A new Planning Commissioner appears to have been engaged in inappropriate actions before he had even served two months in office.  An error in judgment made by a probationer new to his craft, or calculated decisions designed to benefit his own financial situation?   Please read further and come to your own conclusion.  

A new zoning idea recently arose to allow those who own lots less than 60 feet wide the ability to improve the lot within certain restrictions, building smallish houses if they desire.   

The genesis of this idea first reared its head in public discussions at the very end of last year, though they reference some research they made throughout the year.  In the Dec. 6, 2016 LPC meeting minutes we have Heather Tykoski living in that incredibly large house at 201 N. Washington Avenue describing what she and other unnamed geniuses came up with:

"With our current regulations, you cannot have a home less than 800 square feet. We also have a lot of lots in the City that are less than 50 ft. in width and are unbuildable. There are approximately 389 of them. There are also 166 homes that are less than 800 square feet in area.

There is a small home movement that is sweeping the nation right now. The City holds four lots that are only 30 ft. wide. They are unbuildable, the neighbors do not want them, so we own them and they generate no tax money. So, we have been addressing these small lots; how do we make them buildable and still have separation between neighbors?"

As noted in the minutes (it is also on video) other commissioners weighed in but nothing was decided though they were having the text committee look at the issue to address problems.  According to the LPC 1-3-2017 minutes the wording of the ordinance was not yet resolved.  A new member to the Ludington Planning Commission (LPC), Spence Riggs, brought up some of his new ideas.  Riggs happens to have another job as the Mason County Growth Alliance director, a position that has found itself roiled in controversy and waste over the years (as noted in these articles); to Riggs' credit, he hasn't made any colossal mistakes yet in that position that we know of:

The minutes show some trepidations, but not much.  The idea was sent back to the Text Subcommittee, coincidentally, this committee is where Spence Riggs was assigned to.  By the next meeting in early February, the Planning Committee had the proper text to get unanimous approval with very little discussion among members.  City Councilor Richard Rathsack had let them known he had several reservations on the issue, these would be leveled at the council level.  At the February 27 meeting of the city council, Spence Riggs got up at 3:00 into the meeting, and unlike some other LPC members in the past, he properly announced his involvement with it: 

February 27, 2017 Ludington City Council Meeting from Mason County District Library on Vimeo.

"[I'm] Spence Riggs, 715 N Lavinia, and one of the newest members of the Planning Commission. As a representative of the Planning Commission, I'm here to address the proposed ordinance, single family dwellings on lots less than 60 feet wide.

I would like to report that after much review and deliberation, the Planning Commission, on which Councilor Winczewski also sits, recommends this ordinance for approval. I won't review the details, I'm sure your reading will more than suffice. I would like to make a few comments. The intent of this ordinance is to increase the options for residential development and redevelopment in specified residential zones, while also allowing for a certain degree of discretion on the part of the city to insure the development patterns are consistent and fit with the surrounding community.

The Planning Commission is confident that this would be a proverbial tool in the city's toolbox that will help to increase residential development options and contribute to the goal of meeting the critical housing demand in our community, while also potentially positively impacting things like affordability of single family options and addressing the emerging preference for some demographics to downsize and simplify.

In our research we examined numerous cases of houses that are non-conforming, which in fact, contribute to the character and aesthetics of the community, and this ordinance would make room for those sorts of residential development options within the built-in environment.

In the course of our review process, the planning commission and text committee did encounter some concerns about the potential unintended consequences, however, being that the proposed use would be subject to a special land use, the site plan review, which would require an approval process to insure that the proposed development fits within the surrounding neighborhood, we're confident that this would more than adequate to address any unforeseen issues of a detrimental nature that may arise, as our review process was extensive in detail, I would invite the council to review the meeting minutes from the council meetings, reach out to myself and the other commissioners if you have any questions about the proposed ordinance; thank you."

Later in the meeting the council had a first reading of the ordinance.  Amazingly the city may pass the ordinance one week later, without hardly any press coverage of the issue and very little public knowledge of what all is entailed other than 'small' houses would be permitted in 'small' lots.  At 34:30 into the meeting the council did a first reading with some discussion after Councilor Winczewski introduced it as a positive step. 

Councilor Rathsack brings up several concerns after commending the PC.  His first deals with the citywide application of the ordinance; according to his data, Ludington would be the first to adapt such a zoning rule over the full city.  He pointed out that there had been no consultation with any competent city planning firm.  He noted it would perhaps be more prudent to test this on a smaller scale in certain parts of the city.  He pointed out that these structures could be taller than they would be wide and close to the neighboring property line (5').  He noted there would be many additional vehicles I the street.  Lastly, he thought it would create a city planner's nightmare due to variety of houses.

Mayor Holman effused over the idea, ending by saying that she was very excited about this after mentioning how much fun she's had in little houses through her long life.  Unless there are absences and/or abstentions at the March 6th meeting, she will have no vote on the issue.

In my opinion, this zoning option has a lot of merit, but so does Councilor Rathsack's concerns.  I would like to see property owners have more rights to do what they want with their property; with the regulations now, they cannot do anything.  With the new rules, you would be able to at least seek approval of the city to start building.  So other than the indignity of kissing the rings of the LPC and going through an annoying political process, it's a step in the right direction.  So even though I am basically on the same side of the issue as Spence Riggs, his words and behavior troubled me.  Particularly, after checking public records and reviewing his speech.

In his speech he first notes that he speaks as a representative of the LPC, but then he begins talking for the entire LPC in the lines: 

"the Planning Commission... recommends this ordinance for approval."

"The Planning Commission is confident that this would be a proverbial tool in the city's toolbox that will help to... [lists four 'tool's that the LPC never mentions at any open meeting]

"the Planning Commission and Text Committee... are confident that this would more than adequate to address any unforeseen issues of a detrimental nature that may arise."

It seems rather presumptuous of a new LPC member to speak for the entire group.  If I had come before the council on my own initiative back in early 2001 as a probie firefighter who hadn't even been through Firefighter 1 class and did the same, speaking for the entire LFD, I would have been seriously reprimanded and ridiculed.  Discipline would be appropriate, since Standards of Conduct for Public Officers, state law, says:  (2) A public officer shall not represent his or her personal opinion as that of an agency.

This in itself is not too big of a deal, it becomes more of a problem when you dig a little deeper into why Mr. Riggs would be so willing to put himself at the podium and advocate dramatically for this ordinance.  Spence tells us his address in his comment, he homesteads there as seen at the city's assessing site.  He brought this bit of property at the tail end of 2016, it contains a very small house on it that has only 544 square feet

When we look at a description and a map of the property, we see that it not only has a small house, but it also has a unique configuration.  The house is on a 50' wide lot, but two other undeveloped 50' wide lots come with that property.

Now, under current law, he could never develop those two lots; however, under the new zoning ordinance he helped draft in the Text Subcommittee of the LPC, he would be able to.  Adoption of this ordinance would make these two lots go from practically valueless pieces of excess land to potentially valuable building sites he could sell at a big profit or develop.   

This could easily lead one to question why this young gentleman brought this property at about the same time he was being groomed for LPC membership.  It could lead one to question why he spoke specifically of 50' lots fitting these descriptions when he was talking at the January LPC meeting.  It could lead one to question why he wanted to be on the text committee immediately.  It could lead one to question why he spoke so glowingly at this last council meeting about this issue.  All without divulging his potential financial windfall if it passed at any of these open meetings, even when he voted for it as an LPC member in February.

Two sections of our city code were developed to prohibit this sort of conduct by our city officers when they have such conflicts between their private interests and the public interest.  The first suggests what they should do before they participate in such a decision

City Code Section 2:72  (1) "No officer shall make or participate in a decision in his or her capacity as an officer knowing that the decision will provide such officer a financial benefit of more than a de minimis nature... An officer who makes or participates in making a decision under this subsection which places or may place him or her in a potential violation of this subsection, shall deliver a written statement to the governmental body of which such officer is a member and to the city clerk disclosing the potential conflict of interest and explaining why, despite the potential conflict, he or she was able to make or participate in making the decision fairly, objectively, and in the public interest."

The second leaves us with instructions as to what to do with Planning Commission members after proper protocol is not followed, and the officer fails to disclose a potential conflict:

City Code Section 1200:2:8  "The City Council may remove a member of the Planning Commission for misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance in office upon written charges and after a pubic [sic] hearing. Failure of a member to disclose a potential conflict of interest constitutes a malfeasance in office."

               Spence Riggs on the day he closed on his small Lavinia Street House with dreams of building more 'snowproof huts'

Spence Riggs has conducted himself improperly as a planning commissioner to the point where he has committed a malfeasance in office.  Had he disclosed his potential financial benefit properly and throughout the decision making process, he would be an example of what virtuous Ludington city officials can become.  Since he decided to willfully keep silent, it makes him look as corrupt as some of our more seasoned officials.  He should resign his commissioner role or face a public hearing (or even a pubic hearing if that's what the law says).

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Like former Mayor Henderson it boggles the mind how "lucky" members of the City cabal can be when it comes to real estate investments.

Let's not forget the Freddie Mac acquisition of the Tykoski House at 201 N Washington, and the incredible bargain and drop in taxes that happened, or the Former Councilor Brent Scott's sale of his old lumber yard to the same developer who invested in the bowling alley block, brokered by the same LLC. 

Amazing X. You have discovered Mr. Riggs' secret. This is such an obvious and blatant breach of ethics that Mr. Riggs should immediately tender his resignation. If he doesn't then the Council should act on this situation ASAP. But, we all know what's going to happen or not going to happen. This kind of investigate reporting is needed in every town. Ludington is lucky that X lives here and is willing to stick his neck out and take abuse from officials in order to provide this invaluable service to the citizens. Shame on you Mr. Riggs.

I should claim a muse for this post.  Mind you, when Spence Riggs came before the council and announced the virtues of the plan, I thought it was rather odd that he would be hawking it and effectively speaking for the whole group.  But I didn't think much of it after the meeting dispersed until the next day when on the Concerned Locals Facebook page a local named William Hogenson (responding to the COLDNews article on this topic) said "Question what property dose Mr Riggs own ?/ and what will the value of the neighbors property be if , one is built next to them ??"

That got me to looking into that angle and receiving a disturbing set of data, some of which is presented here.

How does the sidewalk ordinance read again?

 Does it cover vacant lots?  

How much time after a property sells do you have for constructing a sidewalk?

Guess I just want some assurances that members of the planning commission are not granted some kind of special exemption from the ordinances that the average man has to follow.

Here's a link to the full sidewalk code which says in section 1 for new construction:  Any property owner within the city constructing a new dwelling or other principal building under the city's zoning ordinance of any nature shall be required to construct a sidewalk along the front lot line of such property within one year of obtaining a building permit for such structure. Where the construction is on a corner lot, sidewalks shall be constructed on both the front lot line and the side lot line adjacent to the public streets of the property. No building permit shall be issued by the building inspector for such new construction permit until and unless the submitted plans provide for the construction of a sidewalk.

Section 2:  The owner of any existing dwellings or property upon which any building is located or any vacant lot, adjacent to a public street, shall be required to construct a sidewalk along the front lot line adjoining the street, and in the case of a corner lot along the front line and side lot line adjacent to the public streets. Because resources available to the city to provide for the public portion of the cost of such sidewalks does not allow for addressing all of the properties in the City of Ludington immediately, the city council shall establish a list of priorities for addressing sidewalks from time to time. However, it is the intent that as public funds for the public portion of the cost of such sidewalks exists, that all of the properties adjacent to a public street in the city shall be required to have sidewalks.

The city has allowed new constructions to not install a sidewalk within a year's period a lot of times, witness their own DPW Building, Rite Aid, the hospital (as regards Lawndale Street), and dozens of other recent examples. 

When the city tried to raise revenue last year by having you pay them half of the cost of a sidewalk when you sold your house (if you had no sidewalk), Councilor Gary let the cat out of the bag that they weren't going to devote that money to the established sidewalk fund, ergo it would go into the general fund bank/money-pit.  The city also indicated it had no priority list established, so they were happy to receive money to pave a lot on a recently sold house on Vogel (where there are no other sidewalks), when lots across from school property remain unpaved. 

If you then resold or transferred that hypothetical Vogel lot before it ever had a sidewalk installed, your buyer would once again have to pay the city for a sidewalk by the way the ordinance was created.  John Shay only likes sidewalks when it brings in positive cash flow.

Our current officials at the county and city level could care less about laws, city codes, or ethics when they do these things. They are above all this as history here of recent and past have proven many times in many instances. And no matter the situation and conflicts, it continues to happen and get ignored by the public, sad, and disturbing.


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