Mayor wants review of zoning ordinance

·7 min read

May 26—Mayor Tom Watson said Wednesday that he wants to appoint a committee that would include developers to examine Article 21 of the local zoning ordinance to see if changes need to be made.

He said he began thinking about that earlier this month when the Western Academy at The Neblett had to go before the Owensboro Historic Preservation Board to get a variance to build a new campus at 721 W. Fifth St., across Elm Street from the Neblett Center.

That location is one block inside the downtown transition area.

Some wondered why downtown guidelines are applied to property so far from downtown.

"I think it would be good to re-examine it (Article 21) to see if it's holding back development downtown," Watson said. "We're so land poor down there. I'd like to put together a group to re-examine it and see if changes need to be made. And I'd like to get developers involved in the process. We need to make sure it's not hindering us."

Mayor Pro-tem Larry Maglinger said, "We definitely need to look at it. I really got into this when I was first elected. The document is so long, you'd have to have a lawyer to understand it. It would be a nightmare for someone coming into Owensboro to try to understand it. We really need to dig into it."

Larry Conder, a former city commissioner who is running for a seat on Daviess Fiscal Court, was on the Historic Preservation Board for several years before being elected to office.

"Do we even need Article 21 anymore?" he asked. "Almost every time it (a project) goes before the board, they get an exemption with a few changes. I agree with the mayor. We need to re-examine it."

Conder said big developers have people on staff to deal with issues like that.

But, he said, "It hurts small businesses. I would suggest nine or 10 individuals, including small businesses, on the group the mayor is talking about."

Conder said he was really disturbed with the Western Academy situation, even though it was eventually resolved so the campus could be built.

"You have someone like Olga McKissic (director of the Western Academy) who's trying to do something to help the young people down there, and she runs into a roadblock," he said. "We need to look at it again. That's been stuck in my craw for a long time."

In 2009, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Gateway Planning Group was hired to design Owensboro's downtown master plan.

The company, which is not connected with Owensboro's Gateway Commons, created Article 21 of the local zoning ordinance to regulate downtown development.

It covered construction in the "overlay district," which includes the historic core of downtown, and was designed to encourage the preservation of buildings in a two-block by seven-block corridor between Frederica and Crittenden streets along Second and Third streets.

It eventually, through a downtown transition area, stretched from Bolivar to Poplar and from the river to Fifth Street.

And a more narrow central section of the overlay district extended south some 11 blocks to the CSX railroad tracks.

Since then, downtown has seen nearly half-a-billion dollars worth of private and public development, with more on the way.

But much of that development hasn't complied to the letter with Article 21, requiring it to secure variances from its restrictions.

In 2009, it took Larry and Rosemary Conder more than five months of applications and reviews to get a sign hung on The Crème Coffee House, 109 E. Second St.

"There were a lot of hoops to jump through," Rosemary Conder said at the time. "But we don't mind being the guinea pig for the new processes."

The Owensboro Historic Preservation Board, created in 2000 to recommend the creation of historic districts in the city, was charged with handling appeals from developers and making recommendations for variances to the Owensboro Metropolitan Board of Adjustment.

A lot of exceptionsThere have been a lot of them.

Ed Allen, chairman of the preservation board, said, "I think the idea (behind Article 21) was that whatever we build today will probably be here 50 years from now, and you want the community to feel good about it. It's a value judgment. You want whatever is built to contribute to a thriving downtown.

"Our committee tries to accommodate builders and owners. We try to be flexible, and we make a lot of exceptions."

In 2012, the committee approved design and landscaping plans for the Boardwalk Pipeline Partners building on West Second Street, granting them exceptions to Article 21.

The two-story office building wanted its entrance off the parking lot in the back of the building, rather than on Second Street, for security purposes.

Article 21 said entrances should be on the main street.

And Boardwalk wanted fewer trees and more shrubs in its parking lots than Article 21 calls for, to provide better lighting at night, and also for security purposes.

Also that year, the board approved two more signs than Article 21 allowed for the First Security Bank — now German American Bank Building — at 313 Frederica St .

Article 21 allowed only one sign per entrance, but First Security wanted four signs on the building, which has only two entrances.

And before Malcolm Bryant could build his Hampton Inn & Suites downtown, he had to secure a variance from the board in 2012.

The regulations required that each floor of the hotel be a minimum of 10 feet "from floor to floor."

Bryant's proposal showed five floors that would each be four inches shorter than that.

The board granted the variance.

Some board members suggested then that it might be time to make changes to Article 21, which sets such things as minimum and maximum heights for downtown buildings and their floors.

At the time, Ted Lolley, who was preservation board chairman, said, "We need more realistic guidelines. We need to be more developer-friendly. We need to be more flexible."

Changes in 2012Keith Free, then the city's community development director, said, "We're going to have to change some things to make it more business-friendly."

Those changes in 2012 were apparently the last made to Article 21.

Brian Howard, executive director of the Owensboro Metropolitan Planning Commission, said, "It has been periodically looked at. There were some significant changes made before Keith Free left. But any changes go through the community development office and then to the city commission."

Abby Shelton, the city's community development director since October 2015, said, "We haven't been asked to look at it since I've been here."

In 2019, City Commissioner Jeff Sanford suggested revising Article 21 to allow residential living on the first floors of buildings downtown

The other commissioners at the time — Larry Conder, Pam Smith-Wright and Larry Maglinger — all expressed interest in making changes to Article 21.

Maglinger said Article 21 is "lengthy and confusing" and has likely "hindered" residential growth downtown.

Conder said, "If your inventory is heavy on retail-commercial, but yet you want to be able to do residential, and the rules don't allow you to do it, it seems a little counterintuitive to me.

"I really think (Article 21) needs to be looked at and addressed in today's market. I don't think this market is going to change for at least 10 years, to where you really do need more retail on the first floor."

But nothing was changed.

Watson said developers prefer to have the first floor of apartments and condo buildings as retail.

"You don't want people looking in your windows as they walk by, seeing what you're watching on TV," he said.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301 klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com