Wilber Heights: Neighborhood hangs on against the odds
By LIZ CLANCY LERNER/For The News-Gazette
Editor's note: This report is part of a joint project of The News-Gazette and the University of Illinois Department of Journalism, in an ongoing examination of poverty and its related issues in Champaign County. The project is funded by the Marajen Stevick Foundation, a News-Gazette foundation; a matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a journalism foundation based in Miami; and contributions from the UI. The project also has a website for this and other material, including user-generated content. You can find an interactive map of Wilber Heights on the site here.
It doesn't take much to get Tom Lemke fired up.
Just ask him about his neighborhood – a place he has called home for 63 years – and his frustration is evident.
"They say we're a slum – run down. That's the way we've always been treated," Lemke said as he takes a deep breath from his oxygen mask, a treatment for chronic bronchitis. "We have really been abused ... and we have really tried to take care of the area."
Lemke, 64, lives in Wilber Heights. It's a neighborhood where, according to Champaign County Planning and Zoning documents, homes "are not encouraged to survive."
Champaign County passed an ordinance in 1973 intending to turn the neighborhood into a strictly industrial region. The regulation prohibits the rebuilding of or substantial repair to any home.
However, almost 40 years later, houses and residents still remain.
In Wilber Heights, abandoned homes sit next to recycling plants, which sit next to trash-filled lots that are adjacent to mobile homes – all within 36 acres.
"This wasn't a properly thought-out thing in the first place and it's so complicated that it's difficult to resolve at any time," said John Hall, the Champaign County planning and zoning director.
It is so complicated that even the spelling of the neighborhood is controversial. Residents have always known it as "Wilbur" Heights, with a "u." County documents and a 1960 newspaper article deem the correct spelling "Wilber."
Clyde Forrest is a professor emeritus in planning and zoning at the University of Illinois and has known about the zoning issues in Wilber Heights for 30 years.
"I wouldn't categorize it as a terrible slum," said Forrest. "But it's an area that's not going to attract first-class residential development."
Residential development isn't the goal of the ordinance, which is why it contains rules against maintaining and rebuilding homes in Wilber Heights.
Lemke, a retired mechanic, and his wife Velma raised their three children in Wilber Heights. Their home is a well-maintained two-story structure, which at one time was the source of a lot of trouble for them.
Eleven years ago, a driver lost control of his car, crashing into the home's front porch and destroying it. Lemke was about to rebuild his porch when the Champaign County planning and zoning department told him he couldn't.
The zoning ordinance prohibits any resident in Wilber Heights from adding on or renovating more than 10 percent of a home's square footage. (The entire zoning ordinance is online here, an 853KB pdf.)
So if a fire were to burn down a house in Wilber Heights, the homeowner could not legally rebuild on his lot. And in Lemke's case, he could not legally replace his porch. So, following ordinance rules, he kept the renovation to 10 percent.
Three concrete steps now lead to the front door of his house. It's not what he wanted, but it is what the county demanded.
The restrictions also affect home prices, because residents cannot substantially improve their homes. According to a 1992 planning and zoning document from a former Champaign County zoning administrator, Frank DiNovo, "They are also unlikely to be able to realize a market value of their property very much greater than its current use value as a dwelling."
The size of the lots also prevents individuals from selling for much higher industrial property prices.
"Industrial property is typically worth five times more than residential, but the homeowners would have to sell at the same time. If they sold one at a time, that wouldn't happen," said Forrest. But lifelong residents are not likely to move at the same time.
Yet, commercial properties have not been selling as well as residential properties because – as with residential mortgages – loans for commercial properties have not been as available as they once were, said Fred McDonald, president of the Champaign County Association of Realtors.
While federal stimulus money has been used to help jump-start residential property sales, it's not been available for commercial property, McDonald said.
"Commercial (property) now is a bigger concern," he said.
Wilber Heights and the surrounding area has been a good draw for business with its proximity to Interstates 74, 57 and 72, said Matt Wavering, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Commercial Devonshire Realty.
Because of that transportation hub, the city has pushed for higher industrial use in the area, he said.
And as the area has developed into warehousing and industrial uses, property values have become low, Wavering said.
Houses in Wilber Heights have sold for less than $50,000, he said.
Further, industrial property is the least valuable of commercial property, Wavering said.
Typically, industrial land in an industrial park will sell for between $1.50 and $2 a square foot compared to retail property, which can sell for up to $15 a square foot, he said.
Wilber Heights and Market Street are the cutoff between retail and industrial property, Wavering said.
"On the industrial side, values are lower," he said.
If one of the area's rental properties stops generating rental income, then "the land becomes worth more than the house," Wavering said.
Housing for workers
Wilber Heights was developed as a single-family residential neighborhood in 1928, primarily to give workers from the Clifford-Jacobs Forging Company a place to live. Its main roads, Wallace, Wilber and Paul avenues, intersect First through Fifth streets and sit just east of Champaign's Market Place Mall.
When the area was built, there was no zoning in place outside the city limits. When the county zoning ordinance was approved, in 1973, Wilber Heights was split into two categories, both industrial.
The ordinance acknowledges that some buildings already in existence didn't match the zoning – they were "non-conforming uses."
"It is the intent of this ordinance to permit these non-conformities to continue until they are removed," the ordinance says. "It is further the intent of this ordinance that such non-conforming uses ... shall not be enlarged upon, expanded, or extended."
The area east of Fourth Street is zoned for heavy industry; the area west of Fourth, for light industry.
In 1982, while millions of dollars were being poured into construction of Market Place Mall, residents of Wilber Heights watched as the county ordinance stifled the neighborhood's growth and maintenance.
While no numbers are easily available, it is estimated that at its peak, Wilber Heights was home to close to 200 residents, many of them families.
Now there are about 60 residents, most of them senior citizens.
They have called the neighborhood home, raised their children there, and formed roots in Wilber Heights for over 60 years. A few, like Otto Pruett and his wife Iverna – both in their 80s – say they're too old to move, while others say they couldn't afford to do it.
None of the residents asked for the ordinance change, and none of 14 who were interviewed for this report recalled being told it was going to happen.
Lemke remembers feeling helpless when he first heard of the ordinance just after it was passed in 1973.
"We did not know (anything) about it until it was all said and done," he said.
He's not the only one who remembers it that way. With her husband Virgil, Susie Roderick raised her three sons in Wilber Heights. She said she never received notification of the zoning change, either.
"Wouldn't you think that something that important, we would have gotten something in the mail instead of a little thing in the newspaper?" said Roderick, who has lived in Wilber Heights for more than 50 years. "We didn't know anything about it."
John Hall said the county commission did all it was supposed to do at the time.
"At a bare minimum, the county is only required to put a notice in the paper," he said. Even now, some zoning matters require only a notice to be published in the newspaper, but others require everyone living within 250 feet of a proposed change to receive a formal notice individually by mail. He added that zoning staff will keep in touch with residents who ask to be notified of any proposed change in their zoning.
While he was not the director at the time of the change, Hall agrees that the current zoning in Wilber Heights is a problem.
"Right now our ordinance is causing properties to go into disrepair and that is counter to everything in a zoning ordinance," said Hall.
Effects of the zoning
The consequences of the zoning are obvious. It began as a slow, steady deterioration of the neighborhood that continues today.
Residents began moving out, industrial businesses began moving in, and houses that weren't sold were abandoned.
The core group in the neighborhood that remains deals with far more than ordinance-restricting maintenance and rebuilding.
Lemke said it also discourages county, city and township government from maintaining their roads and listening to their complaints.
Lemke believes the local governments see the neighborhood as a lost cause because "they think we'll be out of here soon anyway, why spend the time and money?"
Other residents echo his sentiment.
As part of a group interview, 12 residents gathered in Susie Roderick's back yard to discuss their concerns.
With sounds of forging equipment pounding in the background, residents started naming the struggles they face. But the noise from the surrounding industries was not on that list.
"The noise don't bother us. We're used to it," said Mike Roderick, who is Susie's son. He was raised in Wilber Heights and now owns a home a few houses away from where grew up.
"It don't bother us as much as those big semis that drop and tear up the road," he said.
Many of the trucks that Roderick speaks of go in and out of Clifford-Jacobs, the forging company that has been in the neighborhood since 1923, five years before the residents began to build. But the addition of more industry, including a recycling company, concrete plant and portable toilet company, means more traffic.
Of the dozen intersections in the neighborhood, only a few contain stop signs.
Ken Mathis, the supervisor for Somer Township, said "By practice we don't place stop signs or speed limit signs."
He said, "it is an issue that should be discussed with the county sheriff's office."
Therein lies another major problem in Wilber Heights.
Who is responsible?
The majority of the roads in Wilber Heights are under Somer Township jurisdiction, while one of the roads is technically in the city of Champaign.
Lemke said when he has a problem, he gets "the run-around."
He said the township will say it's a county issue, the county will say it is a city issue, and back and forth it goes.
"If it takes a mediator to get between the city of Champaign and the county and the township to iron this out, then so be it," said Lemke.
Stan James is the Champaign County Board member who represents Wilber Heights. He has visited the neighborhood thinks the situation needs to be fixed.
"We owe this to these folks. We allowed this to occur in their neighborhood. We, the politicians, the one who make the decisions, are the one to blame," said James.
Though the issue has yet to be discussed at a county board meeting, James said he will continue to help find a solution.
Forrest was vocal in his concern over the ordinance change back in 1973, and today looks at the situation and sees three possibilities.
"They (the county) can regulate, they can tax and they can buy up land through eminent domain," he said. "The county could undertake a study to find the neighborhood blighted and could buy and clear the neighborhood and they could create a relocation plan, or they could do nothing."
There hasn't been much pressure to do anything in recent years.
"There are legally acceptable ways to deal with an area like this," said Forrest. "But I haven't heard of anything that is really pushing the county to specifically push this."
When asked what it would take to make progress, he said, "the neighbors coming together."
Ultimately, it is up to the county board to make changes. John Hall wants what is best for the residents and said he would be willing to change the wording in the current language on non-conforming uses to give residents the opportunity to renovate and rebuild their homes.
"Please note that the ordinance limits annual renovation to no more than 10 percent of the replacement value, but we only require permits for new construction and so we have no idea when someone is remodeling or renovating," Hall said in a recent e-mail.
He said he plans to propose a change to the ordinance at the August county board meeting.
He plans to let the residents know when this will happen so that "they can be a part of the discussion." Otherwise, "it's a waste of time" said Hall.
Between now and the August meeting, Hall said he is "still reviewing ordinances from similar counties to see what rules they have" and will ask the state's attorney what legally can be done.
Lemke is waiting for that day. He said he's sick of the strict rules and back and forth with the county and township. After 63 years, he's starting to think about living elsewhere – which means the county would be one home closer to getting its original wish.