Council Votes on Baity Appointment Tomorrow, Zoning Issues Generate Controversy
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 Adams details the chain of events leading to the issuing of the permit, which was eventually rescinded.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.