Red Tape

Two Hearings

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The Great Mural of Bureaucracy

Brewery Faisan required two public hearings with the City of Detroit in order to get permitted to begin construction. After successfully completing this daunting hearing process, we can now happily share the experience!

These hearings are triggered as a result of city ordinances and zoning requirements. Initially, the Building, Safety, Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED) reviews each site plan to ensure that a project is complying with the ordinances before the project can be permitted for construction. It is here where they identify any compliance issues and hearings that are needed.

When we purchased our property, we made sure that a microbrewery was acceptable under the property’s M-4 industrial zoning. However, there are two acceptable use categories: by-right and conditional. A microbrewery without a kitchen is considered conditional and, as a result, we were required to face a Special Land Use Hearing with BSEED. It was interesting to see the other business types that fall into the conditional category, such as cabarets and strip clubs. Essentially, businesses that the public could view as potentially harmful to a neighborhood. Paradoxically, a microbrewery with a kitchen is considered by-right and we would have had no hearing required. Simply add a kitchen. We chose to stay true to our vision. We are a brewery, not a restaurant.

Our other remaining shortfall was not having enough land to provide the number of parking spaces as determined by our square footage and proposed use. This necessitated a hearing with the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). Though we were willing and able to work through these issues, the hardest part was the insane amount of time it took to do so. We began the process by applying for the site plan review on November 15th, 2017 and everything was finally fully permitted on October 17th, 2018, just under one year. ONE YEAR. Let that sink in for a minute.

SPECIAL LAND USE

The Special Land Use hearing was a small group from BSEED and Planning and Development as well as our team around a conference table. The hearings are also open to the public and we had a friend and neighbor attend in support. Also, one curious neighbor who just wanted more information about our planned project showed up. Neighbors are notified by a mailer sent out to any property owner and tenants, residential or commercial, within 300 ft of a project. Plus a large notice gets plastered on the front of our property for any passerby to see.

It began with a presentation a field inspector gave on our location. He presented photos and a brief report documenting the surrounding area. Next a member of the Planning Department gave an overview of the Master Plan for the neighborhood. Lucky for us, the future zoning designation was given as simply light industrial. She went further and said our proposed use would be a good fit for the neighborhood and not “injurious” or “deleterious” and other esoteric terms one hears from planning department folks. This was excellent to hear someone from the city advocating for our project. We were then allowed to speak, which we described how we sought a industrial area specifically because we felt it was fit for a brewery. The purpose of this hearing is to decide whether to allow the use at all; so we needed to present to them that we are responsible business owners, will be good neighbors, and acknowledge some of the negative impacts we might have on the area and how we will mitigate them.

Once completed, BSEED takes a full month to render their decision. A month later to the day…approved! With the condition we then apply for our BZA hearing to address our parking deficiency. Even though the BZA is an entirely separate department deciding on a separate issue at hand, the city would not let us go after these in parallel and we had to complete them in order.

BZA

A BZA hearing is a whole different animal. The Special Land Use hearing is basically just checking that your proposed use is in-line with the intent of how the area was zoned. A BZA hearing is held for projects seeking variances (i.e. deviations, exclusions, waivers) from city ordinances. In our case, we needed to provide 20 parking spaces per the ordinance and we could only fit 4 (up to city size standards) on our property. So we had to go in front of the board to have the parking requirement waived for our project.

Once again mailers were sent out to every property within 300 feet and a large notice was posted on the front of our property. We knew variances are treated with much consideration to the opinions of the surrounding neighbors, so we reached out to everyone we knew and had them give their support of our project to the board. This was a mixture of letters, emails, and a few extremely helpful individuals who were willing to come and testify under-oath that they support the variance.

The hearing is held in an auditorium in front of a panel of appointed board members. It is very similar to a court proceeding and it is in fact a specialized branch of the circuit court. We were fortunately provided the questions we should be expected to be asked ahead of time. These questions centered on things like: why would granting the variance not be harmful to surrounding businesses, how it might give us an unfair advantage, and the impact this variance might have on future development. We prepared answers to each and Rachel diligently practiced speaking her responses with help from her attorney sister who is familiar with litigation.

We got there in time with one case in front of ours. We watched as they were grilled with questions, angry board members went off on tangents, and dozens of impassioned public comments were made in opposition. The applicants floundered under the pressure. They got defensive, tried to butt in when concerns were being raised, and repeated themselves far too much. Things got pretty tense. The board deliberated and promptly voted with a unanimous nay–variance denied. Now it’s our turn!

We took the stand and listened to an inspector give a site report detailing our project and why we seek a variance. Basically, all the information we had to fill out to get on the docket. When the questions started we had a detailed, thought-out response to each inquiry. The board was nodding along in agreement. One key we followed is to be patient. Let any board member finish speaking completely, even let a small pause elapse. Additionally, it is wise to speak slowly and always remain polite and formal. A few supporters also took to the stand and spoke in favor. No one appeared in opposition, phew. To our surprise, many of our responses were repeated during the board’s deliberation. We had successfully steered the dialog in our favor. A quick vote, this time a unanimous yay–variance approved!

With a brief sigh of relief, we now head straight into the stresses of construction. The approval stamp still wet on the construction permit, we came back to our building with crews having immediately started cutting out new openings in our walls and tearing off the crumbling mess that was our building’s roof. It has begun.