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Neighborhood commercial zoning district close to final approval

MORRIS – An amendment to the city zoning code that would create a space for residential and commercial uses together has been approved by the Morris Planning Commission and received a first reading by the Morris City Council.

The issue has been on the plate of both groups for the last six months, after several business owners approached the planning commission to criticize a change to the zoning for property on the north side of East Seventh Street between Columbia Avenue and Iowa Avenue that affected the future sale of their businesses.

When the area was changed from a highway business district to a multiple family residential district in 2011, businesses in the area were grandfathered in and could continue to operate or be sold to another owner if they operated as the same business.

However, commercial property that wasn’t being used couldn’t be sold to a commercial business. It also couldn’t be sold and subsequently converted to another business.

Under the new neighborhood commercial district, business owners could sell and convert property in the area, provided it conforms with one of the new uses outlined in the ordinance.

The proposed district combines the existing rules for residential and commercial properties and seeks to “provide a mix of housing and small-scale businesses that are compatible with surrounding residential areas.”

In addition to residential uses, the district allows for a range of commercial uses including retail establishments and personal, professional and repair services. It also allows for small engine repair shops and parts stores, as well as small scale auto agencies selling new and used cars.

Property owners can also apply for a conditional use permit for a range of uses including churches, cemeteries, hospitals, schools, solar energy systems and veterinary clinics, among other uses.

The district restricts the size of allowed buildings by limiting the parcel size to a maximum of three standard lots and includes a range of height, setback and traffic requirements and restrictions.

Don Werk, a business owner who brought this issue to the attention of the planning commission, asked why the district allowed for different height restrictions on commercial and residential property, and questioned the specific setback requirements of the ordinance.

“Why are you trying to scale down the commercial businesses?” Werk asked.

City Manager Blaine Hill and members of the planning commission emphasized that the specific requirements in the district are taken from other sections of the city zoning code. In this case, the residential sections allow for taller buildings than the highway business zone.

Sid Wilcox, one of the original business owners to bring up the zoning issue, again argued that the zoning changes were designed to drive existing businesses out of the area.

“When I was going to high school up here, all of the business along Seventh Street were on a main highway – the housing behind that was called ‘shanty town,’” said Wilcox. “Over the years, a lot of those homes were torn down, some were built new, some were added on to and refurbished. They moved in on the businesses. Businesses were there first. … Now you’re constructing this whole thing to be against the businesses and they were there first.”

Planning commission member Tom Hoffman responded that the new neighborhood commercial district is a better solution for the future of the area.

“There’s never been any intention of trying to run anybody out of town,” said Hoffman. “I think if you really think about it you know this commission wouldn’t do that. … I think we’ve made it better than it was, but it was a rough road and it’s difficult to get past that. ... This is more accommodating to the future.”

This week, members of the Morris City Council gave the ordinance a first reading. Both council member Kevin Wohlers and Mayor Sheldon Giese praised the work the planning commission has done on the ordinance.

“I’m comfortable with what we’ve got going here – I think we came a long way since last October,” said Wohlers. “I think the planning commission came up with a really good compromise.”

“One thing I really like about it is that it’s not designed from the ground up, it was taken from things that are already in place – the central business district, highway business and residential; [zoning],” said Giese.

The council will hold a second reading and take public input on the proposed ordinance change at their next meeting on Tuesday, March 11. If the council adopts the ordinance, it will go into effect 30 days after it is published in the official newspaper of record, the Morris Sun Tribune. Under that timeline, the zoning district could be in place by mid-April.