A zoning ordinance amendment designed to allow residential-type structures in the city's commercial district to be used as residences was approved with amendment by city council on Monday.
The amendment would add, under the zoning ordinance's permitted uses for the C-1 district, "Buildings originally constructed for residential use may revert to single-family residential use."
But what about new construction in the event of a calamity such as fire?
Though it may never come to pass, the Sill House at the corner of Liberty Street and Third Avenue could revert to a residential structure under an amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance approved by Warren City Council.
According to the draft amendment, "The city also recognizes that it is appropriate to allow construction of new single-family detached dwellings as a 'special exception' within the C-1, Central Commercial District."
The proposed amendment adds under uses permitted in the district by special exception, "single-family detached dwelling (new construction)."
At the beginning of the meeting, a public hearing was held about the proposed change, which would affect approximately 15 properties in the downtown area.
With no comment offered at the hearing, council took up the measure later in the meeting.
Councilman John Lewis proposed that the word "single-family" be struck from the amendment. The proposal indicated that those properties affected could return to single-family residential use.
"Residential use is residential use," he explained. "I don't know what all the buildings have. Most of the residential uses surrounding the C1 are R3 (residential district), single or multi-residential. (I am) suggesting that we not limit the residential use for which these buildings were intended. All I'm trying to do is make this as versatile as possible."
Councilman Sam Harvey asked how the special exception procedure works.
City Planner David Hildebrand said that applications for special exceptions go before the city's zoning hearing board, who can offer "protection of what might be in the neighborhood around them."
"It's not like a variance," said Councilman Gregory Fraser. "It is a fairly low mark (for approval.) They're looking at public safety. Will it create any burden on utilities that have to be addressed, that sort of thing.... It is a very permissive standard under special exception."
Noting that there is a fee, $500, for applying for a special exception, Councilman Richard Kolcharno said there should be an emphasis on "trying to get people downtown" and noted that this fee is "adding expense to them."
"Not that many people build downtown," said Fraser.
Arguing against the special exception provision, "We shouldn't regulate aesthetics," said Harvey.
Mayor Maurice Cashman argued that the city also doesn't want buildings popping up throughout the city without aesthetics, such as green space and setback requirements.
"Then join a homeowner's association," Harvey said.
Lewis then made a motion to remove "single-family" from the ordinance draft.
That amendment passed unanimously with Lewis abstaining.
Harvey then made a motion that multi-family residential and single-family detached dwelling for new construction be moved from special exception to permitted uses, which would bypass the zoning hearing board.
"Under multi-family residential, you're saying that is a special exception," Harvey explained, but noted that occupancy above the first floor is permitted. "The idea behind zoning would be to, it would be to protect a residential neighborhood... In this case, people choose to live in (the) central commercial district. (I'm) not sure why we would stop them."
"So far as new construction is concerned, zoning takes care of that," said Lewis. "So what Mr. Harvey is asking (is to) remove (the) $500 burden.
Fraser noted that "all floors are special exception."
"(One) could put it (residential) on the first floor with my amendment" as a permitted use, Harvey said.
Hildebrand said the intent of the ordinance originally was to avoid "residential through all the building" in the commercial areas, which is why residential on the first floor was prohibited. "The other portion of this, when the ordinance was put together, (the townhouses on lower Liberty), that multi-family had to come through a special exception because that building is totally multi-family."
"I do have to agree. The commercial district is intended for commercial," said Cashman. "I see both these as staying under special exceptions so we can better control that."
Harvey's motion failed in a 4-3 vote.
City Solicitor Andrea Stapleford said that she believed Lewis' amendment to be a "substantive change" to what had been brought from the Planning Commission.
Council then elected to pass the ordinance as amended, with the Planning Commission to be tasked to look at the specific change and raise concern if needed.
The zoning change passed 6-0 with Lewis abstaining.