Meijer submits new store request; township planners consider ‘big box’ moratorium

ACME – Eager to serve consumers and increase their bottom line, Meijer plans for an Acme Township store may be stalled by a proposed limit on the size of commercial development.

Township officials, swept into office in November by a large majority of voters concerned about their community’s growth, have suggested a ‘big box’ moratorium. This moratorium would only allow development of less than 50,000 square feet. Proposed on Jan. 4, the planning commission in late January set a public hearing on the moratorium for Feb. 28.

The roots of the moratorium are complex and deep, but basically it is an effort?mirrored by townships and communities nationwide?to promote smart growth. Proponents believe this approach will best serve their communities.

At odds are Meijer’s projected infusion of consumer convenience, property tax revenues and jobs into the community, versus concerns about traffic, environmental impact, infrastructure costs and an altered community.

The bottom line for township officials: size matters.

“What we’re dealing with is a community of rural character that would like to be able to plan the growth rather than having an explosion that defies the rural character defined in the master plan,” said newly-elected township supervisor Bill Kurtz who also wants to see a community impact study. “A lot of people like shopping at Meijer, I think enjoy shopping at Meijer, but the size is the issue.”

Lautner Commons

On Jan. 29, Meijer officials submitted a New Store Plan Request, Application for Site Plan Approval to the township. Dubbed the Lautner Commons, Phase I of this development includes a 208,000 square-foot store. This would be built on 64.5 acres they own on the southeast corner of M-72 and Lautner Road. The company bought this property, which was already zoned Business-3 for commercial use, in 1990.

A proposed Phase II could include 100,000 square feet of retail space for lease, Kurtz noted. He added that Phase I would include additional square footage for a gas station, convenience store and outdoor garden center.

Meijer projects a half million dollar boost to the Acme township tax base, said John Zimmerman, a spokesman for Meijer.

“That’s a tremendous injection of property taxes into a community,” he noted, adding, “We’re excited about this store because this is our latest and greatest; it will be one of our flagship stores, as well.”

With 163 stores in five states?Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky?Meijer plans to build nine more in the coming years. The Acme site is on this list of expansion and the company estimates a year between township approval and opening.

Because Meijer is a family-owned, Michigan-based company, this is not some faceless big box company setting up shop, Zimmerman said. The Traverse City store opened in 1977 and has been a fixture providing jobs, community outreach and retail choice.

As for smart growth concerns expressed by citizens and township officials, Zimmerman believes that the Lautner Commons plan embodies these precepts. For example, the one-stop shopping that is the hallmark of Meijer eliminates multiple entries to the busy main-artery of M-72.

“When you have a curb cut every five feet it gets kind of frustrating,” said Zimmerman. “The community is looking for smart growth, controlled growth, and the Meijer store really blends nicely with that.”

Community concerns

Acme Township officials disagree with these assessments because of the proposed store’s size, forming the crux of the current impasse.

Over the last few years, Acme Township residents grew increasingly alarmed by a different development: the proposed Village at Grand Traverse project. This town center could encompass a minimum of 800,000 square feet of mainly retail space, and two big box anchors were originally proposed. Kurtz noted that multiple public meetings on the issue drew hundreds of residents, most against the project.

After beginning the approval process for Lautner Commons in 1999, a number of factors led Meijer officials to withdraw that application a few years later. These included opposition from Concerned Citizens for Acme Township (CCAT) members and a changed business climate after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Soon, Meijer focused on the larger town center proposal, eager to be an anchor at the Village at Grand Traverse. Zimmerman noted in a written summary of the issues that Meijer’s participation was deemed “necessary for the success of the Town Center” by the master plan. He listed numerous meetings and rulings throughout 2003 and 2004 by township planning commission and the board of trustees that debated the overall Village proposal with favorable results. On October 5, 2004, the board of trustees approved a Special Use Permit for the Village at Grand Traverse.

“The Master Plan ultimately encouraged that the Meijer store be located on the 182-acre Town Center parcel as the ‘ideal’ solution,” he stated in the summary.

CCAT filed a lawsuit after the board of trustees approved the Special Use Permit and the Village development is on hold at this point. The township has also filed legal challenge to some of the prior board’s actions. Meijer is suing the township over the stalled project.

The stoppage prompted Meijer to return to its original proposal, the Lautner Commons, which Zimmerman stated was in the master plan as an approved alternative to the Village development.

Shaping growth

The township steering and planning committees began actively shaping the area’s future in 1996 with a three-year visioning process that included community surveys.

By 1999, township officials had approved a master plan that called for moderate, planned growth that retained the rural character. The plan outlined a walkable town center similar to a downtown Elk Rapids or Suttons Bay.

The resulting master plan was considered a beacon for smart growth proponents around the state, said Kurtz. The owner of Kurtz Music in Traverse City, he served as trustee for the township from 1996-2000 but was not directly involved in the process.

“The township recognized the fact that it was time to put together a master plan,” he recalled.

Kurtz noted that zoning laws were not updated to reflect the master plan, laying a foundation for the current situation. Another issue was an ordinance inserted to allay concerns that the town center vision might fail economically. This provision allowed a large anchor if needed for success of the planned town center.

Also, a viscous circle ensued when word of the targeted property for the town center got out. The price of such potentially lucrative land jumped so much that only a large development could support the purchase cost to a developer.

The big box moratorium is an effort to regain control over the township’s growth. It will allow township planners to temporarily ban large commercial projects while they address development-related issues. At this time, it would not apply to the Village at Grand Traverse project with the Special Use Permit that is now under consideration.

New direction

Kurtz noted that he and the other new township officials campaigned on growth issues, clearly outlining their intentions if voted in. Those elected coordinated signage and frequently discussed growth issues and related CCAT activities.

Zimmerman’s written statement outlines points where Meijer feels these officials’ connections to CCAT and their actions taken after the election are questionable.

“The new Board, current and former CCAT members, are undermining years of planning, research, public input and dozens of hearings which created a Master Plan to assure controlled growth in the community,” he stated.

Kurtz disagrees.

“The citizens spoke and they did so loudly,” he asserts. “The community is saying they don’t want development of this size and the township has a right to shift direction.”

Striking a cautious note about the proposed Lautner Commons development and disputes with Meijer, he added:

“I hope there’s a possibility of a win-win solution.” BN

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