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URBANA — A garage illegally converted into apartments that once housed three graduate students in West Urbana will no longer be allowed to house anyone after aldermen voted down two major zoning variances Monday night.

The requests came from real-estate agent Dan Gordon, who bought the property in 2018 from previous owners who along with converting the garage into three apartments had also hooked it up to plumbing and electricity without permits or city approval, and built an addition that didn’t comply with city rules.

The first variance would have changed the setback from 10 feet to 3 and was defeated 7-1. The second — which would have allowed the garage to remain as a single one-bedroom apartment — was defeated in a 4-3 vote.

Esther Patt, who lives in West Urbana and is president of the Champaign-Urbana Tenants’ Union, called on the council to defeat the variances due to what she called “flagrant violations of the law.”

“I am truly shocked that this administration staff would say that unlawful behavior is the special circumstance that justifies these variances,” Patt said.

“Do you really want to set a standard that illegal use for profit satisfies the variance rules? Unlawful behavior should be punished, not rewarded.”

Like Patt, Alderwoman Shirese Hursey was clear in her opposition to the variances under the pretense that “illegal” means just that.

“I can’t get past the words ‘illegal’ and ‘Realtor,’” Hursey said. “I do not understand; unless this gentleman bought it unseen, how did he not realize the garage was not a garage? I find it hard to believe he didn’t know it wasn’t up to code.”

During questions, Gordon said he had the house inspected and nothing was found, and it was his impression when buying the home that the apartments were allowed.

But Alderwoman Maryalice Wu pressed Gordon on how a professional inspector could have missed that the structure was not compliant with city and state code.

“I am shocked to learn you had a professional person come and look at your property and say it was OK if there were so many code violations,” Wu told Gordon. “Did they tell you it was in violation?”

Gordon said he did not recall, before city staff members stepped in to say the city was not aware about the noncompliance until approached by Gordon.

Alderman Bill Brown didn’t blame Gordon, but supported defeating the plan because it would set a precedent despite what city staff said otherwise.

“It’s amazing this got as far as it did,” Brown said. “We saw three conditional-use permits in the zoning board of approvals not long ago, and later, all of a sudden, we had a text amendment proposal to allow those uses by right. All of a sudden, staff say this is the way development is occurring, so let’s just pass it. So it does set a precedent.”

Alderman Eric Jakobsson, who supported the variances, said he was troubled by the attacks on Gordon’s integrity and did not have a problem with extending the variances for an already-existing structure.

“I can easily see anyone walking into this in the way you did,” Jakobsson told Gordon. “I think that converting this from three apartments to one is all right. I don’t think it creates a precedent for anything else. We’re just in this case inviting appropriate investment into the neighborhood.”

Gordon said he already took 50 percent cuts to his profit from this property, and was “not happy” about the vote Monday.

But Patt was happy with the result. “When it’s income property for a landlord, then they want to get retroactive approval?” Patt asked. “It’s that line, ‘Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.’ No. There is no forgiveness. It is the owner’s responsibility to find things out.”

Reporter

Aldo Toledo is a reporter covering local government at The News-Gazette. His email is atoledo@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@aldot29).