By Susan Carroll
Lake Orion’s downtown brings people from all over to experience the ambiance of what the quaint streets have to offer. From brick walkways to unique shopping; delectable eateries to music venues; and family parks – including one that leads directly to the lake.
With all that comes the need for parking. Parking in Lake Orion, as in any village, is a valuable commodity. Cars line the streets as patrons go about their business, some holding packages or cups of coffee, while others conduct matters in the business district.
The village owns several parking lots and has contracts with other business owners to allow for public parking in those lots after hours and on weekends. In exchange, the village plows the snow and does general maintenance.
Except in one lot, formally known as McNeil Parking Lot, 44 E. Flint St., Lot 2, Block 3 of Hemingway’s Plat, which sits next to what was the home of the Lake Orion Pet Centre. The parking lot, under the same ownership as the business, sits upon a separate parcel than the business, with separate tax ID numbers – one for the building and one for the parking lot.
The public parking spots at the Lake Orion Pet Centre are at a premium cost compared to others in the village.
The Pet Centre was destroyed by a raging fire on Jan. 28, 2017. The building housed the Pet Centre as well as 3 private residences.
The current 24-parking space lot has been leased by the village, minus the reserved parking for the residents, as far back as 1989, possibly longer. The first lease that The Lake Orion Review was able to verify was 1984.
The 1984 lease provided 19 public and 4 tenant spaces; the village was to provide the maintenance of the lot.
At issue now is it appears that the lease expired on March 31, 2016, 10 months before the fire of the Pet Centre — and the continued payment of taxes.
On May 26, 2015, the Village Council approved the now-expired lease for a period of one additional year. It was also noted that the property owner had previously indicated to the village that they intended to sell the property when the lease expired in March 2015, but requested renewal for an additional year. That lease was granted.
In exchange for the use of the parking lot, and to permit pedestrian access from the DDA parking lot located at 29 East Front St. through the Pet Centre property, the village agreed to lease the lot under the following conditions:
• Reserve seven parking spaces for the Pet Centre’s use and install signs and enforce restrictions on public parking.
• Provide general maintenance of property including maintenance of the parking lot surface and fence, plus snow and debris removal.
• Repair any and all damage to the asphalt.
• Erect signage indicating Public Parking.
• Prohibit parking from 3-5 a.m. except the designated spaces, and to ticket offending vehicles.
• Pay taxes due on the entire parking lot.
• Maintain a minimum of $1 million liability insurance and hold harmless the Lake Orion Pet Centre from any and all liability claims.
• The tenant of the property has the right of first refusal to purchase the property.
• In the event that the tenant of the property owner does not exercise his right to purchase the property, then the property for sale will be offered to the village.
• Pedestrian’s will have access through the leased property from the parking lot to 29 E. Front St. to Flint Street.
Tax history obtained from accessmygov.com, Sharon L. Schaar Trust, for the Pet Centre parking lot for the period of 2010 – 2017 indicates $12,495.64 in paid taxes. The vendor activity report from July 1, 2013 to Nov. 30, 2017 for the Village of Lake Orion shows the DDA paid $4,713.98 in taxes for 44 E. Front St.
On Nov. 10, 1997, a five-year lease was signed between the village and Richard A. and Betty Jane McNeil. The lease obligated the village to do maintenance on the lot which included resurfacing the 10,140 -square foot parking lot – 100 percent paid by the village.
The Pet Centre owners have not commented to The Review despite several calls.
The village has no agreement with any other Lake Orion business to pay the property taxes on parking lots not owned, but maintained by the village. It is unclear exactly when the owners of the lot negotiated the tax payment. However, somewhere down the line the village started paying the taxes, and continues to do so today.
After the fire, the lot was blocked off nearly five months — until the destruction caused by the fire was cleared.
The lack of forward movement on the Pet Center property was discussed at the Nov. 24, 2017 DDA meeting and what should be done with the use of the parking lot as well as paying the property taxes.
The DDA’s Executive Director Molly LaLone was previously asked by the board to talk to the owner about the property taxes.
“We approached them shortly after the fire about making some changes but got a pretty negative response.” said LaLone, adding that she doesn’t think that was because of the request but rather from what just happened.
LaLone said the owners comment was “Well, if you stop paying the taxes, we stop making it public.”
“So, they did not want us to stop paying their taxes. We left it as it was at that point and we haven’t discussed it since then,” said LaLone.
During the Nov. 24 meeting, Village Council President Kenneth VanPortfleit said, “I’m wondering if it’s okay to pay tax dollars without any benefit? So, we could be spending money, investing money in something that’s not going to be a benefit to us? We need to discover that.”
VanPortfliet also commented that, “Maybe we need to start making some contingency plans.”
DDA Board members said they would like to explore options for some parking spots, along the back, by the alley of the McNeil lot.
“We can stop paying (taxes) at any point but we’re not going to have public parking if we do,” said LaLone.
An added concern is the possibility that the lot could be closed while the Pet Centre is being rebuilt. Would the DDA pay the taxes for a lot that can’t be used?
Village Manager Joe Young said that one contractor said the lot would not have to be closed down during contruction.
Some members of the DDA are concerned about the potential loss of the lot, saying patrons of the village use that lot because of easy access to shopping and dining.
DDA Board Member Deb Burgess of Builders Custom Flooring said that she gets older people calling her and telling her they are coming into her shop. “We go out and help them up the four steps and down, it would be a shame for several reasons to lose that,” she said.
Board Member Kristen Horvath is also concerned about losing the lot, but said people would only have to walk a little further if they parked in one of the other village lots. “It’s not like Chicago where they’re walking six blocks to get to Lockhart’s.”
“I don’t think it would be wise to lose those parking spots,” said Burgess. “I do struggle with the fact of paying for something we won’t have the benefit of. But if this is an all or nothing (issue), then I do not want to lose the access to that parking. The lot makes coming to the village very convenient.”
“We have not approached them officially,” said LaLone on the lease renewal.”They lost an entire building and the insurance company was hassling them about giving them a payout. But that is all settled now. The lease is currently out of date, so when they get themselves situated in a better place then we can start talking about it again.”
The plan is to rebuild, but to rebuild there has to be a survey, site plan, architectural rendering, approval by the Village of Lake Orion’s planning commission and building permits. All of that is in the works said both Village Manager Joe Young and Mario Ortega, village planning and zoning coordinator.
Young said on Feb. 1 that building plans were submitted to the village on Oct. 17, 2017 with the same basic footprint as the building that burned. Included are three office spaces on the lower level and three upstairs apartments, he said, adding one of those offices will be the owners’ real estate office.
At that time, the property owners were reminded that a site plan and site survey needed to be submitted to Ortega for review and approval before the architectural rendering could go before the planning commission.
“We have the plans for the building, we just need the site plan. I’ve been pushing on this myself,” Young said, adding he intended to send the owners/architects a letter saying they “need to get moving on this.”
Young said the owners have three options: get the site plan to the village, sell the property or fill in the hole.
To force them to fill in the hole, the village’s code enforcement officer would have to issue a ticket, then a judge could order them to fill it in.
“No one wants it to come to that. They’re long-time business owners and we want to work with them,” he said.
As for the fence around the hole, the code enforcement officer said the snow fence was “okay” as a safety barrier.
Young said there have been some downtown business owners complaining about the lack of development at the Lake Orion Pet Centre lot.
“There have been verbal complaints about how the site is an eyesore and they would like to see something done about it. We’re trying to do everything we can to help move this along, because it is an eyesore, it’s not something beautiful to look at. Get it fixed and make it right is our goal,” said Young.