Ann Arbor Area BUSINESS MONTHLY magazine brings the reader the latest business news and information important to the businesspeople in Washtenaw County. Each month articles cover real estate, legal, Internet, employee concerns and the climate of business in the greater Ann Arbor area. There is news about company employees and feature articles on local businesses. We cover business news from Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester, Milan, Saline, Whitmore Lake, and Ypsilanti.
Sets Up Roadblocks
Local builder and developer, Joe Grammatico, points out the site for his project on a 44-acre area on Textile and State Roads.
By Duane Ramsey
The Washtenaw County Road Commission is creating roadblocks that are obstructing the progress of business and development in the county, according to several sources. Webster's dictionary defines a roadblock as "an obstacle placed across a road for halting or hindering traffic" or "an obstruction of progress." The latter definition appears to fit the recent actions of the road commission.
Joe Grammatico, a local builder and developer operating as Masterkey Northern, has battled the road commission for more than two years over the details of his planned Sweetwater Park development at State and Textile Roads in Pittsfield Township.
Grammatico's project is planned for the 44-acre site on the southwest corner of that intersection which is zoned for Planned Unit Development. Pittsfield Township has approved the plans and permits for the project, but the road commission has been the obstruction to progress for moving forward on it, according to Grammatico."We're ready to roll and begin building," said Grammatico. "They stopped this project. If I can't get into the property, then I can't build it."
His firm paid a $125,000 assessment for the west side sewer district to Pittsfield Township and invested $50,000 to allow the township to drain water into the pond on his property.
It invested another $200,000 in engineering to get the township's approval for his plans to build a medical services business center on the 32 useable acres of the site. When the county installed a traffic light at Textile and State, Grammatico's company paid $84,000 toward the cost of the traffic light. It also gave the county four acres of right-of-way when they should have been paid for it by law.
The final permit needed was for the right-of-way to build an entrance into his planned development off State just south of Textile. Grammatico said he had been working with the right-of-way agent for the road commission on the permit application.
The road commission wanted the developer to extend the middle turn lane 600 feet farther from the intersection. In addition, it increased the fee to $200,000 because they changed the rules for basing the fee from useable acreage to front footage, according to Grammatico.
"All they're doing is killing my project from day one," he said. "The problem is they can kill it if they want to." He and his attorney met with the road commission in attempts to resolve the issue. At the mitigation hearing, the road commission offered us nothing, said Grammatico. "We went to court and Washtenaw Circuit Court Judge (Donald) Sheldon ruled in our favor and they lost," he explained. "Despite the judge's ruling, the road commission has refused to cooperate with us."
Now, they are taking the road commission back to court on Aug. 27 where a jury trial will decide the issue.
"The government should be helping business and people, not hindering you," said Grammatico, who developed and owns the Scio Town Center west of Ann Arbor. "We have worked with them for 17 years and never had the problems we've had recently." Grammatico's firm is not the only business to have problems with the road commission. After receiving numerous complaints from its members, the Home Builders Association of Washtenaw County made every effort possible to work with the county road commission. "Our opinions were sought on a variety of issues and we did everything possible to get those opinions taken into consideration," said Shaun Murray, public affairs director for the HBAWC.
"Unfortunately, our concerns were met with a deaf ear, and as a result, certain policies were put into place that would further hinder the financial interests of not only the development industry but common citizens," Murray said.
"We have had multiple complaints over the years that the road commission staff does one thing and then tells the commissioners another. There are many things happening there on a staff level that are not disclosed to the commissioners and this should raise a major flag," he said.
Regarding the operation of the road commission, the HBA thinks that there needs to be better representation of the citizens and area businesses. In appointing two additional commissioners to the existing three now running it, some change may come in the way it is operated, according to Murray.
The road commission is governed by a three-member board of county road commissioners that includes Wes Prater (chair), Fred Veigel (vice-chair) and David Rutledge. Steven Puuri, the managing director of the road commission, oversees the day-to-day operations of the agency and its 148 employees.
"The feeling of the HBA is that in having two more road commissioners, the community will have greater representation," said Murray. "It's time that the road commission starts reaching out to the citizens and area businesses."
Prater, a former county commissioner, is now chairman of the road commissioners and was expected to serve as a liaison between the road commission and the Board of Commissioners.
The HBA believes that Prater has done "everything in his power to try to get the commission to listen to the viewpoints of those affected the most," home builders and developers.
"We commend the reformation efforts that Commissioner Prater is striving for," Murray said. "These reforms are without a doubt far overdue. We hope the reforms will be expedient. Given our current economic state, we feel there is no better time to act." The county commissioners are expected to expand the road commission board from three to five members. Even if the expansion is approved, the two new members wouldn't begin serving until Jan. 1.
The road commission is responsible for maintaining approximately 1,624 miles of certified roads in the county system, of which 771 miles are gravel roads. The agency also maintains 111 bridges and more than 2,000 culverts in Washtenaw County.
All primary and local public roads in the county, which are outside the cities and villages, are maintained by road commission crews. They provide services such as dust control, gravel road grading, snow removal, pavement resurfacing, storm drainage, tree removal, sign and signal maintenance, pavement marking, and guardrail repairs.