2008-05-01 / Front Page

Variance for 50-foot Sign for Icebreaker Mackinaw Museum Approved

By Paul Gingras

Installing a 50-foot sign inside a right-of-way is favored over installing a 100-foot sign blocking a shoreline view, said the Mackinaw City Planning Commission, which voted 6-2 to support a variance request by the Icebreaker Mackinaw Museum for the smaller sign Thursday, April 24. Visitors say the museum needs better signs to draw tourists in, the museum board reports, and the board would rather have the low-slung sign near the road than a larger one near the ship.

Some commissioners cited the variance as unfair to other businesses that would also benefit from signs closer to the road. They cannot, because the village ordinance prohibits signs on public property between Huron Avenue and private shoreline property unless a variance is granted.

The planning commission's recommendation will be sent to the zoning board of appeals, which will rule on the request.

Visitors completing surveys by the Maritime Museum cited the museum's need for signs, said Dick Moehl of the museum board. The vessel is moored about 1,200 feet from the road. Visitors said the group should be more mindful of the need to market the ship and draw tourists from nearby walkways and driveways, he reported.

Planning commissioners and the public agreed that the right of way, which varies between 80 and 90 feet in width near Central Avenue, is unusually wide.

The varied width along the corridor is the result of highway and railroad property history, said Dave McFarland of The Architect Forum, who helped the museum board develop the variance request. Few cities have such wide rights-of-way, Mr. McFarland said.

Because of that area, he added, businesses "are really held to a hardship because they cannot get their signs close to the sidewalk."

The board seeks the variance because it wants to avoid blocking the village's view of the waterfront, which will happen if the group is forced to go with its alternative plan to place a 100-squarefoot sign on its property near the shore. The sign would have to be elevated and would clutter the view.

"As I have heard and read, the viewshed is quite important," Mr. McFarland said. "I think the lowslung sign [would be] more accessible to the people, more attractive to the people, and would get the message to where people need to go."

The success of the Mackinaw is important because it attracts visitors who patronize businesses, Commissioner Nancy Dean said.

Promoting a certain business's financial success cannot be a consideration for allowing a variance, Commissioner Mary Clark said. She agreed with Commissioner Earl "Doc" Taylor, who noted that nearby business owners are likely to consider the planning commission's decision a precedent-setting move and are likely to flood the commission with variance requests.

The planning commission should strive for consistency, but the decision does not set a legal precedent, said Village Manager Jeff Lawson, explaining that each variance is reviewed separately.

B2 Waterfront District

Commissioners decided to allow uneven setbacks at each side of buildings along the B2 waterfront district, instead of requiring even setbacks, as proposed in language provided by Mr. Lawson.

The planning commission wants to ensure that building owners will be able to stagger required sideyard setbacks.

The idea is to let developers to place their buildings to right or left of the center of their properties, opening up larger views of the Straits on one side.

There is no requirement or incentive for them to do so, but the commission chose not to prevent the practice. Mr. Lawson's language called for even setbacks on each side.

To further ensure open views between buildings, the commission voted to limit plantings to groundcover in the setbacks, as opposed to tall hedge rows or trees.

The area, which lies between the state dock and the village limit, has been the topic of debate among business owners, members of the public, and the local government regarding limiting or maximizing building in the area.

Now that these changes have been made, a public hearing will be scheduled.

Confronting Lengthy

Meetings

Owing to public concerns regarding the length of commission meetings, which have reached three hours in recent months, Village Manager Jeff Lawson helped commissioners decide how to handle its business in a more timely fashion, by differentiating between action items and research items.

Commissioner and village council member Jeff Hingston brought up the issue, suggesting that too much debate has ensued before taking action on matters before the commission, a sentiment echoed by Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Hingston suggested heavy debate ensue only after a formal proposal on an issue is made.

Chairman Robert Most said he is working to speed the group's process, but said substantial debate is sometimes unavoidable.

City or village councils tackle more agenda items at one meeting than planning commissions, he said, because much of the research is done by staff members and council committees.

A review of their documents is often all that is necessary for the group to make a ruling, while as a strategic group, the planning commission must deliberate more, he said.

The commission is intended to research and prepare a package for the council.

"Why would you want to have a motion, which is the answer to something, on the table before we have the opportunity to discuss and come up with the ideas that are supposed to find the right answer?" Mr. Most asked.

Mr. Lawson said some matters, such as sign variances, are action items that do not require extensive debate because the planning commission can review prepared materials beforehand and is expected to act.

When developing new ordinance language or altering it, such as zoning changes on the B2 district, more lengthy debates are in order because immediate action is not being taken, he said.

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