Residents Voice Concerns, Give Praise at Public Hearing About Proposed Zoning Changes
About 30 people attended a meeting Monday night to hear more about possible zoning changes to buildings like schools, churches and libraries in residential areas
The City of Cleveland Heights held a public hearing Monday night in Council Chambers to review changes to a zoning code that, if passed, would set conditions but allow organizations and businesses to obtain permits to use vacant buildings like churches, libraries and schools in residential areas.
The ordinance will go back to the Planning Commission Wednesday, and could be approved by council at its next regular meeting Aug. 15.
Residents wanted to know how the city would inform them about new tenants, if the ordinance would apply to the former Oakwood Country Club, what types of businesses could move in and why the ordinance was initially written with an emergency clause.
Proposed changes to the zoning code
Councilman Dennis Wilcox said the idea to change the zoning code for non-residential buildings in residential districts came from consultant Camiros Ltd., which analyzed the city’s current laws and presented its findings in January.
The goal was to make development in the city more sustainable, and this is the first suggestion from the study its implemented.
“Adaptive reuse of existing structures is a key part of being a sustainable community. The most sustainable structure is the one that’s already built,” said Karen Knittel, city planner, as she was reviewing the revised ordinance for the about 30 people who attended hearing.
The former Coventry School, which closed in 2007, now houses the Ensemble Theatre, Cleveland Sight Center and Family Connections. In order to use the space, the new tenants had to have an educational purpose, Wilcox said, and each has a conditional use permit. This new version of the ordinance would expand the type of businesses that could use the buildings, such as companies that conduct research and development or utilize the buildings for office space, and multi-family dwellings.
"We're trying to attract high-tech businesses in Cleveland Heights," Wilcox said.
One resident asked if a Dollar General store could move in.
“A dollar store is not going into Coventry School. Let’s be specific about it. Let’s put it out there,” said Mayor Ed Kelley.
Rules businesses and organizations must follow
There are several guidelines contained in the new ordinance, including one that prohibits retail businesses from occupying the spaces.
There are also several rules businesses must follow to receive and keep a permit, which are outlined in the ordinance posted on the city’s website. For example, new tenants must make sure that their business does not disrupt neighbors, so hours, traffic (from both pedestrians and cars) and other possible disturbances must be considered.
And, according to the ordinance, "No demolition, modifications or additions to the building and/or grounds shall be permitted which would adversely impact the residential character of the neighborhood."
The city’s Planning Commission decides if businesses and organizations should receive a conditional use permit and how they use the space, and once it grants permission, it monitors them to make sure they aren’t negatively impacting the neighborhood or city. Residents that surround the structure are notified, and can comment at the commission meetings to provide input or raise concerns even after a business moves in.
What residents had to say
Wilcox asked for residents’ comments about the ordinance, and about a dozen approached the lectern.
One concern from residents that was addressed before the meeting started was the fact there was an emergency clause attached to the ordinance. Once passed, it would have taken effect immediately instead of after 30 days.
Councilwoman Cheryl Stephens said council members received several emails, and removed the clause.
“We reviewed those individually and then collectively, and we are responding to you by walking in this evening by saying, yes, you got it right, we didn’t,” Stephens said. “In our zealousness to facilitate good economic development that’s sound for our community, we forgot about a little thing, that things like zoning code need to percolate, they need to simmer with a community.”
Other residents who spoke said they want to have a say in who moves, and stays, in the buildings.
“Who decides whether whatever is built disturbs the residents? The residents or the council?” resident Leslie Keller asked.
Wilcox responded, explaining that any conditional use permit obtained under the new code requires an additional hearing through the planning commission.
“The residents always have the opportunity to come back if the applicant isn’t complying with the conditional use and challenge that,” he said.
Resident Maggie Schaffer said she was concerned about the changes to Coventry School, especially if the occupants need more parking.
"It seems like we have the hearings and people come and they talk but all the businesses all end up in place," she said.
Resident Michael Morse said he's glad the city is working on this plan, and he wants something done about the vacant Millikin School, owned by the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, on Crest Road that's near his home.
"I think we need to be extremely careful with how we apply that to each property," Morse said about the ordinance. "It's clear we are going to have more school closings."
Still others used the forum to state their objections to developing the former Oakwood Country Club, and wondered how this ordinance would affect that property.
First Interstate Properties wants to develop a mix of retail, residential and parkland at the site, and call it Oakwood Commons. About 60 acres of country club land that falls within South Euclid was purchased by the company late last year, and South Euclid recently rezoned the land so they could build. The company, which has also developed Legacy Village and Steelyard Commons, among others, plans to buy another 92 acres of club land that falls within Cleveland Heights soon.
Resident Michael Levin said he was "suspicious" about this plan to reuse existing buildings, and said the process is moving too fast.
“(The ordinance) frightens me. But I applaud that you’re addressing green issues, but I find it highly suspicious considering you're permitting the desecration of 144 acres of natural beauty," Levin said.
Kelley said though First Interstate President Mitchell Schneider owns the land in South Euclid, he has not bought the land in Cleveland Heights.
"He does not own the land in Cleveland Heights as of yet … and we have never received a plan from Mitchell Schneider as of this date," Kelley said.
Wilcox said after the meeting that the only possible link this ordinance has to Oakwood is the clubhouse on the land, but the Cleveland Heights area would have to be rezoned to develop the commercial properties that Schneider has planned.
This ordinance was drafted to try and address vacant properties in the city, he said.
"Would you rather see buildings vacant, deteriorate or demolished?" Wilcox said. "Or would you rather use them in a sustainable way that would create jobs?"
Resident Laura Marks said she's excited about the proposed changes to the zoning code, but wants the city to be cautious.
"I'm really glad to know we're looking at adaptive reuse of our buildings," Marks said. "I think this is exciting as long as it's monitored well."
The Planning Commission will review the ordinance at its meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall and possibly make changes based on the discussion at Monday's meeting or other factors. It could go back to council and be passed at its meeting Aug. 15.