Zoning plan met with skepticism

LISBON – A proposed zoning plan for Center Township met with some skepticism from the majority of the seven people who spoke at Friday night’s public hearing.

“You may have the best intentions now but I’m worried about in the future” when the plan could be made more restrictive by future township trustees, said resident Tim Miller.

Another comment came from Rick Pittenger, who pointed out that Canfield’s zoning code regulates the color you can paint your house.

“I certainly don’t want to see anything like that,” he said.

They were among the 21 people who attended the hearing hosted by the five-member zoning committee appointed three years ago by township trustees to draft a zoning plan. The hearing was the next step in the process before trustees can put the plan on the November ballot for voters to decide.

Trustees formed the committee in 2011 with the idea of creating a limited zoning code that would strike a balance between protecting residential property owners while not being so overly restrictive as to unreasonably interfere with private property rights or impede economic development.

The proposed plan creates three zoning districts: residential and agricultural, commercial and industrial, and special districts. The plan, among other things, prohibits outside storage of junked and abandoned vehicles and boats in residential areas. It also bans storage of junk, junked vehicles, disabled and inoperative machinery or equipment in residential and agricultural districts.

Trustee Joe Csonka said they want a plan that will provide the township with the authority to make people maintain their properties, and zoning would allow them to do that.

“We started this about three years ago because we had numerous people complaining about their neighbors not cleaning up their property. We feel our hands are tied” without zoning, he said.

“People against zoning don’t want to be told what they can do with their property. I understand that,” Csonka said. “But as a trustee I found out that this is a problem for a lot of people …”

Committee President Bob Berg said he was one of those residents with a problem neighbor, which is why he agreed to serve on the committee. He said their chief aim was to keep the restrictions to a minimum while achieving their goal of protecting residential properties from people whose yards resemble junk yards.

The plan restricts landfills and junk yards but contains no regulations for oil and gas drilling. As for Pittenger’s comment about restricting the choice of house paint, committee member Sam Sowards said their plan contains no such regulations.

Of the seven people who spoke or asked questions, most expressed reservations about zoning in general. The only person who appeared immediately in favor was Jim Ackley, who said, “Half the people in my neighborhood are related to Fred Sanford,” referring to the junk yard owner from the 1970s TV sitcom Sanford & Son.

Ackley expressed concern over previous comments about current property owners being “grandfathered” in, or exempt, from the zoning regulations until the property changed hands. He said if that is the case “zoning will do absolutely nothing for us.”

Csonka clarified that point, saying only business properties would be “grandfathered” in, and the zoning plan would certainly address Ackley’s situation.

“If that’s the case, sign me up,” Ackley.

Others, such as Miller and Pittenger, were less sure. They were concerned that the permanent five-member zoning commission created to oversee the plan would be appointed by trustees instead of directly elected by voters. Miller said he would feel more comfortable if the people could elect the zoning board members.

“For the most part accountability is my biggest concern,” Miller said.

Berg pointed out voters do have say in the trustees they elect, who in turn appoint the zoning commission members.

Pittenger was also concerned that the plan created another layer of government control, with a permit fee structure and zoning officer to enforce the law. “I believe that less government is better than more government,” he said.

“Drive through my neighborhood,” Ackley replied.

In response to other questions, Berg said the plan can be changed by the trustees, based on a recommendation of the zoning commission and only after public hearings are held.

Wes Hull could not help but feel the committee made the plan more complicated than it needed to be if the focus was cleaning up residential properties. “Maybe we’re going too big to solve a small problem,” he said.

Residents were getting their first look at the plan, and Berg said it will be posted online and a copy made available at the Lepper Library once the plan has been reviewed by the county prosecutor’s office.

“We don’t want this to be like Obamacare, where we have to pass it before we can find out what’s in it,” Hull joked.

After the plan is returned from the prosecutor’s office it must be approved by the county planning commission before it goes before the trustees, who must hold a public hearing before voting to place it on the ballot. Before doing so, the trustees can require the planning committee to make changes.