Neighbors Say: Keep the Renters Out

WHEELING – Some residents in and around Walnut Woods Drive told the Wheeling Board of Zoning Appeals on Thursday they don’t want unfamiliar renters disturbing the privacy of their secluded neighborhood on the outskirts of the city near Oglebay Park.

Although Robert Hitchman’s request for a conditional use zoning permit to allow for the temporary use of a main structure and guest house at 119 Walnut Woods Drive as two separate rental properties faced considerable opposition from neighbors, board members voted 3-1 to grant the request, with members David Ellwood, Sherry Sligar and Steve Johnston voting in favor and Ronald Sinclair voting against. Board Chairman Martin Sheehan was absent.

The late Laurance and Barbara Good had owned the property for many years, and their heirs have agreed to sell it to Hitchman for $315,000, but the sale has not been finalized. Even though the land is zoned for single-family residential use, Hitchman said the Goods had rented the guest house for years, and he wants to recoup some of the purchase price by renting out the existing buildings for about 18 months, after which he would demolish the structures and build a new home that he and his wife would occupy permanently.

“I have zero desire to rent to anyone” who would pose a threat to the neighborhood, said Hitchman, noting he and his family have a long track record in the local hotel industry. He operates the Hampton Inn in Woodsdale. He said he is committed to renting to “the right people” and holding them to strict rental agreements.

“Where that does not happen, the lessees disappear as fast as is humanly possible,” he said.

A 2011 city ordinance limited the number of people who are unrelated by blood, marriage or adoption who can live in a “single-family” residence. Allowing two separate residences, therefore, would mean up to six unrelated people could live at that address – which doesn’t sit well with residents concerned about parking on the private drive and who are used to knowing their neighbors very well.

“My main concern is one of safety,” said Karen Kahle. “We know our neighbors. We like our neighbors.”

Lou Randolph told board members he welcomes the Hitchmans moving into the neighborhood, but is concerned the property will become a revolving door for “transient” workers in the oil and gas industry in the meantime. He shared letters from other residents of the neighborhood who said those who rented the guest house from the Goods previously sped through the neighborhood, driving through yards and striking trees on others’ property.

He also believes 18 months of rent income will be minimal compared to the purchase price and said he doesn’t understand why the Hitchmans need a year and a half to build their house.

“I don’t think that’s a reasonable amount of time, and I don’t understand why he wants to jeopardize our safety and the beauty of our neighborhood by doing this to us,” said Randolph.

Even if the board denied the permit, member David Ellwood pointed out, neighborhood residents still would have no say as to who moves into the building because Hitchman still would have the right to rent either one of the two structures to anyone. Ellwood added he believes once the Hitchmans build their new home on the property, surrounding values ultimately will improve.

The conditional use permit is the seventh such permit the city has issued since 2008 under West Virginia’s municipal “home rule” pilot program, under which the Legislature relinquished some governing authority to four cities, including Wheeling, on a trial basis. The program is set to expire July 1, although state Senate President Jeff Kessler expects lawmakers will extend, and perhaps expand, the program during the 60-day session that began last week.

City Manager Robert Herron said even if the home rule program goes away, all conditional use permits approved prior to July 1 would remain in effect.