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City to have public hearing on Liberty Avenue zoning/deed issue

The city will have a public hearing to further discuss — and allow citizens to discuss — a zoning/deed issue pertaining to a lot on Liberty Avenue adjacent to The University Mart convenience store.

The lot is zoned partly residential and partly commercial. When a house on the lot was torn down this past summer, some residents in that neighborhood became concerned the owner, Doug Philabaun, would attempt to use it for business purposes.

Residents who are upset by the zoning issue contend the lot has a deed restriction placed many years ago that prohibits the lot’s use for commercial ventures. They contend the zoning was changed in error and should be changed back to entirely residential to reflect this deed restriction. The city solicitors, Bob and Mack Anderson, have issued an opinion that deed restrictions supercede any zoning changes. The issue came before city council a few weeks ago and was tabled pending further study.

The decision to have the public hearing came during a city council meeting last week. Lawrence County Common Pleas Court Presiding Judge Charles Cooper, who lives in the neighborhood near the lot in question, asked for the hearing.

If the city is to change the zoning from commercial to residential, there must first be a public hearing with a 30-day notice. The property owners as well as property owners of contiguous properties must be notified as well as property owners across the street from the lot.

The vote to have the public hearing was 5-2; council president Mike Lutz and fellow members Aaron Bollinger, Bob Cleary, Dave Frazier and Beth Rist voted for the hearing; council member Philip Heald abstained because, until he was elected to city council, he was on the city zoning committee, which had considered the issue first and recommended it to the city council. Council member Kevin Waldo voted against the idea.

“Council’s obligation to have this and the benefit to the citizenry is what?” he asked when Bollinger made the motion to direct the council clerk to move forward with scheduling the hearing and sending out the required notices for it.

“Statutorily, it’s up to council at some point to bring this off the table for a decision,” Mayor Rich Blankenship explained.

“It’s a forum more than a public hearing,” Rist said.

“Why wasn’t this decided at the zoning level?” Cleary asked Heald.

“There appeared to be a lot of community interest and we (members of the zoning committee) didn’t think it should stop at that level,” Heald explained.

“Council does have to do it (make the decision whether to change the zoning),” Blankenship added. He said the zoning committee had recommended the change to council.

Waldo said after the meeting that he thinks the city is spending money for a public hearing and notices for no good reason.

“I just don’t think this is a matter council needs to be involved with,” Waldo said. “The city solicitors have already issued an opinion that is clear, that the deed restrictions supercede the zoning.”

Philabaun has not attended any council or city public utilities committee meetings to discuss the lot. He did send a letter to city council. In the letter, he said he bought the lot because of the partial commercial designation.

Cooper and others have attended recent meetings and expressed concern about the zoning versus deed issue.