TAWAS CITY – Tawas City has received numerous written comments in the last few weeks, from members of the public either opposed to the location of the future Dollar General store in the community, or who are outright against the development entirely.

However, there appeared to be some confusion as several of the letters – all written in April – mention welcoming such a business to the city, if it were on a different piece of property. But as has been reported, contingent on a couple of items being addressed, the Tawas City Planning Commission already approved the commercial construction and use request for the store – back on Feb. 2.

It was further noted that if all goes accordingly, the store is expected to open on or before Aug. 1.

The issue seemed to also be a bit fuzzy for some of those who submitted comments ahead of the Tawas City Zoning Board of Appeals’ (ZBA) public hearing, regarding a parking space variance request for the business. The hearing took place during the ZBA’s April 22 meeting and, although it was specific to the parking spaces only, many of the correspondences encouraged the board to deny the variance for such reasons as the store’s location – especially as it relates to traffic and safety.

In fact, the meeting minutes read that 16 public comment letters were received, as well as in-person remarks. Of these, only one letter pertained to the actual variance request – which did end up being approved by the ZBA, in a 5-0 vote.

The request, by Melissa Carlson, was to reduce the required number of parking spaces from 45 to 30.

The future site of the Dollar General, being purchased from Carlson at 910 W. Lake St. (US-23), is within the city’s B-3 General Business Zoning District.

The store is looking to construct a 9,100-square-foot retail building on the land, which measures about 1.25 acres.

With a width of 150 feet, Rodney Parrott has explained that this makes the layout a bit challenging, which also limits the parking.

He submitted the use application to the planning commission, on behalf of the development group working on the project.

“Thirty spaces is the typical Dollar General parking requirement, and that’s what we’re asking for with this zoning permit approval,” he told the commission at that time.

Since the zoning ordinance requires one parking space per 160 square feet of usable floor area, and the site plan indicates that the sales area will be 7,220 square feet, this equates to 45 spaces.

Therefore, the ZBA scheduled the public hearing for the variance request, to reduce the number of required parking spaces to 30.

Prior to opening the hearing, Tawas City Manager and Zoning Administrator Annge Horning pointed out that there was some misinformation on social media about the purpose of the meeting.

She said she wanted to make it clear that the ZBA was not determining whether or not to allow the store to come in, as the use has already been approved. “This board is only hearing comments on the reduction of parking spaces.”

Upon starting the hearing, ZBA Chair Mary Doak gave yet another reminder of the purpose, saying that the comments have to be about the variance. “That’s all that we’re here for today.”

But, “I don’t care what you want to call this meeting on, I was never aware of any of this happening, period,” said resident Dolores Marlinga.

“We do not need that traffic,” she also stressed, saying that there are enough problems getting through as it is.

She remarked that she didn’t “give a [expletive]” about the number of vehicles or the parking situation at Dollar General. “I’m just here to say I was never notified that this thing was going in.”

Marlinga also said that the store should go “further out” and that it should be a smaller business – not one with trucks going in and out.

“Speak up, people!” she then encouraged the others who attended the meeting, held at city hall.

Representing Carlson, the ZBA also heard from Realtor Laura Kendall. She said that Dollar General and any other place has full rights to operate from the property at hand. “That was set by the city, that obviously that’s the types of businesses or things that you wanted there; hence, the zoning.”

As to the parking, Kendall said she would think that reducing the number of spaces would make the neighbors happier, because it means less traffic in and out. “Not only that, but there’s a turn lane right in front of that property.”

She added that the parcel has been listed since 2010, with visible signage, so it has been clear that the property was for sale.

Kendall said it could have been purchased by anyone else, to bring in what they wish. “So, that’s what I would ask that you all please consider.”

Of the written communications sent to the city on this subject, several of them were recently summarized in this publication.

The most prevalent overall concern of these individuals is the fear of increased traffic in already busy area – especially during the summer months – and the potential for vehicle crashes.

Some also noted that, while they would be open to having a Dollar General store, they feel that there are other sites which would be much more conducive.

For example, “I am pleased for any new business coming to Tawas City. Our concern has nothing to do with the number of parking spots at the business,” Betty Martin stated. “Our concern is the proposed location of this business and the adding to an already very congested area on US-23.”

The letters and e-mails submitted since then, also reflect similar views. For instance, concerns over traffic difficulties/hazards were expressed by Don Rospierski, Gary and Tess Nelkie, Christin Maddix, Kellee Chomin and Daniel Chomin.

Some of them were also of the opinion that they wouldn’t mind this business coming in, but that there are other, better suited pieces of land for such development.

Susan Flora, for example, said she would happily shop at a Dollar General and would welcome them to the community, if the store were located on M-55.

A few of the residents, though, shared their fears about the impact to local, long-standing businesses.

“The Tawas City Zoning Board needs to think about our long-term vision,” the Nelkies wrote. “Do we want to become a town full of big corporate chain businesses with no soul, or do we want to be uniquely Tawas......uniquely American?”

Several residents have also pointed to the closures of other dollar stores in the community, as part of their justification.

A number of items were taken into consideration by the ZBA, when it came time to vote on the variance request.

Horning first reminded them of the report prepared for the ZBA, by the Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (NEMCOG).

It outlines a section of the city’s zoning ordinance, which reads that the ZBA shall have authority to interpret the section and may, in specific cases and after public hearing and where justified, grant variances to the requirements of the article.

Horning said it does not state that the applicant has to prove that there is a hardship for them, as is typically the case with other items that come before the ZBA.

The NEMCOG report summarized the board’s options and, if they chose to OK the variance, they could either take the route of proving that there’s a practical difficulty, or they could go by the precedent which is already set.

Horning said this included past variances which the ZBA approved for Tawas Do-It Best Hardware, as well as Walmart, wherein they allowed a reduction of parking spaces.

“And neither one of those hearings went through the practical difficulty or proving a hardship,” she said, noting that the decisions were based on other criteria. 

Doak said that in both of the instances above, the parking was reduced by considerably large percentages. Walmart also submitted a letter at that time, stating that they felt there was an overabundance of parking spots required in the zoning ordinance.

But, Doak continued, this is being addressed with the rewriting of the ordinance that is currently taking place.

ZBA Member Mike Russo said that he has long had a bit of an issue with the usable floor space element. This space is typically whatever the retail or general area is of the business; however, usable floor space often means the entire gross area.

“Well, in this particular application and in others, where you have stock and other things in the way, usable floor space is quite frankly a lot less than what the overall gross area is,” he said. “So, while that’s not necessarily maybe germane to the topic today, that’s certainly something that I would like to see us talk about when we revise the zoning ordinance; one aspect of it, anyway.”

ZBA Member Jeff Coon agreed. He added that with Dollar General, he thinks it is a reasonable request to go down in the number parking spaces, versus up.

Russo said he also thinks it’s a fair argument to take the approach that there is empirical data out there, saying that this is how many parking spaces are required for similarly sized stores.

As Parrot previously noted, the proposed number of 30 parking spaces has been empirically found by Dollar General to provide sufficient customer parking at any given time during store operations.

For the Dollar General stores recently completed by the same developer in Whittemore, Glennie and Hubbard Lake, Parrot said that each one has sufficient customer parking for the size of the building and the retail use.

When it comes to increased traffic, Russo said he doesn’t think anybody is going to argue the fact that there might be some concerns in that area. “But honestly, we as a city have absolutely no control in that regard.”

He said that this is a Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) issue, and he has every expectation that it will be addressed when MDOT performs the upcoming improvements to US-23. “And it’s slated to be done, and if it means an additional lane or turning space or turnout lanes to commercial properties, then that’s where we would address it.”

Other factors taken into account by the ZBA, included the average amount of time spent by customers in these stores; the typical number of employees who will also utilize the parking lot; and – as it relates to traffic concerns – the possibility of seeing whether the company would entertain the idea of scheduling deliveries during less busy times of the day.

The meeting concluded with a public comment period, during which Marlinga repeated that she was never informed about the Dollar General coming into the city.

“But you don’t have to be, because it’s zoned for that particular...” Doak began, before Marlinga interjected.

“I understand that, but why wasn’t it in the paper that that’s what it’s going to be?” she asked.

It was pointed out to Marlinga that two stories on this were, in fact, printed in the Iosco County News-Herald. Doak also mentioned the planning commission’s role, as the use request had to first be approved at that level.

Marlinga maintained that she and some other residents, particularly those who travel out of state in the winter months, did not know that this was taking place. “So this is such a poor decision.”

On the other hand, a summer resident at the nearby marina said that he and others who stay there primarily walk to such spots as the farmers market, because of the traffic. He feels that this will also be the case with Dollar General.

He noted that many of those from the marina will travel by foot to local stores, when purchasing groceries and the like. So, he thinks that the addition of a Dollar General will be excellent.

Again, though, he will be walking there. “And I’m sure most of the people in the marina will be walking, and probably from the resorts, too.” Therefore, in reference to the parking spaces, he said that he doesn’t believe a reduction in the number is a big deal.

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