BELDING — In a close vote by the Belding City Council, one of the city boards will now be absorbed by the council to carry out its responsibilities.
In a 3-2 vote Tuesday evening with councilmen Mike Scheid and Tom Jones casting the opposing votes, the responsibilities of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) will now be carried out by council.
Duties of the ZBA include hearing appeals, granting temporary uses and buildings and hearing cases of a change of use from one non-conforming use to another non-conforming use.
The resolution was recommended by City Manager Meg Mullendore, who said she was asked to help find a solution to end conflicts with the ZBA, which has been one member short of its required five members for more than a year with only one candidate coming forward to fill the empty position.
According to Mullendore, that candidate was disqualified because they already sit on the city’s planning commission board, of which one member of the ZBA is already included.
“As a result of that, I was asked, what can we do, in regards to staffing this board?” Mullendore said.
She said Michigan Public Act 110 of 2006 allows the council to serve as the city’s ZBA.
“One of the caveats they allow is for a governing body to also sit as a Zoning Board of Appeals,” she said. “One of the reasons that they went this route when they updated the legislation is getting volunteers and getting people to sit on boards of this nature proves to be challenging.”
According to Mullendore, the legislation applies to cities and villages only.
Mullendore said when she researched through the Michigan Municipal League, she found approximately 70 percent of communities have taken this action or were already doing so, with each of those communities consisting of 7,000 in population or less. Because Belding has at least 5,000 people in population, the board must consist of at least five members with two alternates.
Mullendore said scheduling has been an issue with the ZBA.
“We have to work with all of these varying schedules in trying to find one day that works for all of them,” she said. “It complicates things for applicants as we’ve had to delay meetings, or we’ve had the meeting but not had quorum.”
As a result of that complicated scheduling, Mullendore said the fact that city council meets regularly twice a month, it “makes sense” for city council to serve as the authority for the ZBA.
“What we’re trying to do is be more user-friendly,” she said. “We don’t want to be so rigged. It just makes sense to utilize the legislation.”
Councilmen Jones and Scheid, however, felt that the change would reflect negatively in the public eye.
“I would personally like to get a couple of people involved from the public and leave the system as it is now,” Jones said. “I just think (the current board) takes it out of the council’s hands. Sometimes people think we get political. I think the ZBA is a separate entirety and takes us out of it.”
Jones said he feels people would feel the council’s actions are “cut and dry,” considering the board is usually listening to appeals in attempt to reverse city council decisions.
“I have a tendency to agree with Tom,” Scheid said. “With what’s happened in the past, it just doesn’t look right to change it now. I don’t think it’s something we should do. I guess I don’t really care, but … what has to be done has to be done.”
The current ZBA consist of Michelle Cooper, Shelley Gladding, Robert Thompson and Mayor Ron Gunderson.
Gunderson said he believes the change is necessary due to the fact that meetings have often times failed to occur to to a lack of quorum, as three of the board are necessary in attendance to hold a meeting.
“I believe Meg is going this route, because the fact is, very seldom do we as council members miss meetings,” he said.
Councilman Joe Feuerstein said he was in favor of the change because he has “personally experienced” the ZBA being persuaded in its decision making.
“I know for a fact, the board of appeals can be persuaded to give people what they want,” he said.
Feuerstein said it was four years ago that he had his own personal case in front of the ZBA that was turned down because there wasn’t a quorum to hold a meeting. During a second meeting, he said his variance was granted after the previous city manager “directed it.”
“I know how the zoning board of appeals works,” he said.
Mullendore said she understood both sides of issue.
“Politically, it could be seen as council (trying to take over everything),” she said. “But I also see the other issues, the staffing and scheduling and quorum issues. Logistically, our objective is to facilitate this process and expedite it. Until we have a better system in place, we should utilize what the legislation allows us to do until such time as we have people who are committed and willing to staff the board, which we don’t have right now.”
Mullendore said the board’s decision can be reevaluated at any time. Once it is determined that a full board could be established, the ZBA could be reinstated with a separate board, relieving the city council of the responsibilities.
“Council has the authority to uninstall itself as the zoning board of appeals and go back to a volunteer board, absolutely,” she said.
The Belding City Council also voted unanimously to approve the 2014-2015 fiscal year budget. The expenditures of the city’s general fund amount to $2,219,820 while the revenues for the general fund amount to $2,279,083, leaving a remaining balance of $25,963. The city’s total general fund balance as of June 30 2015 is projected to be healthy at $1,104,997.