City agrees to zoning change, with an added delay

The Vermillion City Council decided Monday to alter the course of what appeared to be a routine zoning change of a neighborhood located near downtown.

After lengthy discussion, the residential property located south of Kidder Street, between Church and Market streets, will have its zoning changed from R-2 to R-1. In a compromise, however, aldermen agreed to the change as long as it didn't go into effect until July.

At one point in the discussion, it appeared that the zoning change was in jeopardy, even though it was approved on its first reading last month.

"At our last meeting, we decided to rezone this particular neighborhood from R-2 to R-1," Alderman Mary Edelen said, who voted for the zoning change at the city council's Dec. 21, 2009 meeting.

"I really don't like the saying, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it," she said at Jan. 4's city council meeting, as aldermen were considering the second reading and final approval of the zoning amendment. "I'm not sure this neighborhood is broken, or that the potential for it to be broken is there. We have not seen any great changes in the neighborhood, or seen people doing things that we in the community or in the neighborhood would not approve of.

"So if it's not broken, why are we fixing it?" Edelen said. "I'm now really questioning the need or the desire of some of the neighbors to change this neighborhood from R-2 to R-1."

The Vermillion City Council has given initial approval to the zoning change Dec. 21. If given final approval, 29 residential properties located near the downtown area

The action follows the filing of a petition signed by 48 percent of the property owners that reside in the area, who have requested that the zoning of the area be amended from its current R-2 residential to R-1 single family residential.

The primary difference between the two residential zoning districts is that R-2 allows multi-family structures of up to four dwellings, and R-1 is reserved for single family homes, and does not allow duplexes or four-plexes.

"Is there a particular issue that came up that precipitated the taking around of the petition to make this change?" Edelen said. "Were there scare tactics used for some of the neighbors when petitions were taken around? These are all questions that I have, and I don't live in that neighborhood, so no one came knocking at my door. But, there were people who told me that some scare tactics were used, and I don't think that it's relevant, or it's fair."

Before Edelen spoke, residents and property owners from the affected neighborhood addressed the city council, voicing both support and opposition to the proposed zoning change.

"There continues to be people who are in favor of it, and those opposed to it, but nothing much has changed since the first reading," said Farrel Christensen, city zoning official. "(City) staff and the planning commission still believe this is a good zoning ordinance and it will preserve the existing character of that neighborhood far into the future, and we recommend approval."

"I understand that one of the things that's put in place is that if a unit of property is already a duplex, it is grandfathered in," said Lydia Freedon, 25 E. Bloomingdale. "There are several properties in my neighborhood that are already duplexes. However, there are a number of us, myself included, that purchased a property that has the duplex potential. It's something that could be made into a duplex, which is why I purchased it, and if it's switched over to R-1, I won't have the opportunity to do that."

Holly Straub, 104 Court Street, an affected homeowner, told aldermen that the neighborhood being considered for the zoning change is bordered by the historic downtown business district.

"In that regard, it's not a typical residential area," she said. "It's not particularly adjacent to any of the other R-1 sections of the community.

"Individually, I certainly support the idea of historic preservation," said Straub, who is a past chair of the Clay County Historic Preservation Commission. "I also am the owner of the single property in that area that is on the National Register of Historic Places. I hope that people understand that the R-1 designation really does nothing to assist with any efforts in regards to historic preservation."

She told the council that it would be appropriate to seek designation of the neighborhood as a district to be placed on the national register and the state register of historic places.

Straub also said changing the zoning from R-2 to R-1 would limit the flexibility of some property owners, and would prohibit some property owners from converting homes in the area to multi-unit residences.

A rapid change in zoning would keep those homeowners from making the needed changes to their homes in time to be grandfathered in before the neighborhood is zoned R-1, Straub said.

"Personally, I believe that my neighborhood can best be maintained by the individual owners," she said, "if in fact people have the flexibility to make enhancements to their property that wouldn't be done, or wouldn't be able to be done quite as easily if they were not able to convert those properties into duplexes or some other sort of multi-dwelling listing. I understand the general spirit that communities are often times best served by having a lot of single family dwellings and owner-occupied property, however I think there are some unique characteristics of this segment of the community for which, at this present time, the city of Vermillion as well as the residents are perhaps best served by maintaining the R-2 designation."

Mike Kellar, 215 Court Street, told the city council that he and his wife, Paula, circulated the petition in favor of the zoning change.

"We think the neighborhood is deserving of an R-1. It's appropriate, it's a beautiful neighborhood, it should be preserved," he said. "R-2 has a very expansive use. I regret limiting people's flexibility. I wish that wasn't an outcome, but it seems that to leave it at R-2 is inappropriate. R-1 is much more appropriate.

"There's a neighborhood immediately to our west much like our neighborhood that is R-1, and certainly our neighborhood's original character and beauty is of a single family neighborhood," he said. "We appreciate your support in changing the designation to eliminate all of those alternate uses that currently R-2 allows."

Ted Muenster, who serves on the city zoning commission, also spoke in favor of the zoning change. He and his wife, Karen, own a home in the affected neighborhood. Muenster noted that he did not attend or participate in the zoning commission meeting in which the zoning change recommendation was approved.

"I think it is a good thing that we have gotten in touch with our history in this community, and this particular part of Vermillion has a lot of historic value to it," he said.

Muenster noted that one of the home's in the neighborhood was the residence of Gov. Andrew Lee, who was South Dakota's chief executive for four years beginning in 1897.

"It would be a shame to allow that to become an apartment building," Muenster said. "Other homes in that area have similar historic importance, and I think that it is important that Vermillion protect the properties along the bluff, to encourage, wherever possible, single occupancy, family-owned, family-occupied residences.

"I respect property rights, but I think in terms of the long-term interests and preservation and encouragement of the quality of life and the image of Vermillion, I argue strongly in favor of approving this petition," he said.

Mitch Flanagan, who has lived with his family since 2006 at 208 Court Street, voiced support for the zoning change. At the time the Flanagans purchased their home, it was a duplex, and they worked to convert it back to a single family residence.

"To change the district to R-1, I feel, is the right thing to do," he said. "It protects the single family homes from being converted into a duplex, which, in my opinion, was never the intent of some of these homes. That's the problem I see with a lot of neighborhoods in Vermillion. Homes that were meant for single family are now duplex or triplex, and that's why I would like to see a R-1 district."

City Attorney Jim McCullough informed the city council that if they approved the zoning change, their decision could be referred by citizens to a city-wide election. Another action that could be taken is a protest, signed by 40 percent of the property owners in the neighborhood, and owners of land within 250 feet of any part of the district.

"If such a protest is signed, and presented to the city, then there would be a third reading of this ordinance, and in order for it to become effective, two-thirds of the city council would have to vote in favor of approving the ordinance over the protest," he said.

Christensen noted, in response to a question from Mayor Dan Christopherson, that many of the properties in the neighborhood wouldn't be able to comply with city codes, particularly parking requirements, if they were converted to duplexes or triplexes.

"Part of the reason that staff felt this down-zoning is appropriate is these are smaller lots with single driveways and it is a condensed neighborhood," he said.

The city council agreed to a compromise suggested by Christopherson, and amended the motion to rezone the neighborhood to R-1. Instead of it becoming effective in approximately a month, the zoning change will go into effect July 1, giving property owners with current applicable plans to convert homes into multi-family dwellings time to finish that construction.

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