County takes first step to help Wilber Heights residents

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The Champaign County Board took the first step Tuesday toward allowing residents of the Wilber Heights neighborhood to rebuild or make substantial improvements to their properties.

The board instructed John Hall, the county’s zoning administrator, to draft changes to regulations that now prohibit repairs or renovations to nonconforming residential properties beyond 10 percent of their replacement value annually.

The move was prompted by a CU-Citizen Access investigation that highlighted the impact of a nearly 40-year-old ordinance that zoned Wilber Heights for light and heavy industry even though dozens of homes were in the neighborhood at the time.

The Wilber Heights area – located behind Market Place Mall and bounded by Market and Fifth streets and Wilber and Wallace avenues ‘“ now is made up of a mix of residential and industrial properties.

A 1973 county zoning ordinance designated the whole of Wilber Heights as industrial ‘“ with 75 percent zoned light industrial and 25 percent zoned heavy industrial.

Residential property then became nonconforming and light and heavy industries were encouraged to move into the area. Residents have since complained of declining property values, poor road conditions and abandoned properties.

If approved, the proposed changes will affect any nonconforming residential property.

Tuesday’s vote is the first step in a process that could take several months.

The county zoning board of appeals will hold a public hearing in the coming months before making a recommendation to the county board. Once the amendments are in a final draft, municipalities will have a month to protest before the county board takes a final vote.

The county also plans to notify any Wilber Heights residents who pick up building permits that the area remains industrial, a suggestion made by County Board member Stan James, a Rantoul Republican whose district includes Wilber Heights.

James said that improving residential property alone may not help residents realize the full value of their homes, since the area will remain industrial.

Tuesday’s move by the county pleased some Wilber Heights residents.

Robert and Helen Pheris, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, were married in their home on Wallace Avenue in Wilber Heights almost 58 years ago and raised four children there. They said they were happy that the county is considering the changes.

“We would like to see (the neighborhood) cleaned up and made more desirable,’ Helen Pheris said.

Another area resident isn’t hopeful.

“I think they need to take a deeper look into it,” said Tom Lemke, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 60 years. “A lot of the problem is enforcement.”

James agreed.

He said that once the proposed amendments are “said and done’ the county needs to decide what they plan to do with the area and take action within the next three to five years.

Those discussions could include either buying up residential properties or rezoning the area residential, James said.

“I don’t want to see it drag on for another 20 years,” he said.

Lemke said action needs to be taken soon.

“They’ve not done (anything) for 40 years. They’ve had enough time, they should’ve figured it out by now,” he said.