Flint, MI—Standing before the Flint Planning Commission, the evening’s stapled paper agenda in his hands, Andrew Watchorn said he was surprised to learn his home was listed for a rezoning request.

“My business with you is on ‘Item G,’” Watchorn began, facing the row of commissioners in City Hall’s Dome Auditorium on April 25, 2023. 

Agenda Item G was a public hearing. It read:

PC 23-2: The City of Flint Planning Commission requests the rezoning of 914 E.
Kearsley St. (PID # 41-07-453-016) and 918 E. Kearsley St. (PID # 41-07-453-
017) from MR-2 Mixed-Residential Medium Density to MR-1 Mixed-Residential Low Density.

– Text of Public Hearing PC 23-2, City of Flint Planning Commission agenda of April 25, 2023

Watchorn would later learn the request hadn’t come from the commission, but that wasn’t his concern tonight.

“I own 918 E. Kearsley, which you’ll see is being considered for a move from MR-2 to MR-1,” he said. “I’ve not been contacted about this and would like to make sure that I understand what the implications of that are before the commissioners consider that item.”

Watchorn’s home and the neighboring property at 914 E. Kearsley St. are currently zoned “Mixed Residential – Medium Density,” or MR-2.

The City’s zoning code states that MR-2 designation “is intended to accommodate a higher density development primarily consisting of one or two-story multi-family structures.”

Such zoning, the code continues, “may include multi-family developments with several structures making up a ‘campus’” and allow for ground-floor commercial space, a bed and breakfast, a community center, and group living possibilities.

A visualization of MR-1 zoning possibilities, according to the City of Flint’s Master Plan. (Image credit: City of Flint)
A visualization of MR-2 zoning possibilities, according to the City of Flint’s Master Plan. (Image credit: City of Flint)

MR-1 designation, the rezoning suggested for Watchorn’s property, stands for “Mixed Residential – Low Density.”

This designation “is intended to accommodate neighborhoods with small-lot single-family detached housing, duplexes, or townhouses,” the zoning code states.

It may also permit some non-residential uses like schools, parks, or religious institutions on a “limited basis,” so long as such uses “complement” a single-family-oriented neighborhood.

Basically, a city official later summarized to Flint Beat: “The salient difference is that MR-2 allows limited commercial use, while MR-1 does not.”

While Watchorn would be told this information in the coming days, none of it was explained during the commission’s April 25 meeting. 

There, after Watchorn spoke, Flint Planning Commission Chairman Bob Wesley said the commissioners had received a request from the planning department to postpone the hearing, as required public notices had not gone out in time.

They then voted unanimously to postpone the hearing to their next meeting on May 9, and Watchorn left with an apology for the miscommunication and a promise of a call from planning department staff, soon.

A call and some answers

In an interview a few days later, Watchorn said he had gotten the department’s call.

The staff member he’d spoken to had been kind and apologized again for the mixup, explaining that the department had received the rezoning request from the Central Park Neighborhood Association—Watchorn’s neighborhood association.

“This rezoning request was made based on advocacy by a neighborhood group,” Clyde Edwards, Flint’s city administrator, confirmed in a May 3 email.

“There was a misunderstanding about the procedures to move this request forward. Our understanding was that the property owners were part of the neighborhood group and were in support of the zoning change,” he said. “This is being reviewed in conversation with the property owners. A final decision has not been made, but the outcome will be driven by the wishes of the property owners.”

Flint Beat confirmed with the owner of 914 E. Kearsley that she supported the neighborhood association’s proposed zoning change, but Watchorn held that he didn’t.

He said he understood the possible financial implications to rezoning his property—lost potential income from a bed and breakfast, for example, or a lower offer from a developer who may factor in rezoning costs to bring the property back into higher-density uses—but he insisted financial gain wasn’t his reason for challenging the request.

In fact, Watchorn said, he has no intention to sell his property to a developer, even joking that he “plans to die” in his 108-year-old home at the corner of East Kearsley and Crapo Street before passing it on to his heirs or estate.

But, he added: “I just—I don’t believe that density is a bad thing.”

“I mean, there’s, there’s part of this neighborhood that is under stress, and there’s part of it that is doing really well right now,” he said. “And there’s part of it that can be family friendly, and there’s part of it that is about young people that just want to live downtown—which could be in a high-density space.”

He wasn’t upset with his friends and neighbors for their advocacy, he said, noting it’s “extremely complicated” to balance hundreds of families’ interests. However, he did hope to hear from his neighbors directly about “what the plan is and why” for the home he’s lived in since July 2014.

In the meantime, he explained, he’d told the planning department staff that he didn’t want his property rezoned.

In response, they had assured him the hearing would not appear on the commission’s May 9 agenda. 

The Central Park Neighborhood Association

For its part, Central Park Neighborhood Association (CPNA) representatives said the zoning request for Watchorn’s home was a “correction,” and something they’d been working on since engaging in Flint’s master plan implementation process nearly a decade ago.

A city’s master plan is meant to act as a visioning document, or a blueprint of sorts, for land use and future development.

Ideally, such a plan will inform updates to a city’s zoning code, or the set of regulations the city can then enforce to help bring that plan’s vision to reality over the years. 

“In 2014, CPNA advocated for residential zoning in Central Park to retain owner-occupied properties and architectural integrity,” Sarah Scheitler, CPNA president, wrote in an emailed response to Flint Beat’s questions. “As a result, the vast majority of the neighborhood was zoned MR1 in the revised proposed land use map, including the two parcels at 914 and 918 E. Kearsley Street.”

On this point, public records are unclear.

While the city’s master plan was approved in October 2013, an updated zoning ordinance was not approved by Flint City Council until July 2021. That year, the ordinance was only partially passed before city officials realized adopting it in such a way actually invalidated the zoning code altogether.

The full code was then adopted in 2022, part of an overall master plan implementation process which had stretched nearly 10 years and included multiple draft land use maps before a final one was approved. 

That map, from 2017, shows 914 and 918 E. Kearsley shaded light brown for “MR-2,” as are the majority of the street’s properties westward toward Interstate-475. 

However, the city’s Zoning Comparison Dashboard, which gives a side-by-side of the city’s prior zoning designations and new ones, shows the two properties as MR-1, though the rest of the same block’s designations match the 2017 map’s updated designations.

The city of Flint’s communications office did not respond to Flint Beat’s request for a draft land use map from 2014 or 2015, nor the question of when the dashboard map was created.

A snapshot from the City of Flint’s current land-use map, approved in 2017, with a view of the Central Park neighborhood. The parcels along East Kearsley Street shaded in light brown and dark brown indicate Mixed Residential – Medium Density (MR-2) and Mixed Residential – High Density (MR-3), respectively. The beige-colored parcels indicate Mixed Residential – Low Density (MR-1). (Image credit: City of Flint)

In tracking the zoning changes as an association, Scheitler summarized that sometime after 2014, “the proposed land use map was changed to reflect the two parcels in question as MR2 without notification to the neighborhood.”

She wrote that CPNA members noticed the change in 2019, “and immediately began working with city staff to reverse the change in the proposed map.”

So, she explained, while their request came up to the planning commission in 2023, the request itself was not new.

A snapshot from the City of Flint’s Zoning Comparison Dashboard, with a view of the Central Park neighborhood. Parcels located at 914 and 918 E. Kearsley St. appear to be designated as MR-1, despite the City of Flint’s current land use map designating them as MR-2. (Image credit: City of Flint)

Given the association’s years-long timeline of action, Flint Beat asked at what point the CPNA reached out to the owners of 914 and 918 E. Kearsley St. to let them know of the association’s rezoning request.

To that, the president responded: “The zoning correction for these parcels was listed on the neighborhood’s general meeting agenda, regularly discussed at open neighborhood meetings, and noted in minutes regularly since August 2019.”

A near conclusion

When the May 9 planning commission meeting came, Watchorn’s property was still on the agenda, and the staff member Watchorn said he’d spoken to about removing it wasn’t present.

Watchorn explained the situation during public comment, citing that he’d been assured the request would be removed from the agenda by planning department staff.

To that, Chairman Wesley invited another staff member to explain.

“I discussed this with Bill earlier,” Max Lester, the city’s newly-promoted zoning coordinator, responded, referring to another zoning coordinator. “And our intention was to request that this be pulled from the agenda.”

That seemed like the end of it for Watchorn, who began to get up from his seat.

But, during the ensuing discussion about removing the hearing, the commissioners learned that the department had put out a second, separate public notice that the rezoning hearing would be held on May 23, 2023.

In consultation with Flint’s chief deputy city attorney, JoAnne Gurley, the commissioners determined that they would postpone the hearing to May 23 so as not to violate public notice requirements.

Once the vote was done, Watchorn let out a small sigh before leaving the auditorium.

Days later, from his side porch overlooking the grounds of the Flint Public Library, Watchorn said he was disappointed he’d need to go before the commission again.

He had attended a CPNA meeting on May 11, where it seemed the association agreed to drop the matter. 

Scheitler later confirmed the same over email on May 16, writing: “​​Out of respect for our neighbor’s wishes, Central Park Neighborhood Association (CPNA) is no longer pursuing a correction in zoning for the parcels at 914 and 918 E. Kearsley St.” 

Andrew Watchorn is reflected in a window in his home in the College Cultural Neighborhood in Flint, Mich. on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

From the shade of his porch, Watchorn looked down Kearsley Street at the Flint Institute of Music and the city’s art museum, history museum and planetarium.

He said he still believed a bed and breakfast or denser housing would allow more people to enjoy his neighborhood’s many cultural attractions, but he hoped he’d not “lost too many friends” by sticking to that opinion.

The hearing and a decision

On May 23, City of Flint zoning coordinator Bill Vandercook opened public hearing PC 23-2, the rezoning request for Watchorn’s property, by first correcting its language.

“PC 23-2 was supposed to be published as follows: ‘the City of Flint Planning and Development Division requests the rezoning,'” he said. “Not ‘the Flint Planning Commission requests the rezoning.'”

Vandercook then offered a summary of the planning department’s recommendation on the matter.

“In 2022, the property owners of 914 and 918 E, Kearsley Street, the neighborhood association and the city all agreed to the rezoning,” he said.

Watchorn shook his head at this but said nothing as Vandercook continued.

“Now, one of the landowners has changed their mind and does not want the property rezoned from MR-2 to MR-1,” Vandercook said. “Staff recommendation: zoning coordinator Bill Vandercook requests the planning commission remove this case from public hearing.”

Chairman Wesley then invited those in favor of the rezoning request to speak first.

A letter of support was read into the record from Nic Custer, the CPNA’s vice president, before his father, Ed Custer, stood to speak.

“My family’s lived in the neighborhood for three generations and over 70 years,” he said.

Ed Custer, a resident and property owner in Flint’s Central Park neighborhood, speaks during a public hearing before the Flint Planning Commission on May 23, 2023. Custer spoke in favor of rezoning a property belonging to Andrew Watchorn, another resident and property owner in the neighborhood. (Kate Stockrahm | Flint Beat)

Reading from a typed statement, Custer reiterated Watchorn’s MR-2 zoning was an administrative error and claimed that the city’s MR-1 zoning category was created through the neighborhood group’s efforts to preserve the previous zoning of Central Park.

“We believe this zoning has helped maintain owner-occupant families’ housing and stability in the neighborhood and avoid commercial encroachment fought for decades,” he said, concluding by submitting a letter of support from the owner of 914 E. Kearsley St.

Two more of Watchorn’s neighbors also said they were in favor of rezoning his home. One provided a printed list of questions to the commissioners while the other noted parking requirements for a new development would negatively affect the neighborhood.

Then it was Watchorn’s turn to speak.

He stood up and said the neighborhood association had decided at its last meeting that they would not take an official position on the rezoning request. He pointed to the many other MR-2 or higher density zoning designations on Kearsley Street as a reason it didn’t “make sense” to him to rezone his property. And, he said, his home’s rezoning during the master plan process wasn’t an error.

“I remember seeing a map … I asked questions about it at that time,” he told the commissioners. “So this is not a mistake that we overlooked.”

The commissioners then asked questions about the department’s record of events, requesting where the “error” being argued before them could have occurred.

Vandercook noted the faulty adoption of the city’s updated zoning code as a possible contributor. He also confirmed that the CPNA’s secretary had said the association would no longer support the rezoning request.

Plus, he said, the commissioners should take into account the wishes of the property’s owner, who was now stating he did not want the change.

In the end, though, the matter came down not to who made a stronger case before the commissioners, but rather, who submitted the request in the first place.

“The planning and development department—please correct me—is the applicant in this case,” Commissioner Robert Jewell said, pausing for Vandercook to confirm. “And historically … applicants may withdraw their request.”

Jewell said the hearing therefore began with the applicant, the planning department, withdrawing its own request and he was “not comfortable in making a decision regarding an applicant who wants to withdraw their request.”

He motioned to accept the department’s withdrawal, and the commissioners voted unanimously in favor. This left Watchorn’s property zoned as MR-2.

“My last thought is that this was not a mistake,” Watchorn told Flint Beat after the hearing, adding that he still loves his neighborhood and neighbors. “If the people who wanted this had reached out we could have figured it out sooner.”

None of the Central Park residents who spoke during the hearing wished to make a comment following the commission’s decision.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....