University Heights zoning study gathers dust

It may be time for council to authorize a comprehensive zoning study in this, the most densely populated city in the area.

Since its inception, the University Heights zoning code is a patchwork in progress. Patchworks are just that, a mix of odds and ends with no consistency, cohesiveness or strength because so many stitches are needed to hold it together. That may be fine for a blanket, but not for our city. 

Updating and revising to a more appropriate and user friendly code containing better defined standards and building requirements will go a long way. The updated code, using current industry standards, will be understandable and may reduce the number of requests for variances and limit the appeals filed.

An updated code will be a start that will reflect and guide our city for the future. While we do not have much land for development, we have land that is being reconfigured.

Land for residences, schools, commercial and public use each requires specific codes. And as night follows day, zoning codes follow a city’s plan for the future, called a master plan. A master plan outlines how we envision the use of the land. University Heights has several master plans on the shelf, from 1985, 1986, 1991 and 2003. 

The zoning code, its interpretation and appeals, is a complicated process. At issue is our right as private property owners to enjoy our property as we wish. In a landmark 1926 Ohio case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that zoning was a legal city function. Since 1926, state and federal courts have continued to rule that a city has the right to pass and enforce zoning laws. When property owners have challenged the restrictions imposed, the courts have continued to define a city’s right and power to issue zoning regulations.

Last year, two different neighborhood citizen groups formed to contest requests for zoning variances. The Waterway car wash deal for Warrensville Center Road ended when Waterway relocated to Pepper Pike. John Carroll University’s plan to convert a house on Carroll Boulevard to ROTC offices ended in an appeal process. JCU subsequently withdrew. This spring, both citizen groups returned to action. One to prevent a McDonald’s on the Warrensville site, and the other to prevent JCU’s second request to convert the house into offices.

In 2008, D. B. Hartt Inc. submitted a proposal to evaluate the city’s existing zoning code. Hartt, a recognized leader in community planning and zoning, states its mission is to “improve the quality of life and physical planning in a community . . . so that competing interests can make informed decisions, resulting in responsible use of land.” In other words, the result of updating the zoning code must be acceptable to the different interest groups within the city.

As a city, we do not focus on the future. Master plans and the D. B. Hartt proposal to evaluate the existing zoning code are gathering dust. 

An updated zoning code with specific development standards and building requirements, with the general support of the residents, will reduce variance requests and appeals that are now based on interpretations of vague language. More importantly, it will help reduce the conflict between residential and commercial interests. It is time for council to dust off the D. B. Hartt 2008 proposal. With July and August cleared of council meeting obligations, council has the time to begin this important municipal task.

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Volume 3, Issue 7, Posted 7:55 AM, 06.24.2010