For decades, Champaign County forbade its residents in Wilber Heights to make repairs to their homes, even when seriously damaged.
But even after a 2010 amendment to the zoning ordinance changed the 37-year rule, one county official said many still fail to make repairs.
Champaign County Zoning Administrator John Hall said lack of knowledge that a permit is required may be a reason why residents have yet to apply to make necessary repairs. He said this is sometimes due to mix-ups between a contractor and a property owner, but that it is a problem that is not just limited to Wilber Heights.
“We corrected [the] situation,” said Hall said. “The zoning ordinance was amended to [allow] people to now rebuild homes and mobile [homes] if they want to.”
Residents who choose to expand must first comply with the ordinance requirements, and in doing so, they must request a permit. Hall said 148 permits were approved last year, but he did not specify how many applications were denied.
“We’re here to give those permits,” Hall said. “To get a permit from us, you have to submit a site plan showing where you want to build, [then] we review to make sure that you’re not getting too close to the lot lines.”
The October 10, 1973 ordinance didn’t allow Wilber Heights residents to add on or renovate more than 10% of their residential property. Its impact also made room for more industrial businesses to move into the neighborhood. Four years later, the neighborhood sought to be rezoned yet was denied because of the various commercial and industrial uses for the neighborhood.
Following an investigation by CU-CitizenAccess in 2010, which was cited by county officials in discussions, the county changed the ordinance to allow residents to make certain repairs and rebuild their homes. The article told the story of Tom Lemke and his wife Velma, who were prohibited by the Champaign County Planning and Zoning Department from repairing their home after a car crashed into their front porch.
Hall said the amendment went through the County Board, and then the Zoning Board of Appeals. Once that happened, it then awaited approval — which eventually was granted.
Driving through the community, it appears many long-time residents live in the same homes, with little improvement to property damage. Statistics collected from Point2, an online real estate marketplace, show over 65% of Wilber Heights, which has about 2,900 residents, have lived in the same house as the previous year.
Today, abandoned homes and mobile homes are sprinkled throughout the community. The newly renovated homes across the street near the Market Place mall starkly contrast with Wilber Heights, which is split up by light and heavy industrial zones.
“Everything west of Fourth Street and including the 50 feet east of Fourth Street is in the I-1 Light Industry Zoning District,” Hall said. “Everything more than 50 feet east of Fourth Street is in the I-2 Heavy Industrial Zoning District.”
Problems after the amendment
“What happens in Wilber Heights,” Hall explains, “[is that] people build too close to the lot lines, and [when they build], they build without getting permits.”
He cited the variance, a legal process that allows property owners to use land contrary to the local zoning regulations, that guides people to follow what the ordinance requires.
“Oftentimes, people don’t apply to get a variance first – and when they build, they don’t know they’re building too close to the lot line.” To qualify for a variance, there is a list of five criteria listed in the zoning ordinance that must be met.
The board considers how close the request is to another building, if the fire protection district approves and what neighbors say about the request. If approved, the board waives any requirements.
In 1991, former Champaign County zoning official Frank DiNovo proposed “enhancing the value of residential property in Wilber Heights” without violating the existing ordinance on the area — but his proposal was unsuccessful.
Finally, long-time complaints of the citizens paired with coverage from the press led to a proposal for an amendment to the ordinance. The proposal was reviewed and approved by a subcommittee, which then recommended the appeal to the full County Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals for a public hearing. Here, the public was given a chance to provide comments.
The committee voted, and the Wilber Heights ordinance was officially amended on June 8, 2010 to include residential purposes.
“It’s a shame this area was the original starting point for Champaign,” Stan James, a former Champaign County Board member who represented and fought alongside colleagues for the community of Wilber Heights for decades, said in an interview. “As time went on, government agencies did not spend much tax money or enforce zoning laws within the area.”
James has since stepped down from the board, yet mentions he finally sees changes being made.
“I drove by Wilber Heights last Saturday, [and] it appears some improvements are being made,” he said in mid-October.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included information about the City of Champaign Zoning Board of Appeals instead of Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals. CU-CitizenAccess apologizes for the error, which has been corrected.