Proposed zoning plan prompts debate on role of industry in Morris
MORRIS -- The biggest sticking point for the Morris Planning Commission's proposed zoning plan for the City of Morris is what to do about the railroad corridor through downtown. At a public hearing on Tuesday night, discussion about the proposed change prompted a small debate about the role of industry for the future of Morris.
The Planning Commission has proposed 20 changes to the city zoning map. These zoning changes are designed to address the future of Morris reflect changing trends within city limits, explained City Manager Blaine Hill.
The biggest topic of dissension at Tuesday night's meeting was the proposal to change the zoning for all railroad property northwest of the Denco II plant from heavy industrial to light industrial.
Sue Granger, a member of the planning commission, explained that the change was designed to reflect the comprehensive plan for the City of Morris, which specifically suggests enhancing residential livability by separating industry and residential areas.
"It's hard to get far enough away from that industry that its noise or its activity doesn't affect the residential areas," said Granger. "What we're trying to do is support the renewal of the inner part of the city."
Granger also cited a 2008 housing study which found that 25 percent of the housing in the central core of downtown Morris are considered dilapidated. Seventy-six percent of the city's lower value housing are also in the central core, in part because of the "spine of heavy industrial that runs right through the town."
Hill said he received three calls this week from people opposed to the change, and local business owners Jay Morrell and Bob Johnson both spoke in opposition to the measure at the meeting. Morrell told the planning commission changing the property designation will devalue the property, especially since it has rail spurs that are more valuable for heavy industrial buyers than light industrial businesses.
"It's very seldom that will you find light industrial in need of a rail," said Morrell. "The City of Morris is blessed with the number of rail that is here. I'm sure there's times when you don't feel that way, but as a business owner that rail spur we have is a vital part of our operation."
Morrell also disagreed that moving industry out of downtown was an effective revitalization strategy for downtown residential zones.
"It goes back to the core railroad; it's actually what started Morris, I think, originally. [The city] built from the railroad out; it didn't build from the railroad in," said Morrell. "Changing my classification from heavy industry to light industry is not going to help build new houses in downtown Morris."
According to the Morris City Code, a light industrial district is designed for uses "which do not detract from an adjacent area of less intense land use or become a blighting influence to the area." In contrast, a heavy industrial district is designed to provide "a district for heavy industrial uses and intensive land use."
Some permitted uses in a light industrial district include assembly plants, bottling works, cold storage plants, manufacturing of medical or dental equipment or a lumber or coal supply yard. A heavy industrial district allows all the uses of a light industrial district, plus "any business, commercial or industrial uses which are not likely to create hazards of fire, explosion, noise, vibration, dust, lint or the mission of smoke, odor or toxic gases."
According to the city code, there are other small differences between the zones regarding lot coverage, setback and landscaping requirements.
A major difference between the two is what businesses would be allowed with a conditional use permit - an application process that goes through the planning commission and city council. Light industrial includes very few conditional use options, while heavy industrial could open the door for industries like battery, glass or plastics manufacturing; a brewer or malt house; a grain elevator or grain drying facility and more.
Most of the businesses in the area currently qualify as heavy industrial, but would not be impacted by this change unless they hoped to sell the property or expand.
"The question is, are we going to create a situation that sometime in the future a potential heavy industrial business is not going to be able to come into Morris, and I don't think we're doing that at all," said Hill. "I don't think we're doing anything to damage the businesses that are there and we're still protecting the opportunity to make sure we know what's going to happen in the future."
After the public hearing closed, the planning commission voted to table the zoning plan until their meeting in October in order to give members time to think about the industrial change before making their recommendation to the city council.