s our sanctuary, that’s our solace, that’s our place to forget about all of the craziness of the world and just kick back.”

Prior to construction at the site, Renergetica must also receive approval from the Shiawassee Drain Commission for a drain permit, from the Shiawassee County Health Department for a soil erosion and sediment control permit, as well as from the state for a storm water construction permit.

Furthermore, the project must receive approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

With the resolution of the appeal, Renergetica now has site plan approval, according to Zoning Administrator Doug Piggott. The company has 12 months from Dec. 4 to pull permits to begin construction, per the township ordinance.

If the construction permits are not pulled within the 12-month period, Renergetica’s special use permit and site plan approval could expire, Piggott said.

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