Multi-Family zoning on South Miller Drive acreage stays
By LENNY C. LEPOLA
News Assistant Managing Editor
Representatives of Lifestyle Communities attended the February and March Village of Sunbury Planning & Zoning Commission meetings, and was met with stiff community resistance to the 149-unit townhouse apartments Lifestyle wanted to build on a vacant 12.8-acre parcel at the South Miller Drive and Fairland Drive intersection directly across the street from General Rosecrans Elementary School.
Zoning commission members and area residents at both the February and March meetings expressed concerns about the proposed site’s ingress and egress points. The Fairland Drive entrance to the apartment complex is directly opposite the General Rosecrans Elementary School entrance used by school buses and staff; the South Miller Drive entrance is approximately 300 feet north of Fairland Drive; and a stub in the architect’s drawing shows a potential connection to Fox Trail Drive to the north leading through that development to Cheshire Road.
Fox Trail Drive residents attending the meetings said they were concerned about traffic if their street is made into a collector for Cheshire Road and West Cherry Street. One resident even asked about the history of Lifestyle Communities apartments and crime statistics.
At the March session it was suggested that the property might face a development window that would erase the Planned Residential Development zoning allowing multi-family units on the site.
Fast forward to the Monday, August 27, zoning commission meeting, where Sunbury Village Solicitor David Brehm said in his opinion the multi-family zoning remains valid; and property owner Scott Walker, also at the meeting, said Lifestyle Communities has withdrawn their apartment complex proposal.
Also in attendance were about a dozen residents of the neighborhoods adjacent to the site.
“The village has received a letter from Mr. Walker asking about the status of the zoning,” said Sunbury Mayor Tommy Hatfield. “Lifestyles has withdrawn their application to build apartments at the site, and Mr. Walker wants to list the property and wants a firm commitment of what it’s zoned.”
Village Zoning Inspector Phil Stith noted that area residents were specifically invited to the meeting to hear the discussion and make comments.
“This is not a public hearing, just an open meeting,” Stith explained. “Mr. Walker has property rights; we want to make sure nobody imposes on each other. There were some concerns about the time lapse of the zoning. That’s a legal decision. After that I will inform Mr. Walker of the zoning by letter.”
Brehm gave a brief overview of the Sunbury Mills PRD. It was approved in 1997 for single family and multi-family housing and parkland, with subsequent adjustments that allowed the Franklin Foundation group homes and the Sunbury Mills Plaza development.
“The property has all been developed except for two parts, and it was all developed in accordance with the original plan except the southern part of the Kroger Plaza was changed to allow for commercial,” Brehm said. “We contemplated this development would take up to 10 years to complete, but for a variety of reasons it was not. There were specific reasons the development was stopped; before the wastewater plant expansion the village had to slow down development because it lacked sewer plant capacity.”
Brehm said that ultimately the zoning for the property was decided at zoning in 1997; that any alternate zoning change after that 1997 zoning board’s approval could end up in court.
“I can research this issue and tell you what might happen,” Brehm continued. “I know a lot of you don’t want multi-family, but the question is, is the zoning still intact?”
Brehm did say that the original PRD zoning agreement has a phasing plan, and there were questions about the language; but in keeping with the original agreement the development was platted within three years and building began in under five years.
“In my opinion any court decision is not going to be in the Village of Sunbury’s favor,” Brehm said. “If this board chooses to disagree and feels that the zoning should expire, that becomes an issue for the developer, and that issue will be resolved by the courts. It is my opinion that we do not have a strong legal position.
“Lifestyle has walked away from this,” Brehm added. “They said: If the residents don’t want us there, we won’t be there. They said: We want to be popular; we’re in this business to be popular.”
Commission member Len Weatherby, who is the only individual sitting on the board when the original PRD was negotiated, said he remembers when the proposal came before zoning.
“We spent hours and hours negotiating this,” Weatherby said. “We thought we got the best fit. What’s come out of this? Homes, schools, a grocery store. I look at all of that as something that’s been very good for the village.
“The Lifestyle Apartments that’s there I don’t like,” Weatherby continued. “But I also know that Lifestyle is building better apartments today than when the PRD was zoned. I’m very proud of our community. I would not want anything in there that I’m not proud of; and from my point of view I will make sure whatever is there will be something we can all be proud of.”
Hatfield agreed with Weatherby, adding that the existing Lifestyle Apartments look like Marine barracks with front doors facing front doors.
“But there are people who have lived in those apartments since they were built; you’re not going to find that in many communities,” Hatfield said. “What Lifestyle Communities is building today is not a bad looking apartment. I’ve talked with the Lifestyle Communities owner and he said they were willing to work with us. What ever multi-family developer develops that site,” Hatfield added, “we’ve got to make it the best product we can get.”
Brehm said that even though Lifestyle Communities has walked away from the project, to the extent the zoning is what it is, apartments are going to be built at the site.
“When there’s a new property owner, first there will be informal discussions at zoning, then zoning approval and then on to village council,” Brehm said. “But it’s not approval of: Can we build multi-family units? It just has to be within the framework of the original PRD development plan.”
Hatfield said he hoped the residents attending the meeting would be comfortable with what’s going to be communicated to Walker in a letter from Phil Stith – that the multi-family zoning of the site as outlined in the 1997 PRD agreement stands as originally approved.
“I appreciate your coming this evening,” Hatfield said. “I will to make sure that when there’s any ownership change we will keep you involved. We need to be sure we’re doing the right thing.”
Scott Walker also told the residents in attendance that he would be available to speak with them when the property has a buyer.