The Carbondale Observer

News and commentary about Carbondale, Illinois and SIUC

Council Votes on Baity Appointment Tomorrow, Zoning Issues Generate Controversy

with 12 comments

The city council will hold a special meeting tomorrow at 7:00 p.m. to vote on the appointment of Kevin Baity as the new city manager. As I mentioned in last week’s post, there is some controversy surrounding the appointment. Council member Jane Adams has announced her intention to vote “no” at Tuesday’s meeting. Baity seems to have the support of a majority on the council; an article in the Southern Illinoisan leads me to believe that council members Chris Wissmann, Lance Jack, and Don Monty, along with Mayor Joel Fritzler will vote to name Baity the new city manager.

If you haven’t done so already, take a look at Council member Adams’ blog post explaining her reasons for opposing elevating Baity to city manager. Adams’ opposition is based on her doubts about Baity’s willingness to strictly enforce Carbondale code. The specific incident that attracted Adams’ attention was Baity’s decision to issue a permit to Home Rentals allowing the building on the southeast corner of Sycamore and Oakland to be used as an auto repair shop. The building is in an R-1 single family residential zoning district and auto shops are not allowed in that district. Adams details the chain of events leading to the issuing of the permit, which was eventually rescinded. Adams’ post contains links to documents obtained through a FOIA request.

The way I see it, there are really two issues here. One is the obligation of city officials to enforce city code as it is written. Enforcement should be consistent and predictable, and the rules should bind the powerful as well as the weak. I’ve taken a look at all the documents and the relevant city code, and it is clear to me that the rules were not enforced in the case of the auto repair shop at Oakland and Sycamore.

The other issue is what city code ought to permit. I have argued on this blog that Carbondale’s city code is too rigid and does not serve the community well. In my opinion, Carbondale would benefit from greater residential density than our code allows, and we’d benefit from mixed use in our neighborhoods and in the buildings within them. Our code does not permit an auto repair shop at Oakland and Sycamore but, at least in my view, it should.

An auto repair shop is not the ideal use for the property. An e-mail from council member Chris Wissmann to outgoing city manager Allan Gill is among the documents linked in Adams’ blog post. Wissmann writes: “I’d definitely prefer a small retail shop (but that’s not likely with Schnuck’s just a few blocks to the south) or an office of some sort.” I agree. It would be nice if the building were rented to an accountant or used as a neighborhood coffee shop, but those uses would also be prohibited by our zoning code.

When faced with an overly restrictive zoning ordinance, one approach would be to bend or even break the rules in order to allow sensible development to proceed. That appears to be what happened in this case. But I think that’s a poor solution. It makes enforcement seem arbitrary and opens the city to charges of back room dealing or giving special breaks to powerful landlords. A better option is reform of the zoning code, which is currently underway in Carbondale.

Zoning and code enforcement are hot button issues in Carbondale because of our status as a university town. Since we have a large population of transient students, real estate – specifically renting apartments and houses to students – is big business here. Some larger landlords are known for the poor condition of their rentals. These shabby dwellings are eyesores and some of them are potentially dangerous. We need a strong code to address the problem and protect the safety of students and other renters, as well as to improve the appearance of Carbondale.

On the other hand, Carbondale’s population grows slowly if at all at least in part because there is a serious lack of economic opportunity. Starting any business is difficult, and a convincing argument can be made that our overly restrictive zoning makes it more difficult -and in the case of the auto repair shop, probably unnecessarily.

Balancing these competing interests is important, but it’s also difficult. With the rewrite of our zoning codes currently taking place, we have the opportunity to change things for the better. Council needs to hear from residents, and residents ought to think about the kind of community we want and the regulations we need, or don’t need, in order to build it.

I’ll share my opinion. As I said above, I think we need greater residential density and mixed uses in all neighborhoods, as well as the buildings within them. Our zoning code currently lists what’s allowed as a principle use and a special use in each district. I’d prefer to list what we don’t want – what isn’t allowed. That shift would loosen our code.

On the other hand, I think we need some aesthetic standards built into our code. There is no reason we should allow landlords to burden the community with eyesores. Coming up with a sensible set of aesthetic standards would be tough (the first question would be whose aesthetic preferences would be enshrined in code) but it’s worthwhile and we ought to start talking about it. This change would make our code more restrictive.

There are other problems with our code. Our minimum parking requirements for commercial developments result in too much space being devoted to parking lots, which is an impediment to walkability. Our setback requirements result in too much space between buildings, which impedes both density and walkability. The strict segregation of uses mentioned above virtually mandates sprawl and prohibits traditional neighborhood development. Maybe someday I’ll do a series of posts on all the problems with Carbondale’s zoning.

Zoning might be a boring and arcane subject, but it’s important and we need to begin a conversation about it. The most important thing is that we not allow ourselves to get locked into the kind of ideological debate over regulation currently happening at the federal level. Not all regulations are good, and not all regulations are bad. We need to examine each regulation and see if it is accomplishing what it is intended to accomplish, what unintended consequences arise from it, and what changes we can make to maximize positive outcomes while minimizing unintended consequences.

Comments are welcome.

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Written by The Carbondale Observer

January 9, 2012 at 7:45 am

12 Responses

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  1. There are critical issues that you missed here.

    1) Carbondale has a plan and a vision for how to rebuild the city. A great deal of money, time, effort, consulting and compromise was devoted to creating this plan.

    2) The neighborhood in question is slotted for historical rejuvenation.

    3) Henry Fisher, and his esteemed offspring Lindsay, have a long, sordid history of using Home Rentals to block bust neighborhoods. They have purposely placed dangerous elements and undesirables into the middle of neighborhoods to drive down prices and push residents out so they can grab properties at a lower price.

    4) Kevin Baity violated the spirit of the historical rejuvenation plan by allowing an auto-repair shop to open in the residential area. It would be very difficult to rationalize investing in the area when air-wrenches and engine revs are in the air.

    5) Home Rentals has a history of cronyism with the city – whether it’s with Brad Cole buying the bum bum and drug addict infested abandoned property on the strip for an exuberant price, or Chris Wisman flirting with Lindsay Fishers needs over and over.

    6) Kevin Baity usurped his authority, ignored his duties and behaved with hostility towards his staff – who foresaw and rejected his attempts – when he issued the permit.

    7) Kevin Baity open up the city to litigation as the shop owner now has a valid claim to sue the city to recoup the costs of his equipment and loss of business.

    8) Mayor Fritzler possibly violated the open-meetings act, whereby opening the city to a state investigation from Lisa Madigan’s office.

    9) Navreet Kang – who is also an upstanding and intelligent business man- is on a planning advisory committee, which was completely and totally ignored throughout this process. The government rules normally require the use of this committee, but Fritzler and Baity used a procedural maneuver to bypass it. Either we have a committee, or we don’t. If we don’t need it, then let’s get rid of it.

    So on the surface, this might look like an issue with neighborhood aesthetics or small office quibble, but this has huge implications as this is the tone that is set with a new mayor and a new city manager for how government will operate in Carbondale.

    Chris Wisman, Kevin Baity and Mayor Fritzler have formed the Carbondale Triad.

    The city is seriously heading for the dumps. We can vote Wisman and Fritzler out, but we can’t vote Baity out.

    Additionally, Baity has ZERO training or mentoring for his job. He’s a small time bureaucrat that held a seat warm long enough to the point that he becomes eligible for a position.

    We did a national hunt for the police chief and had fantastic results. Why can’t we at least do the same for the city manager?

    Ace

    January 9, 2012 at 11:09 am

    • Ace – I love it when people number their points in comments! It makes them easier to respond to.

      1) I’m guessing you’re referring to the comprehensive plan. But that plan includes mixed use developments. On page 3.19 item e. says: “Include provisions in the zoning ordinance to allow (and encourage) mixed use development.” There are eight separate references to mixed use development throughout the plan.

      2) It’s true that this neighborhood is designated “neighborhood conservation/restoration” in the comprehensive plan but what are we restoring it to? It’s a traditional neighborhood and at one time it undoubtedly included uses other than residential. The building in question was a warehouse. There is a building just up the street (at Allyn and Sycamore) that was clearly a commercial building at one time. Old neighborhoods are almost always mixed use. It’s only modern zoning with its obsession with segregating uses that prohibits mixed use traditional neighborhood development and mandates sprawl in its place. I don’t think conserving and restoring the neighborhood prohibits mixed use. I think it requires it.

      3) You’ll get no argument from me on this one. I think most fair observers would agree that Home Rentals is by far the worst offender when it comes to ugly properties in Carbondale. People who pay attention to these things would also agree that they have a record of code violations in their rental properties. A few months ago, we exchanged comments when I opposed a development I would normally support because Home Rentals would be the developer. I’m no fan of that company. And I think the city (and the public) should work to break their stranglehold on the community. But I also think we should reform our zoning code in the way I described above. After some conversations with some of Carbondale’s neighborhood advocates, I suspect changing the tax laws and enforcing code are the best way to defeat them. Allowing mixed use wouldn’t necessarily prevent that.

      4) I sort of addressed this one in number two. He certainly violated the zoning code, but I’m not sure the zoning code is compatible with restoring the neighborhood. We could debate which specific uses should be prohibited in this neighborhood and reasonable people can disagree about whether auto repair shops ought to be allowed. For what it’s worth, there is another auto repair shop in the neighborhood. I live very, very near it and it’s never cause me any problems. It is a bit of an eyesore, but noise and traffic have never been issues for me. The building at Sycamore and Oakland isn’t an eysore. I’d live next door to it.

      5) No one liked the American Tap deal, but everyone agreed the Tap needed to go. We had an owner who refused to sell at what most of us would consider a reasonable price. We could have done what we did and paid the price the owner wanted. The other option was to condemn the building and tried to knock it down that way. Some people argued that the second option would ultimately have been more expensive because Fisher could have made the minimum repairs to prevent condemnation (and fought it through the courts). That would have raised the price of condemnation and dragged the whole process out. I don’t have the expertise in these kind of things to evaluate that claim. A person could make the case that the Tap purchase was cronyism, but I’ve not heard anyone make that case persuasively. You also mentioned Wissmann. He’s has been a disappointment to me. Based on his editorials in Nightlife, I voted enthusiastically for him in 2003 when he first ran for council. That election was for a two year term, and I was a little less enthusiastic when he ran for reelection in 2005, but I voted for him anyway. In 2009, I would have voted against him if there had been a better candidate. Incidentally, Wissmann is quite hostile toward this blog.

      6) Jane Adams covered this very well in her post on this topic. If her post had been shorter and less thorough, I would have gotten to this. But since she already covered this ground, I linked to her and used this as an opportunity to address our zoning code, which is one of my favorite (and most deserving) targets for criticism.

      7) Same as number 6 above.

      8) This would also be the same as number 6 above, but I’ll add that I did mention the possible violation of the Open Meetings Act in last week’s post on the city manager controversy.

      9) I’m kind of hostile to the many, many boards and commissions we have in Carbondale. Seems like those boards and commissions accomplish very little and take up the energy of a lot of community minded people who might otherwise be volunteering with local NGOs (or starting some). There are some exceptions, notably the Human Relations Commission, but that’s my general view. It’s not so bad when the boards and commissions are merely advisory, but when people are forced to go before a board of unelected commissars in order to open a business, we’ve gone too far. I’d much prefer to have people deal with city staff, whose job is to enforce the laws, than with volunteer boards and commissions – especially when the boards and commissions are just a first step before ultimately facing city staff and our elected council. We can have a more streamlined system and protect the public interest. I’m stopping short of calling for the abolition of the planning commission, but I’m not a big fan…

      Just a couple of replies to your unnumbered items. True, we can’t vote Baity out. If we want to be able to vote out our chief administrator, we should move to a strong mayor system. But if you were to ever suggest that, you’d be run out of Carbondale before you even knew what happened. I’ve frequently suggested a hybrid system (something between council-manager and mayor-council) and I’ve received mostly negative comments.

      Of course, if we did vote Fritzler and Wissmann out, the new council might see fit to terminate Baity when his contract runs out. And council can direct Baity do do what it wants. It’s a hell of a way to run a city, but that’s the form of government we have. I suggest changing it.

      Final point – I’m not sure the nationwide search for the police chief worked out. The murder using the police chief’s stolen gun occurred during my extended hiatus and I resisted the urge to blog about it. Now that I’ve got an excuse, it seems to me that it shows extremely poor judgement to leave a firearm in a car, even if the car is locked. The newspaper reporting at the time showed a gap of several days between when the firearm was discovered missing and when it was reported to police – another serious lapse in judgement. Once it was reported, the case was logged as an animal control case. The city’s investigation showed no wrongdoing or intent to deceive, but there must be some citizens who are skeptical of that. Now someone is dead and the police chief’s gun was the murder weapon. That nationwide search doesn’t look so good from where I sit. And if it would have been up to me, the chief would have been fired.

      But on the city manager, didn’t we do a nationwide search? Maybe I’m mistaken, but I thought this went something like the nationwide search for SIUC President that ended in Glenn Poshard being promoted. We searched the nation and found the “perfect candidate” in our own backyard. Wink. You always have to watch for the wink.

      Anyhow, I have no hard feelings toward Baity, but I suspect we could have done better. We’ll see.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

      The Carbondale Observer

      January 9, 2012 at 10:33 pm

  2. Thanks to you too!

    You know I post long, terrible habit. The numbers help. 🙂

    The police chief… that was, to put it mildly, unfortunate and bizarre with the gun. On the other hand, his ability to reach out to the community for a dialogue and his support for moving the department ahead with 21st century standards for police training and adhering to sunshine laws was a breath of fresh air.

    Can’t say much about Glen Poshard, since that’s outside the scope of Carbondale city management.

    My point is that people like Baity are advanced in their jobs because of the willingness to tow the line with people like Wissman and Fritzler, as opposed to being promoted for demonstrating leadership and job performance. It sends terrible signals to the rest of the staff at the city: get ahead by who you know, not by the quality of the your work.

    More over, If we did bringing in an outsider, I think we have an opportunity to learn about new solutions, instead of regurgitating the same tired methods.

    Anyhow – your points are well received.

    Ace

    January 10, 2012 at 11:02 am

    • Good points on the police chief. Aside from the stolen gun, he’s made some worthwhile improvements. Posting long is a great habit, not a terrible one. You have to post long if you have a lot to say. Long comments are always welcome.

      The Carbondale Observer

      January 10, 2012 at 5:38 pm

  3. Thanks for your lengthy and thoughtful blog on the issues surrounding Kevin Baity’s involvement with the auto repair shop on Oakland. I take issue, however, with parts of your comments, including this:

    ……..He certainly violated the zoning code, but I’m not sure the zoning code is compatible with restoring the neighborhood. We could debate which specific uses should be prohibited in this neighborhood and reasonable people can disagree about whether auto repair shops ought to be allowed. For what it’s worth, there is another auto repair shop in the neighborhood. I live very, very near it and it’s never cause me any problems. It is a bit of an eyesore, but noise and traffic have never been issues for me. The building at Sycamore and Oakland isn’t an eysore. I’d live next door to it.

    The purpose of the Planning Commission is to air out – in public – the views not only of the developers and city staff, but the citizens most affected by changes in zoning. These sorts of hearings may be long and contentious – not something that should be brought in their raw form before the decision makers on Council. The Commissions are not, however, mechanisms for usurping the energy of people and preventing them from joining NGOs. Rather, they are the mechanisms of democracy and citizen input.

    It was precisely the bypassing of the City staff as well as the Planning Commission by the Acting City Manager that has created the outrage. Kevin Baity claimed he asked the neighbors what they thought, but we have now learned that it was employees of Home Rentals who told him the neighbors were OK with the deal. Professional staff at City Hall refused to sign a certification, so Baity signed it himself.

    Zoning Codes are meant to be enforced fairly so that there is a level playing field for everyone. When influence and individual interests trump the law, then we have the creeping corruption that ruins communities. And so it has been true in Carbondale.

    In the end, its isn’t whether you…personally…. would agree to live next door to an auto repair garage or a pesticide factory, its the judgement of the citizens of the town whether that was a good idea. Maybe it is, maybe its not, but there has to be an open and transparent way of arriving at that decision.

    For the single most important official in our community to have a history of rejecting the advice of professional city staff, ignoring and obscuring the concerns of the neighbors and exposing the city to potential lawsuits, it is a sobering concern. It rises far beyond the arguments of whether the present system is equitable and focuses us instead on the selection of staff and the adequacies of our elected officials.

    D. Gorton

    January 10, 2012 at 11:08 am

    • D., good point on the Planning Commission. I remember writing a post a few months ago defending the council for refusing to act on the changes to the liquor ordinance because the changes hadn’t been run through the Liquor Advisory Board, so I’m not always so strict in my opposition to our many, many boards and commissions. On the whole, I’m not a fan of them, but I can see the other side’s point.

      It’s true that the boards and commissions are part of Carbondale’s democracy. But we could imagine an entire spectrum of democracy ranging from the direct democracy of a New England town meeting to a representative democracy consisting of one official elected by the people to make and enforce all laws. We’re at one place on that continuum. I don’t know if it’s the best place, but I’m open to arguments that it is.

      On the decision of what’s a good idea in any given location, I agree that ultimately the city as a whole decides – through our zoning laws – what will be allowed. And I definitely agree that the laws should be consistently and predictably enforced. But I don’t think we have to have one size fits all solutions. What’s appropriate for one neighborhood might not be appropriate for another and I think the judgments of the near neighbors and then the neighborhood as a whole ought to weigh heavily in the decision.

      A hypothetical example: someone proposes to put a neighborhood grocery and convenience store at the corner of Poplar and Cherry (assume no gas pumps). I’d be most interested in what the near neighbors think of the plan. I’d also be very interested in what the Arbor district as a whole thinks of it – and I’m talking about both the people who live in the district, and their neighborhood organization of the same name.

      I’m less interested in what someone living at Kent and Violet or Willow and Bridge thinks, because the proposed development really doesn’t affect them. Of course, city code is going to determine whether the development would be allowed, and the folks outside the neighborhood have a voice in developing city code.

      I’d like to see changes that allow flexibility for different neighborhoods to develop according to their own wishes. Maybe some neighborhoods that have the potential for mixed use want to remain strictly residential neighborhoods. They should. Maybe other neighborhoods want to incorporate other uses to improve quality of life or make for a more walkable neighborhood. They ought to have that freedom. Of course most neighborhoods aren’t dense enough to support walkability, so for most people in Carbondale it isn’t really relevant.

      Thanks for the comment!

      The Carbondale Observer

      January 10, 2012 at 5:56 pm

  4. I live less than a block away from Oakland and Sycamore and am glad to live in a neighborhood that has so many services available to me within walking distance (hospital, library, pharmacy, grocery…) and I welcomed the auto repair shop. Now that they are leaving we’ll have ANOTHER empty building or marginally used buidling immediately around my home. The old High School is barely used, except by kids who hang out there at night and leave junk in my yard…the auto repair shop will be empty again and now the armory. I’m very concerned my neighborhood is becoming a draw for vagrants and people who don’t care about the citizens who live here or the law in general. I’ve seen crime and other problems increase as tennants in the old high school have decreased.

    I will say this, Kevin Baity, All Gill and our Neighborhood Services have done more to help me deal with a problem neighbor who for years got away with violations of code on her property. They very courageously stepped up and dealt lawfully with her and even though they were threatened physically. My home is much more peaceful after they helped enforce law that no one was willing to do before. I trust that our current council and government officials can continue to work together for the betterment of people, like me, who made a deliberate decision to move into Carbondale because of all the positives it has to offer.

    R. Parkinson

    January 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    • I have heard from a number of people who live very near the warehouse who have expressed considerable concern about the auto repair shop. Perhaps, with restrictions established through discussions between the shop owner and neighbors it might be a real contribution to the neighborhood.

      The major problem I see with the permit issued to Home Rentals is that a city administrator issued the permit to Home Rentals in violation of our codes, Because of this, neighbors who would be directly affected could not make their opinions and desires known. The City has well-developed procedures for permitting special uses that make sure that neighbors have the opportunity to express their views, that modifications can be made in the business’s operation to minimize negative impacts on the neighborhood, and for elected officials (City Council, with advice of the Planning Commission) to then make the final determination.

      We also have procedures to amend our codes if need be — for example, to permit a broader range of special uses than are currently allowed. But only the City Council can alter our laws. It cannot legally be done by administrative fiat.

      There is a very widespread perception in Carbondale that our laws are not enforced equally — that it depends on who you know. If true, it is poisonous for our business climate and public confidence in our city administration. The way the zoning certificate was issued to Home Rentals certainly supports such a perception. I believe deeply that for a community to thrive, residents and business owners must be able to have confidence that the rules are applied equally. As Observer observes, we can solve what may be excessive rigidity in our codes through amending them. And we should — while making sure that citizen input is preserved to guard against degradation of residents’ quality of life and property values.

      Jane Adams

      January 11, 2012 at 4:47 pm

      • Jane – all great points. City staff should enforce code, not change it. That’s the job of the city council. And we absolutely must enforce codes equally for rich and poor, powerful and powerless. If people think the powerful and connected get special treatment they’ll never take the risk to invest here.

        And you’re right that the process followed to issue the permits in this case prevented neighbors who supported the auto shop from voicing their opinions and those who opposed it from airing their concerns. I’m guessing the fact that the auto shop wouldn’t have been allowed even as a special use had something to do with the questionable (I’m being very charitable with my language) process used.

        A thought occurred to me as wrote this comment. Could the owner of the property have requested rezoning to a classification that would have allowed the auto shop? I imagine they would have been turned down because of their reputation, but would it be possible? Generally spot zoning is frowned upon (possibly prohibited in our code?), but it might be a solution that allows some mixed uses without having to amend the code. Of course, we’re rewriting our code anyway, so it’s probably premature to consider these kinds of solutions.

        The Carbondale Observer

        January 11, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    • R. Parkinson – I agree. I live in the neighborhood too (though a bit farther north and east) and I like it that we’ve got a few places to walk to and I wish we had more. I’ve noticed changes in the neighborhood too. We’re in a tough spot. Most of the houses in the northwest side are pretty small – many with only two bedrooms. Even a young family often wants three bedrooms. Of course, an owner can always add on, but that can be more expensive than buying a home in another neighborhood that already has three bedrooms.

      That’s part of why I favor allowing neighborhoods to evolve. Better to let a developer buy a lot with a substandard home, raze it, and replace it with a duplex or triplex – increasing density – than to let a home continue to deteriorate and attract a ne’er-do-well element. Code enforcement, which is the most frequently offered solution to the problem, is (at least to my mind) not always a workable solution in a declining neighborhood. Policies, including our zoning codes, which seek to freeze time and prevent the city from evolving organically seem destined to fail.

      Thanks for the comment!

      The Carbondale Observer

      January 11, 2012 at 7:08 pm

  5. Just a small point of clarification, which I am sure you are aware of, about commissions, specifically the Planning Commission. Most states, like Illinois, have legislation establishing Planning Commissions and Board of Appeals in order to create a mechanism for addressing land use issues (or variances from them, as the case may be). These boards and commissions usually only convene when necessary to fulfill their obligations as set out by state statute and local ordinance, unless a specific item is directed to them by the Council or City Manager.

    The community I work for uses its Planning Commission very actively as a sounding board for Council policy decisions that impact the community as whole instead of just processing rezoning requests or special use permits, which is different from my previous experiences.

    I will also fervently agree with you about excessive parking requirements. I certainly hope that is addressed in the zoning ordinance update. The Wal-Mart parking lot and detention pond should never be recreated in Carbondale again!

    Rob Keehn

    January 12, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    • Rob Keehn – Thanks for the comment and thanks for the additional information. I wasn’t aware of the different ways planning committees are used. And thanks for the support on excessive parking.

      The Carbondale Observer

      January 12, 2012 at 9:08 pm


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