My first township council meeting

As my sweetie and I were eating at our favorite local restaurant tonight, the manager came by. Last time I was in, I’d asked if he might look into getting grass-fed beef for their burgers, if nothing else. He sounded very interested and promised to look into it…but really, what else was he going to say? So I nudged him again this week, and was able to point out to him that Eat Local Eat Natural, which I first heard about a couple days ago, would be moving in right across the street and could supply them with locally-raised grass-fed beef. His eyes lit up and he said, “Across the street? Then we wouldn’t have to pay for shipping!”

This reminded me that the township’s Planning Council meeting, where they were discussing rezoning a parcel of land for Eat Local Eat Natural, would be meeting tonight. And that I wanted to go and voice my support, because no one spoke up for it at the last meeting. (A friend who’s up on this sort of thing tells me no one ever says anything unless it’s to complain, so that’s not much of a surprise.)

So I quickly rescheduled my evening and attended my first township meeting. What’s it like to speak to the council? What’s the quickest way to make friends in a business that you’re passionate about? Read on…
I got there before most of the council members – guess I didn’t need to worry about getting a seat – and picked up an agenda. I had to ask the fellow next to me when was the appropriate time to comment (there were two “public comment” items on the agenda) and he said to speak up at the first opportunity, because the later public comment time usually happened around 11pm.

I was a little nervous – I’d never done this before and I felt like a bit of a curiosity standing up and saying, “Um, yeah. I like this. You should let them have this business” seemingly out of the blue. But c’mon – they are proposing to build the “missing link” of central distribution between local farms and local restaurants. How could I not speak up in favor?

I was also a little torn because I’m a big fan of land use planning. I didn’t want to encourage a special case scenario or set precedent for arbitrarily changing the master plan for every plausible idea that comes along. Since I wouldn’t hear any details about the project until after I said my piece, I kept it simple: I know we can’t throw the master land use plan out with the bathwater, but I think this business is a really good idea, and I very much hope that we can host it in our township. I think I used one of my allotted three minutes.

The council members smiled and nodded in that polite, uber-attentive way public officials often have. There were seven people arrayed in a curve in front of me, raised up a couple of steps. May I never have to face down a congressional committee… 🙂

When I turned around, I saw a line of pleasantly stunned faces. The developers, no doubt, who had no idea I would be there or what I was going to say. From the looks on their faces, I could tell they were really happy to have this spontaneous show of support. I smiled back and tried to breathe as the nerves hit retroactively.

Soon the issue came up before the council. The gist is this: Eat Local Eat Natural will start out as a distributor/warehouse sort of setup, and later add a cafe, retail store, and outdoor market. The warehouse is an approved use for the current zoning of I2 (a flavor of industrial zoning). The master plan calls for that area to eventually switch over to C4 (mixed commercial), which would be fine for the grocery and market aspects but not the cafe. If the area were zoned C2, it would be approved for all those uses. So it was decided that this property would get a temporary zoning change to C2, but would revert to C4 or I2 if they should move out of this leased building. A “special dispensation,” if you will, that wouldn’t permanently change the master plan. They still need to worry about sewer regulations, especially for the cafe, but they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. But the zoning change was OKed unanimously.

I’m still a little concerned about parts of the business plan and how it would affect Arbor Farms and the Westside Farmers’ Market if they were to go into full operation with their grocery and market, but given that that would only be about 1500 square feet, I think the other full-serve natural groceries in the area will be fine. And if there’s not enough business to support another farmers’ market, only one will survive…but could probably take on all the vendors. So I’m not too worried. So long as the retail supply of local products doesn’t disappear into the maw of local restaurants. But they really seem to have their heads on straight about not outstripping the ability of local farmers to be both productive and sustainable, and hopefully a steady outlet will encourage more farmers to sell their products in this area. Dare we hope for local or regional processing plants, too?

After the meeting, I met Dan Courser and Bill Taylor, the business partners who are starting Eat Local Eat Natural. Bill said he’d heard of me – didn’t remember where, but my name and writing apparently rang a bell. Dan gave me a packet of materials that they use when talking to restaurants about why sourcing products locally is a good idea. They seem like great guys and I felt like I’d made a couple of fast friends.

Hey guys, would you carry organic soybean oil from Thumb Oilseed Producers? Ubly is a bit of a hike just for oil…

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7 Comments

  1. Kim said,

    June 24, 2008 at 6:43 am

    Emily – thanks for posting on this! I’ve been wondering what’s up with them. It’s great to know that it might actually happen and that you thought they were good peoples. 🙂

    Kim

  2. Suzie said,

    June 24, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    Go you!

    And, go them! (the eat local, eat natural guys)

  3. Shana said,

    June 24, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    I merely echo Kim and Suzie — this is a great piece of news indeed. Thanks for sharing–and for going to the meeting. Do keep us informed!

  4. Daisy said,

    June 25, 2008 at 1:25 am

    It’s embarrassing that I spend most of my time encouraging public participation yet I don’t do what you just did – go to meetings on my own behalf, as a concerned citizen. I get so used to maintaining my impartiality that I forget I used to be much more active and opinionated.

    Good for you! I hope that the business you talk about has a positive impact on the community, and that everyone sees the special zoning allowances as a good thing. It sounds like it will be!

    By the way, my town has 90,000 people and we somehow manage to support two farmer’s markets even with many distributors selling to local restaurants. It’s probably not on the scale that your community will soon be on with this new business, but we do it… I bet you are right and that this new business will encourage more growers to sell locally (and to grow more now that the demand is increasing.)

  5. Emily said,

    June 25, 2008 at 8:49 am

    Thanks, everybody. I hope others will also be encouraged to do things like this. It wasn’t all *that* hard and it seemed to be fairly meaningful.

    Daisy- Ann Arbor is really blessed as far as local food goes. You can get just about anything (except olives and such) from within 100 miles. We have the “big market” on Weds. and Sat., and the smaller “West Side Market” on Thursdays. Every nearby community also has its own smaller market. Farms in this area are very diverse – lots of veggies, meats, dairy, eggs, and grains. The wheat you buy at our co-op is usually grown in Michigan. I think this is a great place to start a local-to-local distributorship…things might not end up exactly as planned, but I think it will work out!

  6. mandi said,

    June 25, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    hi there- new to your blog (saw you on farm mom’s). this post really spoke to me. we are locavores down here in texas. i am interested in this establishment you talked about. are they just local people doing this? it is a fantastic idea! i wonder if they could take on the school system next…that’s always in the back of my brain- from farm to school cafeteria.

  7. TeacherPatti said,

    June 25, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Ditto what Mandi said–school systems would be a great thing. You should see what they feed the kids. It’s not “food”, I assure you. I have seen some studies that seem to indicate that kids perform better after a nutritious lunch, which seems self evident to me!!

    Emily, that’s awesome that you went to the meeting! I am so intimidated speaking at places like that, even though I speak in front of students for a living.


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