Zoning official seeks regulatory changes for Wilber Heights area

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, which lies just north of the city of Champaign, squeezed between North Market Street and the Canadian National tracks.

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 report 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 zoning ordinance.

Hall said a public hearing must be held to change the ordinance. The matter would 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 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 votes from the 27-member county board would be needed before changes could take effect.

Without any objections, a simple majority – 14 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 report 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 rezoned 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 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 longtime 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 rebuild completely 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.

In addition to a zoning amendment, longtime resident Donna 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," said Greg Sizer, who owns an auto repair business on North Market Street. "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.

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