Under Pontiac (MI) zoning, proposed use is a permitted outpatient clinic, not a crisis center

by Victoria Heldt

Common Ground v. City of Pontiac, Pontiac Planning Commission, Pontiac City Council
(Michigan Court of Appeals, May 3, 2012)

Common Ground owns a piece of land in the City of Pontiac on which it wanted to develop administrative offices and provide mental health services.  Catering to children, youth, and families in crisis, the services provided would include psychiatric screening, referrals, and outpatient counseling.  The land in question is zoned C-2, Central Business District.  This zoning classification allows for, among other things, “physical culture and health services.”  Property zoned C-2 also allows for any uses that are permitted in C-1 zones, which includes “medical clinics (outpatient only) and offices of doctors…and similar or allied professionals.”

Common Ground’s application was presented to the Pontiac Planning Commission at four separate meetings throughout 2008.  Provided with the application were reports from Madhu Oberoi (the city’s planning administrator) and David Breneau (City Planner) that stated the intended mental health center was a permitted use under the C-2 zoning district.  The planning commission also received complaints about the proposal on the grounds that it was not consistent with plans for the redevelopment of downtown Pontiac.  Pontiac’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) opposed the proposal because it believed downtown Pontiac was “oversaturated…with mental health care facilities.”

Subsequently, the planning commission held a closed meeting with an outside attorney.  It received a legal opinion stating Common Ground’s proposed facility was considered a “crisis center” that was not a permitted use under C-2 zoning.  In September 2008, the commission voted against the proposal without articulating in the minutes of the meeting an explanation for the vote or the findings of the commission.  About a week later Oberoi, who was not a member of the planning commission, wrote a letter detailing the reasons for the plan’s denial.  Among the reasons was that Common Ground’s proposed use was not a stated use within C-1 or C-2 districts and that the development would not be compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.  Common Ground appealed the decision to the city council, which affirmed the denial.

The circuit court ruled that the planning commission’s decision was procedurally defective since it did not articulate its reasons for denial as required by statute.  It also determined that the proposed site was within the “permitted principle uses” of C-2 districts, so the commission should not have denied the application on that basis.  It noted the proposed facility was clearly an outpatient clinic and constituted a “physical culture and health services” facility regardless of the fact that the commission labeled it a “crisis center.”  It remanded the case to the planning commission for reevaluation.

On remand, the planning commission acknowledged that Common Ground’s proposed use was permitted under the zoning district.  It found, however, that any facility where patients stay longer than 18 hours, are admitted against their will, or restrained is contrary to the goal of district C-2 zoning development as it does not attract “heavy pedestrian activity” or enhance the “economic welfare” of the area.  It further found that an ambulance bay is not a permitted accessory to clinics in C-2 districts.  It conditionally approved Common Grounds proposal so long as its exterior was modified to comply with the design guidelines in the area and it did not contain any residential quarters or detention areas.  It further prohibited any patients from being brought to the clinic restrained, against their will, or in an ambulance vehicle.    Common Ground appealed the commission’s restrictions, arguing the circuit court already declared the facility was a permitted use and that the restrictions the commission identified lie outside the governing scope of the Zoning Ordinance.  It claimed the few instances of restraint and the use of ambulances are ancillary to the principal use.  The Pontiac City Council again ruled in favor of the planning commission and affirmed the conditions placed on Common Ground’s development.

Common Ground brought the matter back to circuit court.  It objected to the exterior design stipulation because the ruling did not identify how to comply with the current building design standards and because it claimed the DDA Design Committee did not have the authority to dictate such matters.  Common Ground challenged the conditions regarding patient detention and ambulance transportation on the grounds that the relevant Zoning Ordinance only pertained to “physical characteristics of the building exterior and site” and not to activities and use of the site.  This time around, the trial court determined that an ambulance bay should be permitted because it was included in the application from the start and therefore falls within the permitted use.  It also stated Common Ground should be allowed to have a detention center for similar reasons, but maintained the prohibition of residential quarters.

On appeal, the City argued the circuit court erred when it determined Common Ground’s proposal was a permitted use.  The Court disagreed.  It noted that the zoning district clearly allows “medical clinics (outpatient only) and offices of doctors…and similar or allied professionals” and “health services.”  The City failed to show that a “crisis center” is anything other than a form of outpatient mental health clinic.  Furthermore, the Court ruled that the circuit court did not err when it found the planning commission’s ruling procedurally defective.  The zoning ordinance clearly states that the commission is required to articulate its reasoning and findings when making a decision regarding a permit.  The City’s last argument was that the conditions regarding the detention center and the ambulance bay do not comply with the district’s zoning goals because it does not attract pedestrians and enhance the economic welfare of the area.  In support of this argument, it asserted the city’s police powers authorized the commission to place conditions upon the site plan.  The Court noted that no other legal authority was cited and the argument was insufficient.  It affirmed the circuit court’s ruling.

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