By Pam G. Dempsey, Acton Gorton and Dan Petrella — A Champaign County zoning official plans to propose regulatory changes for the Wilber Heights neighborhood that will combat the deterioration of residential properties.
The move follows a CU-Citizen Access investigation that exposed the impact of a zoning ordinance that has prevented residents from doing significant repairs to their homes. At the same time, the nearly 40-year-old ordinance has encouraged light and heavy industry to locate in the neighborhood.
Residents say the presence of industrial properties in the neighborhood has led to increased traffic problems, such as speeding and deteriorating roads, and to abandoned properties. They said the county had ignored the increasing problems over the years.
After the story about the neighborhood appeared, John Hall, Champaign County Planning and Zoning director, said he would initiate a process that could allow residents to renovate, repair or rebuild their homes if they are damaged.
Hall is set to present the plan to the county board at its Tuesday meeting so he could get approval to draft an amendment to the current zoning ordinance.
Hall said a public hearing must be held to change the ordinance. The matter will then need to go before the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals – an appointed committee that makes recommendations to the county board.
The process could take at least three to four months, if not longer, Hall said.
Any municipality within Champaign County could also object to the proposed amendments. If that happened, a minimum of 21 yes votes from the 27-member board would be needed before changes could take effect.
Without any objections, a minimum of 14 yes votes are required to approve amendments.
All counties with zoning have regulations for nonconforming uses that are similar to Champaign County’s, Hall said. After the story appeared, he said, he compared Champaign County to McLean, Sangamon, Macon, Peoria and Rock Island counties.
While it’s not unusual to have nonconforming ordinances, Hall said, he did not find any situation in which a county re-zoned a residential neighborhood as industrial when there were still a substantial number of inhabited homes.
“There’s no reason to leave it that way,” Hall said.
The current zoning is “clearly more restrictive” than zoning found in neighboring counties, Hall said.
In an Aug. 30 memo to the county board, Hall said that the ordinance also “prevents older homes from being modernized” and “typically means that insurance cannot protect this major investment.”
“Both rules mean that the value of dwellings like those in Wilber Heights is being degraded and not being conserved,” wrote Hall, who noted earlier in the memo that one of the purposes of the zoning ordinance “is to conserve the value of land, buildings and structures throughout the county.”
“The biggest investment in your life is your home,” Hall said Wednesday.
If the zoning ordinance is amended, residents would have a chance to improve their property and sell it for a better price, said Donna Scott, a long-time resident.
“It’s about time,” she said of Hall’s plans.
The 1973 county zoning ordinance designated the whole of Wilber Heights as industrial – with 75 percent zoned light industrial and 25 percent zoned heavy industrial even though dozens of homes were in the area. Hall speculates that the area was zoned industrial because of Clifford-Jacobs Forging Co., which developed the area in 1928 as a single-family neighborhood primarily for employee housing.
The ordinance deemed existing residences nonconforming and prevented any resident from adding on or renovating more than 10 percent of the replacement value annually. In addition, the ordinance prevented a family from rebuilding its home if it burned down.
Businesses have no similar restriction.
For example, Mickey’s Linen, a linen rental business located at 221 Paul Ave., was able to completely rebuild after a fire in March 2007 that caused $150,000 in property damages.
“Everything went smooth with the county,” Mike Bayler, the company’s district manager, said of the process to rebuild.
Wilber Heights has proved attractive to businesses because of its lower property taxes and lower traffic congestion. Because Wilber Heights is in an unincorporated area and does not receive municipal services, city property taxes are not assessed.
“It’s a convenient location, and we’ve got our biggest customer right down the street,” said Corey Freeman, a bookkeeper with Mike Bushman Trucking, which hauls rock, sand and construction debris.
The company’s largest customer is Sport Redi Mix, which rents property back to the trucking company.
Mike Bushman Trucking moved into Wilber Heights in November across from Sport Redi Mix on Wilber Avenue. In March it moved to its current location in the neighborhood on Paul Avenue.
“We’re not right in the middle of town where we have to deal with traffic all the time,” Freeman said.
Greg Sizer bought a car repair business in the area a few years ago, expanding a business he owns on Springfield Avenue.
“I bought it because it’s a growing location,” Sizer said of his spot at 2408 N. Market St. where he owns and operates Send A Friend Auto Care.
“All in all, it’s a good neighborhood,” Sizer said. “Like any other neighborhood, it has its issues.”
Business operators say most of the area’s residents have been good neighbors and that businesses and residents inform each other about safety and property issues.
Longtime resident Tena Bean, who lives on Wallace Avenue, agreed.
“Anything that can happen to them can happen to us,” Bean said.
, “The businesses try to be good neighbors because we live in and around” the residents, said Cindy Eaglen, who owns several properties in Wilber Heights, including a portable toilet rental business and a recycling business.
But Bayler acknowledged, “It’s tough for all the people who live here with the trucks going up and down the roads.”
Donna Scott, who has lived on Paul Avenue for 30 years, said traffic can be a problem.
While both businesses and residents keep a watch out for each other, some visitors and business employees drive through at a high rate of speed, she said.
Bean said some business employees also speed down Wallace Avenue who added that with a dozen or more children still living in the area, traffic problems for her are a big concern.
In addition to a zoning amendment, Scott said she hopes the county pays better attention to the roads and speed signs in the area.
Residents also say that drainage has been a problem; some business owners and employees agreed.
“The residents have it far harder than I do,” Sizer, who owns the auto repair business, said. “If [their property is] damaged, you’re done.”
Residents and some business operators also worried about some abandoned properties.
Alan Lilley, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, said he’d like to see businesses buy the area’s abandoned properties and care for them.
“I hope it does get better,” he said.