Category Archives: Government

Farmington school officials approve one-year extension for Heitsch

Farmington Public Schools Superintendent Dr. George Heitsch will serve the district at least one more year after officials on Tuesday approved an unusual contract extension.

Heitsch said the one-year extension, which includes another one-year option, was a “mutual decision.”

“I think it’s important for us to finish the work we started,” he said, adding that at the end of the year, officials will decide whether “I’ve got enough juice left,” or it’s time to look for a new leader.

Hired in May of 2014, Heitsch formerly served as superintendent of Avondale School District. Among other things, his tenure has included a successful $131.5 million bond campaign, a grade level reconfiguration, challenging union contract negotiations, and last year’s contentious decision to close Harrison High School and Dunckel Middle School.

Heitsch said the last two and half years “feel like dog years with what we’ve been through.”

The unusual contract extension comes before Heitsch’s evaluation, due to a change in state law. The contract terms require the renewal, but the state established a new evaluation tool, and board members won’t begin required training until March 14.

Board member Jim Stark stressed the short extension is “in no way…based on a reflection of the job Dr. Heitsch has done. He’s done a tremendous job.”

Dancers set to swing into downtown Farmington pavilion

The 2017 Swing Farmington season, opening May 4, will mark the 10th year of Thursday night dances at downtown Farmington’s Walter E. Sundquist Farmington Pavilion and Riley Park.

Alexander Steward, who organizes the weekly events, last week received city permission for the season, which runs through October 19. He said attendance averages around 200 during peak months (May through August).

While most who come out to dance fall between the ages of 13 and 35, Steward said swing dancing is open to all ages. “We’d like to build this year and become a broader-based community event,” he added.

The group will partner with the Farmington Farmers and Artisans Market and Greater Farmington Founders Festival and hosts its annual Summer Swing Spectacular with live music on August 3.

“I look forward to this starting up every year and listening to the music from my backyard,” said council member Steven Schneemann.

Swing Farmington’s indoor season is held at St. John Lutheran Church in Farmington Hills, Steward said. To learn more, follow the group on Facebook.

Farmington council approves final food truck ordinance

After months of discussion and study, Farmington city council members on Monday approved the final version of an ordinance governing mobile food vendors, including food trucks.

Officials first began to explore new rules after heated discussions over Farmington Brewing Company requests to bring in food trucks for special events. Council member Greg Cowley, who with his family owns John Cowley & Sons restaurant, has been a particularly vocal opponent; he has said they compete with brick-and-mortar businesses, but pay no taxes and take revenues out of the central business district.

The ordinance aims to level the playing field a bit by requiring a $150 fee, which city manager David Murphy said covers administrative costs and additional police patrols. Mobile vendors are also limited to three permits per year, and mobile food events may not last longer than three consecutive days. Vendors may not park within 150 feet of an existing restaurant unless the permit applicant also has a business that serves food or alcohol.

Murphy said he expects to monitor activities under the new ordinance, which goes into effect as soon as it’s published, and may suggest future changes.

While it may not be possible to cover every possible scenario, council member Steven Schneemann said, “I hope this relieves the concerns and consternation we’ve heard.”

Read the full text of the ordinance

Consultant lays out downtown Farmington parking options

If projections made by a nationally recognized consulting firm hold true, downtown Farmington could need hundreds of more parking spaces over the next 5-10 years.

Andrew Vidor, representing Walker Parking Consultants, told members of the City of Farmington Parking Advisory Committee on Thursday that the central business district’s parking system today operates at maximum capacity. Walker collected and evaluated data last year; the company conducted a similar study in 2008.

When it comes to parking, Vidor said, downtown Farmington is at a “tipping point.”

“There has to be a balance between how much room the city wants to provide for future growth and how convenient do you want to make it for people to come downtown,” he said.

With a 155-unit apartment complex in the works at the former Maxfield Training Center site on Thomas Street, and potential filling of empty storefronts with restaurants, which place a higher demand on parking, downtown Farmington could need as many as 429 parking spaces over the next decade.

Solutions, small and large

The study suggests ways to maximize what already exists:

  • Share information about projects that will improve walkability on Grand River and Farmington Road.
  • Share “insider” parking tips in connection with promoting downtown events.
  • Emphasize to employees the importance of parking in non-timed lots, freeing up space for customer parking closer to businesses.

The study also looked at building more space for parking. Vidor said criteria for potential parking deck sites included easy accessibility for vehicles, less than a 5-minute walk to shopping and restaurants, a line of sight from parking to destination, and “preferably on city-owned land.”

Several locations – publicly owned lots on Orchard Street (behind Fresh Thyme) and lots north of Grand River and east of Farmington Road (in the Downtown Farmington Center) – didn’t fit the bill. Vidor said building just east of the Farmington Community Library Farmington branch could improve the parking picture by 200 spaces, but each would cost $20,000-$25,000, creating a $4.2 million-$5.25 million overall price tag.

“What we don’t know…and haven’t looked at is financing and a source of funds to pay the debt service or the long-term costs of operations and maintenance,”  Vidor said, noting the study presents “concepts and opportunities.”

Stronger enforcement of time-limited parking, he said, could free up 70 parking spaces, and “that’s a $1.4 million cost avoidance.” While it wouldn’t eliminate the need for more parking, it could give the city some time to understand and study its options, which could include repurposing the City Hall site on Liberty Street.

Next steps

So what will city officials do with the Walker parking study? Council member Greg Cowley said it will be a “major element” of a five-year Captial Improvement Plan currently under development.

“We have to figure out how to pay for infrastructure, parking included, without raising taxes,” he said.

Mayor Bill Galvin wants to see a “civic engagement project” to identify the city’s funding capacity.

“The question is can our city afford a $5 million project,” he said. “If we don’t want to address the capacity issue, then we have to acknowledge this is it.”

Galvin said he believes residents enjoy the city’s increasing vibrancy and will want to increase capacity.

To take a look at the Walker parking study, visit downtownfarmington.org.

Read more: Consultant: Downtown Farmington parking operates at ‘maximum capacity’

Correction: One of the lots deemed unsuitable was misidentified; it is east of Farmington Road. 

Consultant: Downtown Farmington parking operates at ‘maximum capacity’

On a Saturday morning when the Farmington Farmers and Artisans Market is in full swing, does it seem like there isn’t a parking spot to be had in downtown Farmington?

Andrew Vidor, representing Walker Parking Consultants, told members of the City of Farmington Parking Advisory Committee Thursday that parking capacity isn’t just at a premium – it’s stretched to the limit. By 12 p.m. on a Farmers Market Saturday last October, demand for parking exceeded capacity by 60 spaces.

On weekdays, parking hits 64 percent of capacity overall, leaving 202 spaces open. On weekends, nearly three-quarters of spaces are taken, leaving 134 across the central business district.

“That’s a 37 percent increase since 2008,” Vidor said.

Breaking down the numbers shows public lots at 87 percent of capacity on weekend nights. Vidor said opening new restaurants or other types of businesses in the few available storefronts could quickly change the picture. The system, he said, is operating at “maximum capacity.”

“It’s a good problem to have for a downtown,” Vidor added. “It means the downtown is vibrant. People want to be here.”

Time limits

The city commissioned the study to update a 2008 Walker report. Since that time, downtown Farmington has undergone some dramatic changes, from increased attendance at the Farmington Civic Theater and Farmers Market, to the addition of Fresh Thyme Farmers Market and several restaurants. In addition, the city implemented time-limited parking in some public lots.

Vidor said studies showed that the vast majority of people parking in time-limited lots stayed longer than the 3-hour limit. No more than four percent parked four hours or longer. There were no violations on time-limited, on-street parking spaces.

“That’s a very high compliance rate,” Vidor said.

The study concluded that “non-compliant parkers… are likely employees of downtown businesses who either are not being ticketed or who are legally beating the system” by moving their vehicles to different spaces or lots. Recommended strategies included an ordinance that defines “re-parking,” expanded enforcement in the Fresh Thyme parking lot (where three percent of parkers violate the limit), increased enforcement in lots north of Grand River, and continuing to provide parking information to employees.

While the report did not identify a “silver bullet,” it did outline one possible solution: a three-story parking structure.

Next: How and where might the city add parking in downtown Farmington? 

Farmington school board approves 3-year contract with teachers

Farmington Public Schools officials on Tuesday unanimously approved a 3-year contract with the Farmington Education Association (FEA) that adds no additional dollars to the current pay scale but helps bridge the gap between lower and higher paid teachers.

Kathy Smith, Executive Director of Human Resources, said the district and FEA have worked on the new contract for more than a year.

Smith shared highlights from the new contract, which continues through the end of the 2018-2019 school year:

  • Extends the pay scale, which slows the growth of salary costs by 30 percent each year
  • Supports a balanced budget and maintains the school board’s target of a 10 percent fund balance
  • This year and next year, incremental increases for lower paid teachers
  • Continues an insurance advisory committee that will recommend changes to control health care costs
  • Adds merit pay components that link compensation with performance evaluations

In addition, the district will establish a joint committee focused on recruitment and retention of students, Smith said.

“I’m pleased that we’ve reached a tentative agreement,” board member Terri Weems said. While she has concerns about the contract’s financial implications, she said, “I recognize, and everyone at this table recognizes, the importance of valuing our teachers.”

Board member Jim Stark appreciated the emphasis on recruiting and retaining students. “That’s direct money. If we keep kids in the district, that’s money we don’t have to beg for or apply for… it just comes to us through enrollment.”

“What I see for this district moving forward is exciting,” board president Jessica Cummings said.

Farmington considers new rules to stop downtown parking “shuffle”

Farmington city council members took a look Monday at new rules designed to penalize people who skirt downtown parking time limits.

While officials agree the problem exists, some feel amending the parking ordinance may create some unintended consequences.

Forwarded by the Parking Advisory Committee, the proposals would prohibit moving vehicles from one space to another and removing chalk marks applied by parking enforcement officers.

“Car shuffling” happens in lots north and south of Grand River, Public Safety Director Frank Demers said. “Our previous parking enforcement officer and our new officer have reported it’s a very common event.”

Further, he said, the officers identified “shufflers” and those removed chalk marks as employees of downtown businesses. Council member Greg Cowley, who owns a downtown restaurant, confirmed those observations.

“It’s the same employees and the same businesses,” he said. “My employees walk and see them every day. For me, it’s become a management issue.”

While Cowley wanted to see violators pay a $25 penalty for the new infractions on top of a $25 ticket, council member Sara Bowman disagreed. She said the proposed new rules would also affect a customer visiting a business on the north side of Grand River in the morning and the south side in the afternoon.

“If we really are talking about this being an employee issue, I’m not on board,” she said. Bowman suggested more employee education and posting better signs and a map that shows timed and untimed lots.

Mayor Pro Tem Steven Schneemann agreed with Bowman.

“My experience has been that the more attractive and desireable a place is, the more Draconian the parking rules can be,” he said. “I don’t want to become so overbearing that people start to say, ‘I don’t want to go to Farmington.’.”

Schneemann also saw a difference between someone shuffling a vehicle between lots and deliberately erasing a chalk mark placed by an officer.

“I think we shouldn’t be surprised that no matter what legislation we put forth, people are going to try to find a way around it,” he said.

City administration will present a revised draft of the new ordinances at a future council meeting.

School officials stand pat on STEAM school sibling preference

Farmington school board members on Tuesday left sibling preference in place for the district’s new STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) school, which still doesn’t have a name.

Located in the former Dunckel Middle School building on 12 Mile Road, the STEAM school expands the current Highmeadow Common Campus program from grades K-5 to K-8. Highmeadow is the district’s only school of choice, populated through an annual lottery. Siblings are given preference at that school, and they will be at the new building, for now.

After vocal opposition from parents, board members last month voted down a School of Choice Options committee recommendation.

“We think we learned our lesson in December,” Superintendent Dr. George Heitsch said Tuesday. “We’re giving you all three options, and we’ll leave it to you.”

The three options included sibling preference only if spots remained after all other interested students had been placed (voted down in December), eliminating sibling preference with the class of 2030, and Highmeadow’s current process, which places siblings first and reduces the number of open slots.

Board member David Turner asked Highmeadow principal Dr. Dyanne Sanders whether the school has had any trouble placing siblings. While there are sometimes issues – particularly in upper grades – she said, “somehow before the school year starts, we’ve been able to work it out.”

If the current practice is working, board member Jim Stark wondered, why did the committee recommend a different option? Aaron Johnson, Assistant Superintendent of K-12 Instructional Services, said some committee members wanted to open the STEAM school opportunity to more students across the district.

“I do see a value in making sure that siblings can be with their family,” board member Terry Johnson said. “However, I am concerned that it’s not fair to the others. My biggest concern is I don’t want anyone to have an advantage one way or another just because they have multiple children.”

Sanders said parents may choose to not enroll their children in the STEAM school without a guarantee that siblings would also attend.

Board president Jessica Cummings said two options would leave families not knowing whether all of their children would attend the same school.

“Our focus has been as a district to support our neighborhood schools as places where families can send their children,” she said. “Families feel like it’s home. I cannot conclude that there’s a perfect option.”

She added that by leaving the lottery as it is, officials could later revisit the issue.

Officials voted on the motions in order; option 2 carried with board members Johnson, Turner, and Angie Smith opposing, and Cummings, Stark, Terri Weems, and Mark Przeslawski in favor.

MDOT gets okay to work nights, weekends on 2017 Grand River project

A major road project that will stretch along Grand River through downtown Farmington should move a little more quickly now that city officials have agreed to allow work during nights and weekends.

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) will mill and resurface Grand River from Sinacola to Purdue Street, reducing portions of the road from four lanes to three, adding parking spaces east of Grove Street and a bike lane between Shiawassee and Farmington Road. The project also includes concrete repairs, installation of signals, and bringing sidewalk ramps up to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.

In a memo, traffic operations engineer Courtney DeFauw said MDOT is “trying to minimize the overall impacts to the downtown Farmington area” by limiting lane closures to off-peak hours and working around special events.

The project will move east in four stages:

  • Sinacola Street (near Sellers Buick GMC) to Shiawassee Street
  • Shiawassee to Farmington Road
  • Farmington Road to Grove Street
  • Grove Street to Purdue Street (east of West River shopping center)

MDOT expects “minimal” night paving in the residential area between Shiawassee and Farmington Road. In addition, DeFauw wrote, the contractor will use static rolling, which reduces noise.

While multiple lane closures will affect all segments, MDOT will restrict work during Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends. All sidewalk ramps from Shiawassee to Power Road will remain open to pedestrian traffic for the Memorial Day parade in May and Art on the Grand in June. MDOT plans to remove traffic controls between Farmington Road to Grove Street during the annual art festival.

Lane closures near downtown will also be limited during the Founders Festival in July and the Harvest Moon festival in September.

City officials pointed out the need to ensure that information about the wide-ranging project spreads throughout the community.

“I think all the residents need to be notified about what’s coming up this summer,” council member Steven Schneemann said. He suggested a message included with city water bills. “Communication is really important to make sure that people aren’t blindsided by this, and they know that everything is still open for business and Grand River will remain passable during that time.”

Council member Sara Bowman said it’s important to remember the outcome, despite the inconvenience.

“This is a really cool project. It’s adding that bike lane. It’s adding some parking aspects, and it’s necessary,” she said.

While no firm dates have been announced, bid letting information in a meeting agenda posted on the State of Michigan website indicates the project may begin in mid-April.

Farmington council to staff: Get tougher on persistent code violations

Farmington officials on Monday gave city staff members a clear directive: Get tougher on business owners who leave buildings vacant and unkempt.

The discussion started last month when mayor Bill Galvin complained about the former Hershey’s Ice Cream store on Farmington Road, vacant for several years. The owner of an adjacent restaurant leased the space in order to expand, but has not pulled permits to begin necessary renovations, Economic and Community Development Director Kevin Christiansen said.

Meanwhile, the store’s dust-covered windows have long exposed a space littered with equipment and other items. Christiansen said the city has begun court proceedings to force code compliance, but council member Greg Cowley said the case has lingered far too long.

“We cannot sit for another summer and watch the garbage pile up,” he said.

Cowley complained that customers who sit on the patio of his family’s restaurant on Grand River have a clear view of the building and ask him what is wrong with Farmington. He said the city has a “fiduciary duty” to protect the value of the central business district.

“I’m looking for a little tougher code enforcement,” he added.

City manager David Murphy said Farmington has only eight “problem children” among its hundreds of business properties.

“That is fantastic,” he said. “I think you have more tools than most municipalities do.”

Anticipating problems with the economic downturn, the city in 2009 beefed up its zoning ordinances. Tools available include a property maintenance code and ordinances that address vacant buildings and blight.

Murphy said code enforcement officer John Koncsol works with business owners, even those the city has sued, to clean up properties, but there’s nothing the city – or any municipality – can do to force owners to fill vacant properties.

City attorney Thomas Schultz said district court judges want to see a long record of efforts to work with businesses before taking them to court. And council member Sara Bowman said she didn’t want Farmington to become known as a city that “strong arms” tenants.

Council member Steven Schneemann suggested a different approach, one he believes would have business owners beating a path to the doors of those vacant buildings.

“I think we need to make our community vibrant and attractive and businesses will want to locate here,” he said.