Ferndale Volunteers Reflect on Boards and Commissions Service, City Launches New Platform to Apply
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Feb. 17, 2020)
Ferndale, MI – When most people think of local government, they know how mayors, city councils and city staff work together to make decisions that move the city forward. But a lesser known piece of the puzzle is the plethora of boards and commissions that help guide policy, make decisions, and work on the behalf of the people using the expertise of local residents who volunteer.
The City of Ferndale has over a dozen such groups, several of which have open seats. At the Feb. 10 City Council meeting, City Clerk Marne McGrath announced that a new system is in the works to make it even easier for residents to see what the openings are, and to apply.
The portal is expected to go live March 1, and once staff and council is trained, the plan is to have 14 day application windows for openings that are announced through the City website, social media, and press releases.
Currently there are four seats available on the Accessibility and Inclusion Committee, three on the Arts and Cultural Commission, two on the DDA and Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, and 1 on the Beautification Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, and Civil Service Board. There is also one seat on the Sidewalk and Hardship Commission that is open to a resident in the Southwest quadrant of the city only. Others which may have openings in the future include the Board of Review, Environmental Sustainability Commission, the Ferndale Housing Commission, Parks and Recreation Committee, Planning Commission, and the Police and Fire Pension Board
Recently elected Mayor Melanie Piana found her pathway to involvement by serving on the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Business Development Committee in 2004 while she was going to graduate school for Urban Planning. She then went on to serve on the Zoning Board of Appeals for five years after being appointed by Mayor Bob Porter, before becoming a council member. “I wanted to learn how downtowns evolve and the issues and opportunities facing business owners,” Piana said. “I volunteered to become a stronger professional and give back to our community.”
As a volunteer you learn how you impact city policy or project from the formation of an idea, getting it funded and then implemented. Listening to your fellow residents demonstrating leadership, understanding the complexities of an issue, analyzing data, hearing concerns from your neighbors, are some of the wide range of activities that you’ll be exposed to when volunteering.”
The most recent appointment, made by the Mayor and supported by City Council, was of Sarah Brown to the Board of the DDA. Brown is the owner of CrossFit HCS, located at 160 Vester Street.
“I was getting involved between City Council meetings and the Capital Improvement Plan meetings a little over a year ago,” Brown said. “After seeing the same people involved in DDA, Chamber, etc., I wanted to be a fresh voice that can add some diversity of thought. The capital improvement plan was my first exposure to the DDA and it is still the area of most interest to me. There’s so much potential in Ferndale and I want to be sure that our budget reflects our community’s best interest. I’m also curious to look into lease turnover rate and small business longevity in our downtown.” Brown said.
In addition to having a voice in economic decisions for the Downtown, the DDA hosts events like the Funky Ferndale Art Fair, Fido Does Ferndale, and outdoor movies on Vester Street in the warmer weather. Board members not only provide financial oversight, but they help coordinate volunteers and come up with fun ideas.
The Planning Commission is the board that reviews plans from developers to ensure they meet the city’s requirements. As part of this process, the Planning Commission has the ability to negotiate with developers to some extent when reviewing unusual projects like Planned Unit Developments or conditional re-zonings to try and increase levels of public benefits that are included in those proposals, according to Ian Williamson, who has served on the Planning Commission for at leave five years, and also serves on the Zoning Board of Appeals.
“I have been an attorney for 15 years, and I studied architecture and urban planning as an undergraduate before I went to law school. I appreciate that I am able to use the knowledge and skill that I have gained to benefit my home and community. Unchecked development can have significant negative impacts on communities, and in Ferndale, we don’t have that – though I do understand that some residents would prefer to see less development, Ferndale is a very attractive community and it isn’t possible or feasible to simply not allow development in the city. However, developers who are used to having their ideas rubber-stamped in other communities with minimal questions are often unpleasantly surprised in Ferndale because we have a smart and dedicated group of residents who are not afraid to question development proposals,” he said.
Volunteering on these boards is rewarding, but also challenging. “I love Ferndale’s spirit and dynamism, and I think most residents don’t want to see the city stagnate, but while change is inevitable, it’s often controversial. In a city of 20,000 people, there is no way to manage development and change such that everybody is happy with the result. All of the city’s elected and appointed officials are people who care deeply about the city and community and regularly put in long, difficult and unpaid hours to help keep Ferndale a desirable and dynamic place. It can be disheartening to see residents casually suggest that council and board/commission members are corrupt or don’t care about the residents just because they don’t agree with development decisions (despite the fact that we are all residents) – I have seen this type of reaction increase over the past several years as the political climate has become more poisonous, and I struggle with this at times.”
In spite of the discontent, it’s still important work. “I’m proud that Planning Commission has been able to positively change many proposed new developments in the city, and, through early conversations with prospective developers, helped the city to completely avoid various proposals that simply were not a good fit for the city. Planning Commission also worked hard to help create our most recent Master Plan, along with various city residents and outside consultants,” Williams said.
Another board that requires expertise is the Board of Zoning Appeals, of which Judy Palmer has been a member since 1996, and co-chair for about five years. “The BZA is a pseudo-judicial board enforcing the building codes yet looking at each individual case that comes before us to see if there is a hardship, or something that others are able to do and that this case would benefit. Also we as a Board review appeals on how it can impact our city and future issues that may happen.”
Palmer also volunteers for community events and the Ferndale Community Foundation, which is a nonprofit that raises money for grants for local projects, and in the past has volunteered for Friends of Ferndale Library, the Ferndale Dream Cruise, and as an Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network for over 25 years. She donates a portion of each Real Estate closing she makes to CMN. When asked why she does this service, Palmer said “Giving back makes me feel good.”
Williamson also serves on the BZA. “BZA has to be very careful in its decision-making because our decisions are precedential – in other words, if we decide an issue a certain way, we can’t decide the same issue a different way in the future unless there are specific facts that justify the deviation. We have to approach every decision with an eye towards every property in the city. For this reason, we work hard to try and help residents find solutions to problems that don’t involve variances from the zoning ordinances if at all possible.”
Another group that makes its mark on Ferndale is the Beautification Commission. Robbin Yelverton serves as Chair and Robert Primeau serves as Secretary. “The Ferndale Beautification Commission is best known for the awards we give to home and business owners for their beautification efforts in the community. These awards are given during the months of June – December,” Yelverton said. “While many assume that it is just all about gardens and flowers, the FBC actually also is given the opportunity to provide input and assist with any efforts in the community that affect its health, well-being, quality of life and safety. So we really can weigh in on subjects as broad as design of parks, placement of barriers, pest control, etc., and of course, beautiful yards and business facades.” Yelverton is co-owner of award-winning flower shop and event space Blumz by JRDesign, and he’s happy to share his life of making events and occasions beautiful with the broader community.
Primeau got involved in both the Beautification Commission and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board around 2014 as the City began working on ordinance changes that would allow residents to use native landscaping in their yards, which passed in 2015. In addition to serving on the boards, Primeau designed the native plant demonstration garden in front of City Hall, and has done presentations including how to properly order and plant trees.
“For FBC, we are contributing towards community building, not just by making the City’s public face look better, but by just showcasing what already looks great, such as our awarding of beautification awards for house design and block improvements, as well as for Halloween and Christmas decor, which people seem to like a lot. Our Perennial Exchange similarly helps to knit the community together via trade and altruism,” Primeau said. “I have some level of specialist knowledge and am happy that I can put it to use in the community. City leadership has been supportive of ideas that we bring to the table if they are useful.
“Especially for FBC, it feels so good to help create community through both place-making and bringing people together for social situations based around mutual interest.” The Perennial Exchange is a particular point of pride for Primeau. “In May we provide a public venue for interested residents to bring plants to their gardens in a sort of swap meet. It is a busy affair for two hours, you talk to bunch of people excited to talk plants and exchange specimens. Often we are left with more plants than we started from and in the past have been challenged to then do something positive with the leftovers. Last year they got planted at the Kulick Center.”
Primeau also serves as the Vice Chair of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee. “The Parks and Recreation board serves as a sort of citizen oversight over the administrative leadership of the Parks and Rec Dept. Individual members serve have had and currently have advocacy roles that might be extraneous for city staff,” he said. “When the Parks bond was put together, select commission members (myself included) helped to select park improvements that were to be included in the proposal that residents would vote on. Current members serve as liaisons to friends groups for specific park amenities, such as the Skate Park. Some members advocate for specific topics, such as universal design principles in the parks, considerations for the dog park, advocacy for the skate park, interrogating how bonds and funding is spent, etc.”
Also working to create a welcoming atmosphere – in an earth-friendly way – is the Environmental Sustainability Commission.
Jennifer Young has served on the FESC for five years, and was recently voted by the commission to serve as Chairperson, which has a one year term. “The Ferndale Environmental Sustainability Commission (FESC) is comprised of residents and a council liaison who support the sustainability efforts of the City. The commission is led by Ferndale’s Environmental Sustainability Planner. We meet once a month on the first Monday of the month from 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm at City Hall. FESC is an advisory board charged with providing policy recommendations to the City Council on environmental issues. These issues include but are not limited to solid waste and recycling, alternative energy generation and energy waste reduction, climate action planning, tree and native plants planting, mobility and transportation planning, water quality and storm water runoff.,” Young said.
“If we want to have a say in shaping our communities it’s important to play a part in that. City staff and elected officials may have a commitment to sustainability but they need demonstrated support from residents to affirm the importance of taking leadership in environmental matters.”
Young and her fellow commissioners helped ensure that sustainability is woven throughout the city’s master land use plan, and Young said, “equity has equity has increasingly become part of our conversations, and we are taking into consideration how environmental and climate change impacts impact the most vulnerable in our community. It’s something we haven’t resolved but rather are taking into consideration. I’m proud of my city for consistently walking the talk and for investing in a cleaner, healthier future for all residents and being a leader in creating a more livable, equitable and healthy southeast Michigan.”
Another group aiming for equity is the Ferndale Accessibility and Inclusion Advisory Commission, of which Nina Kelly is Secretary. Between that and serving as the Special Events Co-Chair of the Friends of the Ferndale Library, Kelly spends about five to ten hours a month of time participating in board meetings and learning about the relevant topics.
“I want to live in a community wherein I feel connected to my neighbors, and volunteering on a board strengthens that feeling of connection to people with similar interests working together for the common good. It may sound cheesy, but I am an eternal optimist and I think anything is possible when you put a group of passionate people in a room,” Kelly said.
The Ferndale Accessibility and Inclusion Advisory Commission was recently resurrected after nearly a decade. In the 1990s and early 2000s they group had success in encouraging accessible entrances for businesses and charting curbs that needed to be replaced to allow for wheelchair, walker and stroller access. Now they are fleshing out what their goals may be, including advising the city and the Planning Commission, working with businesses to encourage accessibility, and educating the public about the needs of all community members, including those with disabilities and mobility issues.
Currently there are four seats available on the Accessibility and Inclusion Committee, three on the Arts and Cultural Commission, two on the DDA and Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, and one on the Beautification Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, and Civil Service Board. There is also one seat on the Sidewalk and Hardship Commission that is open to a resident in the Southwest quadrant of the city only.
Mayor Piana hopes the new system will encourage more residents to apply and volunteer. “Residents really do have the ability to affect positive change in their community,” she said. “The city needs, and wants, residents to lend their voices to how the city grows and functions.”
The new system is expected to go live March 1. For the most up to date info visit the City of Ferndale website.