2017-01-12 / Front Page

Housing makes a return

Noonan, Ansorge support committee
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

The need for more “affordable housing” has been a hot-button issue in Leelanau County for many years and will likely remain so in 2017 following a split vote of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners this week.

At its first executive meeting of its new term, the County Board on Tuesday agreed to appoint a special, temporary “housing committee” to determine whether the board should set a goal for 2017 of establishing a more permanent committee.

Such a committee would look into ways the county can address what commissioners termed “housing challenges.”

A discussion of the board’s goals for 2017 offered the first opportunity for the board’s youngest and newest member, District No. 6 Commissioner Casey Noonan, to weigh in the topic.

“When I was out campaigning for this seat last year,” Noonan said, “the issue that I kept hearing over and over from constituents in my district was the problem we have with providing housing that young people and working families can afford in this county.”

Noonan, a 28-year-old Republican, defeated Democrat Carolyn “Peachy” Rentenbach for the District No. 6 seat representing Cleveland, Empire and Glen Arbor townships in the November 2016 General Election.

“As a young person, I know a lot of people personally who struggle with this problem,” Noonan said. “It’s not that I think the county should start spending money to build affordable homes or anything, but this is such a big deal for so many people in our county that I think the County Board should at least continue considering ways we might help solve the problem.”

Those were agreeable words for the County Board’s two remaining Democrats, District No. 4 Commissioner Ty Wessell and District No. 5 Commissioner Patricia Soutas-Little, who sided with Noonan. So did self-described “moderate Republican” and frequent swing-voter Tony Ansorge, representing District No. 1.

The County Board’s three other Republicans, District No. 2 Commissioner Debra Rushton, District No. 3 Commissioner Will Bunek, and District No. 7 Commissioner Melinda Lautner all voted “no” on a motion to create a committee of commissioners to recommend language of a goal the County Board might set for 2017 on how – and even whether – to include housing issues on the board’s list of goals.

Bunek, serving as chairman of the board, named himself, Noonan and Soutas-Little to serve on the committee. Soutas-Little will chair the committee, which will likely come up with a recommendation for how to word the goal in time for consideration at the board’s next regular monthly meeting on Tuesday evening.

Last year, the County Board set a “housing” goal for 2016 that resulted in establishment of a temporary Housing Task Force, chaired by Wessell. The task force produced a set of recommendations that Wessell hoped a new County Board housing committee could consider implementing this year.

Several of the Housing Task Force meetings last year were dominated by public comment from people speaking for and against the county playing an active role in facilitating affordable housing. Housing Task Force meetings last year were the venue for some of the most heated and extended public debates on any topic in recent memory in Leelanau County.

Although Lautner opposed creation of the Housing Task Force last year and voted against creating a committee to consider whether housing issues should be included among County Board goals this year, she said she’s “all for more affordable housing” in Leelanau County.

“Are there any trailer parks in Cleveland Township?” Lautner asked rhetorically. “And if not, why not?”

Lautner said that village and township zoning play a much bigger role in inhibiting the development of affordable housing than the county does. She pointed out that the county’s Planning Department had applied for tribal 2-percent casino revenue sharing funds that could pay for a study of how local zoning may inhibit or promote the creation of more affordable housing.

In addition, the Leelanau Peninsula Economic Foundation is already considering the issue. So is the regional government agency called Networks Northwest, formerly the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments.

Lautner, Rushton and Bunek all expressed concern about “redundancy” in the number of efforts to create affordable — at times referred to as “workforce” — housing in the county.

Other “goals” the County Board may consider are less controversial: paying down “unfunded liabilities” associated with the county’s employee retirement system, creating a long-term “capital improvement plan,” and seeking to pay off bonds early whenever possible.

A new topic on a draft list of goals would address “drug and alcohol abuse” issues in the county. A draft goal advocates for convening a panel of experts to suggest programs addressing drug and alcohol abuse in light of an apparent increase in opiate drugs in recent years.

The board was expected to review an updated draft list of 2017 goals for itself at its regular monthly meeting Tuesday evening.

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