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March 5, 2013

Three Rivers City Commission rejects change to Historic District Ordinance

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Written by: Bruce Snook
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Three Rivers City Hall

The Three Rivers City Commission has rejected a proposed change in the Historic District Ordinance regarding a “Certificate of Appropriateness and Notice to Proceed Issued by the Historic District Commission.”  The action came on at 5-to-1 vote Tuesday evening (March 5) with Fourth District Commissioner Carolyn McNary casting the only affirmative vote.  Concerns about yet-to-be-completed “guidelines” and, specifically, concerns about potential regulation of “colors” contributed to the negative outcome.

In other business, the commission:

  • scheduled a public hearing for its March 19th meeting regarding proposed rezoning of property at 112 North Hooker from R-3 to B-2 to allow a greenhouse operator to sell flowers seasonally on the property
  • set Fiscal Year 2014 budget discussion meetings for May 14 and 28
  • adopted a resolution and authorized publication of a notice of intent to issue bonds to finance the Mural Mall project, and the potential purchase of a new fire pumper and street sweeper, not to exceed $900,000
  • authorized a proposed Clean Water Plant improvements purchase order for additional work at a cost of $12,243
  • and heard presentations of annual reports for 2012 regarding the Three Rivers Downtown Development Authority and the Three Rivers Historic District Commission

Mayor Tom Lowry also presented proclamations recognizing Armstrong International and the Linn family in regard to the February 7th rescue of a man who fell through the ice on Pleasant Lake.

Stories providing additional details regarding these topics will be forthcoming in the River Country Journal during the next several days.






8 Comments


  1. Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma

    As the Historic District Commission (HDC) chair person, I’d like to attempt to clarify the change we requested in the “Historic District Ordinance” (Ordinance 774). The HDC simply asked that a minor change be made to one paragraph in Section 12, which outlines the process of applying for building permits in the Historic District.

    In an attempt to streamline the permitting process for building owners, we were asking to remove a step in the process. Here’s the process as it is currently outlined in the ordinance: 1) apply for a permit with the building official; 2) the building official refers the application to the HDC; 3) if approved, the project is sent back to the building official for permitting. Because we do not have a full-time building official in Three Rivers and because the HDC works under the auspices of the Downtown Development Authority (who have full-time hours at the Chamber of Commerce office, which is located in the District), the HDC thought it made more sense for the process to be simplified: 1) apply to the HDC; 2) if approved, the project is referred to the building official.

    Our hope in suggesting this simple change was to make the process less cumbersome for property owners in the Historic District and to speed up the process in order to move projects forward without unnecessary delays. The HDC does not gain any additional authority due to the requested change, nor does it change the criteria by which we review applications (all of which are covered in other sections of the ordinance). Unfortunately, the City Commission decided to allow other, irrelevant concerns with the HDC to influence their decision-making on this specific issue. It was disappointing to say the least.

    For comparison, here is the current text of the paragraph in question:

    A permit shall be obtained before any work affecting the exterior appearance of a resource is performed within a Historic District. The person, individual, partnership, firm, corporation, organization, institution, or agency of government proposing to do that work shall file an application for a permit with the City’s Building Official. Upon receipt of a complete application, the City’s Building Official shall immediately refer the application, along with all required supporting materials that make the application complete to the Historic District Commission. A permit shall not be issued and proposed work shall not proceed until the Commission has acted on the application by issuing a Certificate of Appropriateness or a Notice to Proceed as prescribed in this Chapter. The Commission shall not issue a Certificate of Appropriateness unless the applicant certifies in the application that the property where work will be undertaken has, or will have before the proposed project completion date, a fire alarm system or a smoke alarm complying with the requirements of the Stille-Derossett-Hale Single State Construction Code Act, 1972 PA 230, MCL 125.1501 to 125.1531.

    And here is the amended text we requested:

    A Certificate of Appropriateness or a Notice to Proceed, as well as any necessary permits, shall be obtained before any work affecting the exterior appearance of a resource is performed within a Historic District. The person, individual, partnership, firm, corporation, organization, institution, or agency of government proposing to do that work shall file an application with all required supporting materials that make the application complete with the Historic District Commission. If the Historic District Commission approves the work, it will then be referred to the City’s Building Official to continue the permitting process. A permit shall not be issued and proposed work shall not proceed until the Commission has acted on the application by issuing a Certificate of Appropriateness or a Notice to Proceed as prescribed in this Chapter. The Commission shall not issue a Certificate of Appropriateness unless the applicant certifies in the application that the property where work will be undertaken has, or will have before the proposed project completion date, a fire alarm system or a smoke alarm complying with the requirements of the Stille-Derossett-Hale Single State Construction Code Act, 1972 PA 230, MCL 125.1501 to 125.1531.


  2. Explanations with short simple words and purdy pictures works better for me

    OK, as a reader without the history and having read the proposed “before and after”…if it is such a subtle, simple change, then why do it?–what was the need driving the request for such a simple change. You explain the “what” is changed….but why? (or one is not asking why through enough layers of questions)? OK, so it’s to simplify the process, but why is there need driving this simplification. Is this process exercised so frequently that this this is needed to resolve a resource sucking black hole, or is there an anticipated particular upcoming need from an individual or group.

    You state in your post above …”Unfortunately, the City Commission decided to allow other, irrelevant concerns with the HDC to influence their decision-making on this specific issue. It was disappointing to say the least”….. So are you suggesting the aforementioned concerns listed in the article have nothing to do with the proposed change? If not, then what are the “other irrelevant issues” you allege held up the Commission’s approval of this initiative?


  3. Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma

    Thank you for your questions!

    The only reason we requested the change was to streamline the permit process and to make the process more convenient for property owners in the Historic District. As I mentioned above, we don’t have a full-time building official in Three Rivers. So it is much more convenient and efficient for property owners to apply directly to the HDC through the DDA, which does have full-time office hours (the Chamber of Commerce) and is located in the district.

    The HDC reviewed 26 applications in 2012, our first full year as a district and as a commission. We recognize that the Historic District designation adds a step to the permitting process — HDC approval, following the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation — and were simply trying to make the process as friendly as possible for building owners. That’s it.

    You are correct: the concerns the City Commission have about the Historic District and the HDC are irrelevant to this specific request and have nothing to do with the requested change.

    For example, many City Commissioners do not want the HDC to review paint color in the Historic District — which is a legitimate and important concern. Most of the 1,000s of Historic Districts in the United States view color/paint as a temporary change to a building and therefore do not review painting projects. It is likely that our HDC will choose not to review color, but we want to fully research and review our specific historical context before recommending anything. We are in the middle of this process now — a process that is also researching all kinds of other architectural details that contribute to the unique qualities of our District — and will present and discuss our recommendations in a public hearing when they are ready.

    But these concerns (and any others) can be discussed individually as they come up. They do not need to be addressed when we are merely requesting a simple change to a few sentences in an 11-page ordinance. The HDC originally requested this change in July 2012 and it has been remarkably frustrating that something so seemingly simple has been so difficult to achieve.

    Sorry … that got a bit wordy again. There are a lot of details and I want to make sure I accurately convey them!


  4. Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma

    As far as pretty pictures go: I encourage everyone I can to walk around downtown specifically to look at our beautiful Victorian-era commercial buildings. We have many fantastic examples of historic renovation done well, spurring the imagination to think what our downtown could look like as we continue our preservation / rehabilitation / renovation efforts to preserve this extraordinary public asset in our community!


  5. Preventing History from repeating itself.....

    From the post above…..”For example, many City Commissioners do not want the HDC to review paint color in the Historic District — which is a legitimate and important concern. Most of the 1,000s of Historic Districts in the United States view color/paint as a temporary change to a building and therefore do not review painting projects”…….

    Probably a very factual statement. Equally factual and a closer-to-home reference point is the City of Sturgis’ district that (if memory serves me correctly), colors ARE scrutinized by a 3 member panel and must adhere to a very strict color palette that comes from colors of the historical time period and seem to coincide with one particular paint manufacturer (unless the committee allows and approved equivelent). And if I recall correctly it has been a sticking point on a couple of occasions. Of course this color palette was taken from the time period when Crayola only made 8 colors and you could get your Ford in any color you wanted so long as it was black. And of course the standard line one gets from Commissioners in posts when you bring this up is that the historical district made and approved such recommendations…the Commission merely approved what the majority of those in that district recommended….which is all well and good so long as your a building owner that happens to align with the majority.

    I’m an owner of a circa 1866 home that took tons of time and effort to restore it back to its turn of the century character….but that was by my choice because that is something my wife and are very interested in. Just because that is something that appeals to me I wouldn’t want to impose those values and interests on to the whole neighborhood. These types of districts need to have balance–attracting businesses to downtowns is difficult enough these days without adding too many conditions that become cost prohibitive.

    Good luck in working through these issues….all very interesting as I read about issues in this community as my family and I are contemplating relocating to that area.


  6. As another Three Rivers Historic District commissioner, I am bothered by the City Commission’s failure to approve the proposed change to the above ordinance. The business of the HDC will continue as before because the suggested amends do not alter what the HDC does at all.

    Why am I bothered then? The whole point of requesting the change was to make it easier for applicants to move ahead on their requests for work on their properties. The HDC does not desire to put up roadblocks for citizens wishing to maintain and fix up their properties (contrary to what I believe is the perceived mode of operation).

    The proposed change would have allowed citizens to come directly to the HDC for project approval and then go to the city inspector for a permit. Without the change, citizens need to go to the city inspector who refers the applicants to the HDC for approval and then back to the city inspector. The change merely eliminated one step but still included the HDC and the city inspector input as required by law.

    The HDC is aware of peoples’ concerns about what the HDC can regulate. The HDC has been following national and state standards, which are public documents, while we work to develop the specific standards for Three Rivers. The HDC has also examined other local historic district commission standards in Michigan. All of our discussions as a commission have been open and while many have speculated (and feared) especially the role of color, it was only last month the we had a full discussion on color as a potential written standard as a board. Commissioners have been researching all kinds of topics that fall under the HDC’s jurisdiction (windows, doors, awnings, decks, etc.) and color is part of that ongoing discussion.

    The HDC is fully aware that color is not overseen by many historic districts, but it is by some. No decision has been made to date regarding whether color will require HDC consent. The HDC has discussed the issue of color with applicants as part of overall design and some applicants have sought approval of color palettes. And those who have sought approval of color have received it as it related to overall design and adjacent properties (which is only being neighborly in a district where one building abuts the next). The HDC does not have an approved list of colors and may never have if we decide to not include color in the Three Rivers Design Standards.

    Sadly, the city commission seems to have chosen to not amend the ordinance in what appears to be a measure to hold back the HDC because of concerns about the HDC’s authority to approve or disapprove citizens’ applications. And sadly, the folks most impacted are the citizens who wish to work at maintaining and improving their properties. And even more disheartening is that while the city commission showed visionary leadership when it approved the Historic District Commission, it now seems to not trust the process and work of the very dedicated volunteer citizens on the HDC who were appointed by this city commission. Let us together vision for the future which includes the best of our history.


  7. What's the real impact?

    If this proposal was to streamline the process, what would this simple change (had it been approved) do insofar as improving the timeline and or costs of a project. As it is supposedly a simple change removing only one step, put that improvement in tangible metrics. Are we talking about a reduction of days, weeks, months or years to a timeline? And what is the impact (if any) in real dollars. (I mean realistically–not some rosey optimistic differential–what’s realistic?)


  8. Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma

    The proposed change would not alter project costs, but could potentially save up to a week or more depending on the building official’s schedule. Again, the HDC requested this change for the sole purpose of making the permitting process simpler for property owners within the Historic District.

    Given the innocuous nature of the proposed change, I’m still unsure how this specific request is remotely controversial. The change the HDC requested seems simple, straightforward, and in the best interests of those affected by the ordinance.

    In the grand scheme of things, this decision isn’t a big deal and doesn’t alter the preservation work of downtown building owners and the HDC all that much. I’m frustrated by the fact that it took over six months to finally get a vote on changing a few sentences in this ordinance only to have the change rejected for reasons unrelated to this specific request. And I’m not sure why such a thing should be so extraordinarily difficult.



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