It was a case of keeping with code or leaving another downtown building empty at the Board of Zoning Appeals meeting last Thursday.
A variance was requested of E J Express, LLC being represented by Eric Pettit. Mr. Pettit has converted the first floor of 404 E O&M Avenue in North Vernon into apartments. A variance is needed to allow the apartments in a Commercial Historic Downtown building. As per Table VII under Commercial Zoning in the Jennings County Unified Zoning Ordinance under Commercial Historic Downtown, the storefront ground level of any mixed-use building in this district may only contain a commercial use.
Mr. Pettit’s request was the fourth item of business on the Board’s agenda. Initially, the Board unanimously voted to decline his request when Mr. Pettit was not present at the meeting by the time his request was addressed, nor was he present for the first three items on the agenda. However, the Board agreed to rescind their decision when Mr. Pettit arrived seconds later, after their initial vote to decline, to allow him the opportunity to plead his case.
Mr. Pettit has been renting the downstairs portion of his building residentially for over a year, according to City Council President Brian Hatfield, who is also on the Area Planning Commission (APC) board. This fact was brought to the attention of the Area Planning Commission in July. A letter was then sent to Mr. Pettit informing him that he was in violation of the county’s zoning ordinance. Mr. Pettit claims this letter was the first time he’d been made aware of this violation.
“I don’t know that it’s hurting anything,”said Pettit. “I don’t know what the purpose of the ordinance is. I guess if you don’t want to see people in their living room, but we can remedy that.”
BZA member Megan Grunden specified that the ordinance states that downtown properties are meant to only be used commercially. Pettit pointed out that on page 73 of the ordinance, it specifically states a “storefront” can only be used commercially.
Pettit then asked “How deep is a storefront?” wanting the Board to clarify if the “storefront” could mean just the front of the building instead of the front of the building to the back of the building. The Board responded that the ordinance refers to the entire ground floor of the building as a storefront.
“So it’s better to kick everybody out and board it up and make it look like the rest of the street?” Pettit asked. “[The Board] has the power to give a variance.”
The Board then pointed out that, if they were to grant him a variance, what’s to stop other landlords from asking for a similar variance, which may inevitably lead to the filling of prospective historic downtown storefronts with residential renters and limiting commercial growth.
Though Pettit indicated that many downtown storefronts have been empty and not well-kept for years, Anna Walker, director of the new Main Street program, countered that two of the objectives of the Main Street program is to market their historic district and draw in new businesses. So, while the storefronts have been empty for some time, the potential for that to change, and fairly, soon, is plausible.
“I understand why the ordinance is there, but the ordinance isn’t working. The ordinance isn’t bringing businesses to downtown,” said Pettit.
A hair salon and a photography studio both attempted to use Pettit’s storefront commercially, even renting at a lower price than his current tenants, and they did not last.
“I think we’re just going to have a bunch of empty buildings and you’re keeping me from creating revenue for myself.”
The Board then opened the floor to anyone from the public to make their arguments regarding Mr. Pettit’s request.
City Councilman Baron Wilder was the first to step up to the podium.
He commended Mr. Pettit for trying to do what he can to generate money, but the City Council as a whole, according to Wilder, does not want people living downtown in commercial buildings.
“We have great faith and hope in what the Main Street program is going to do for us, what the Walnut Street project is going to fix,” said Wilder. “We don’t want to go down this route. There are a lot of empty buildings, some are in better shape than others, but the condition of those empty buildings is up to the property owners. I wish everyone took care of theirs the way Mr. Pettit does. It does make our city look better, but at the end of the day, people living downtown at street level is not what the city wants to see.”
Brian Hatfield expressed similar concerns, citing that when a sports bar moved to its current location on O&M Avenue, just a couple of buildings down from Mr. Pettit’s property, traffic and parking increased on that street.
“With people living right on the first floor, it reflects back on us as a city,” said Hatfield. “It’s not the kind of business we want to sell. You don’t see it anywhere. Every town has the same ordinance. I really feel North Vernon is about to turn a corner. We’re going to be a place where people want to come and move their businesses. I see that happening. I want to keep moving forward and not take a step back.”
APC attorney Bradley Kage, who was present at the BZA meeting at the request of Marie Shepherd of the Area Planning Commission, suggested the Board table their decision until they research any state statutes that might override the county ordinance. However, Larry Greathouse, the City Council attorney, interjected that such research would be necessary in order to grant a variance, but not to deny one.
In the end and despite rescinding their original declination, the Board ultimately came to the same conclusion after hearing both Mr. Pettit’s and the public’s points of view and declined the former’s request for a variance.
He will go back to Show Cause on October 4 and the Board will decide at that point how they want to proceed and the deadline for the tenants to vacate the premises.