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Zoning Regulations Spur Debate on Wheeling City Council’s Development Committee

Photo by Eric Ayres Wheeling City Councilman Jerry Sklavounakis speaks during a development committee meeting last week.

WHEELING — Members of the Development Committee of Wheeling City Council held a marathon meeting Thursday night to discuss a myriad of proposals intended to help spur economic development and bring community improvements to the city.

At nearly every turn, however, a double-edged sword was drawn showing how planning and zoning protections could be lost if the city took action on some of the proposals.

The members of the Development Committee — Mayor Glenn Elliott, chairman; Vice Mayor Chad Thalman, vice chairman; and Councilman Ty Thorngate — seemed to be predominantly in favor of moving proposals forward for city council’s consideration. Meanwhile, Building and Planning Director Tom Connelly, City Manager Robert Herron and Councilmen Jerry Sklavounakis and Dave Palmer expressed concerns over a number of plans and urged committee members to pump the brakes on some of the ideas. Council members Ben Seidler and Rosemary Ketchum were not present during the committee meeting.

Among discussions were proposed zoning code changes that would modify the city’s accessory structure regulations, allow non-conforming structures to be rebuilt in the city, and eliminate parking minimums for commercial properties. While committee members championed the proposals in the name of progress, economic development.

One topic discussed at length Thursday night was a proposed change to the city’s accessory structure regulations to allow structures such as garage apartments to be used in the city, including in low-density residential neighborhoods.

“For me, this is just about cutting red tape and allowing people more freedom to improve their property, invest in the city and allow our neighborhoods to evolve instead of attempting to freeze them in time,” Thalman said, noting that the code change prohibiting these uses came into effect around 20 years ago.

“As I understand the rules before 2001 going back to 1968, accessory structures were generally permitted anywhere,” Elliott added, indicating that local realtors and real estate brokers have expressed concerns about planning and zoning regulations that have become somewhat growth-prohibitive in certain neighborhoods. “What may have made sense in 2001 basically locked it in place — that that is the best and only way that neighborhood should ever exist.”

The mayor noted that the city’s population was more vibrant during those earlier decades before the accessory structure regulations were put into place. Elliott said that in the context of a potential real estate sale, many potential buyers of properties may simply be told “that’s not allowed here,” and the issue never makes it to the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals to be considered, because — in many cases — the sale doesn’t happen because of the regulations.

“I would disagree with the idea that our neighborhoods should be locked in place for decades at a time,” Thalman said.

Fellow city leaders indicated that the proposal’s intentions were good, but the potential consequences of opening accessory structures to R-1 neighborhoods could be detrimental to the homeowners who have invested in their properties and who rely on zoning protections to help maintain the character of their neighborhoods.

Sklavounakis said the 2001 change to regulation must have been put in place for a reason. He also stressed that parking is already a concern in residential neighborhoods such as those in Woodsdale and others, noting that if a handful of garage apartments suddenly became available, there would be even more motorists fighting for limited street parking spaces.

“I get frustrated when I hear things like ‘obstacles’ and ‘red tape,'” Connelly said. “We’re trying to develop a city in a manner that’s in a predictable pattern. Coming to a meeting once a month, to me, isn’t an obstacle or a roadblock. It just takes some planning or some foresight on that particular applicant’s part.”

Connelly said planning officials want to see and to help facilitate investments in the city, noting that processes are in place that allow property owners to seek variances, to have individual cases heard and to weigh public input on proposals to forgo planning and zoning rules. And variances are granted all of the time and are seldom denied, he noted.

On another planning and zoning topic, the mayor asserted that someone should not have to seek a variance in order to rebuild property exactly the way it was. For example, the vice mayor noted that under the city’s code, the popular Avenue Eats restaurant — which was destroyed by fire — could not be rebuilt exactly the way it was because of various requirements such as parking availability.

Officials noted, however, that the restaurant was able to operate because the owners were successful in obtaining a variance.

“Zoning all gets back to health, safety and welfare,” Connelly said. “It tries to space buildings out so fires don’t jump as easily, it prevents overcrowding. The thought behind zoning isn’t to be a burden on the property owners, it was developed for safety reasons.”

Ultimately, the committee moved to draft a resolution strongly recommending that city council consider concrete steps to reduce regulations and ease the process for both accessory structure and rebuilding non-conforming structures while addressing unintended consequences brought up during the lengthy meeting.

Following discussion and debate, the committee did move to forward a recommendation to city council to eliminate parking minimums for commercial property.

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