Normal Planning Commission hears from upset Wintergreen subdivision residents
More than 150 people came out for the Normal Planning Commission meeting Thursday, with most of them upset about proposed changes for future development in the Wintergreen subdivision.
Despite the opposition, the commission voted unanimously to recommend the new preliminary subdivision plan and related zoning changes. If approved by the Normal Town Council, the new plan would amend a stretch of lots on the subdivision’s northern edge to accommodate duplexes, rather than single-family homes.
The council’s expected to vote on the proposal at its Aug. 15 meeting.
Also Thursday, the commission held a public hearing about proposed changes to Normal’s temporary sign requirements, but tabled any decision about that topic until its September meeting.
Town officials told the planning commission that the proposal to change some of the R-1, or single-family lots, to R-2 zoning could help with the community's current housing shortage. The 26 attached units of zero lot line housing would be near Interstate 55, and infrastructure is in place for such properties, they added.
The Champaign-based developer Fairlawn Capital also has proposed a broader new preliminary subdivision plan that outlines single-lot plans for the 21 acres just to the south of the proposed R-2 zoning.
Wintergreen is north of Raab Road, and west of Towanda Avenue. The area within that neighborhood slated for development is northeast of Beech Street and Chuck Murray Drive.
Patrick Hoban, CEO of the Economic Development Council of McLean County, and Charlie Moore, president of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of the change, noting the community needs more housing. Hoban noted a need for diversifying types of housing available beyond single-family, five-bedroom homes.
The main opposition Thursday came from residents who think the denser population will reduce their home values.
Dean Simpson, a homeowner in the neighborhood since 2013, said the developers will be pushing an extra 110 families into a 53-acre lot.
Commenters called for a traffic study, as well as consideration of whether drainage into the current detention pond will suffice for the new homes. They want the study completed prior to the town council voting on the proposal.
Wintergreen resident Ashley Mclintock was among several speakers who complained Fairlawn Capital hadn't communicated the proposed zoning change to the neighborhood.
Some public commenters, including Simpson, also expressed concern with state Sen. Jason Barickman being one of Fairlawn Capital's partners. Some said they wondered if his political clout was what brought high-profile speakers like Hoban and Moore to Thursday’s meeting.
Dustin Steiling, another Wintergreen home owner, said Fairlawn has a history of buying lots of properties, then turning them into high-priced rentals.
“If they are going to rent all the units, then tell us that,” said Steiling. “They’re going to turn into a massive corporate takeover like in other cities where corporations are buying up all the houses, buying up all the rentals.”
Several residents also told the commission they rejected the town’s argument that the proposed preliminary plan doesn’t represent significant changes to the neighborhood because it harbors back to the original 2001 preliminary subdivision plan.
Amendments over the past two decades have reshaped the neighborhood's plan. That original plan— which did include R-2 zoning — didn’t happen because leaders realized that’s not what residents of the neighborhood wanted, said Simpson. The amended versions reflected that.
Simpson said he's pro-development, but he disagrees with the way things are playing out, calling for a community meeting.
“We all bought houses there with the understanding that some day they were going to develop there. But it’s not what we were promised. It’s not what we were told by the owners of the property originally. And we really feel like there’s been a bait and switch,” he said.
Many residents who've bought homes for about $500,000 in the past decade said they were shown a different, more recent version of the preliminary plan — with all single-family lots. They also said they are bound by a housing covenant that requires certain upkeep of the properties. But they said because the new attached homes won’t be comparable, their home values will come down.
“It’s not fair that we should have to take a hit,” said Ashley Jarrett, whose family is building a home valued at more than $500,000 in the subdivision.
The attached homes are expected to sell for between $320,000 and $450,000, according to Ed Neaves, a local real estate professional.
The planning commission recommended the proposed zoning change, and the proposed new preliminary plan because both meet standards and requirements set out by the town. Commission members noted the group’s charge is to stick within parameters, when legal requirements are met. However, the hearing did allow for public opposition to be recorded, and it's the town council that will decide whether to approve the plans.
Although meeting with subdivision residents wasn’t required, the fact that such outreach hadn’t occurred was met by disappointment from some on the commission.
Commission member Mike Matejka recommended the developer’s representatives meet with people in the neighborhood.
“It would be a sign of good will that would be much appreciated,” he said.
In a separate matter, the planning commission amended the Sunset Lake subdivision’s preliminary plan, to turn Blue Aster Way into Blue Aster Court. Because of some problems related to underground utilities, it made more sense to lay the lots out as a cul de sac, according to town planner Mercy Davison.
Temporary sign rules reconsidered
Meanwhile, about a dozen public commenters shared their views on a proposed zoning text amendment related to temporary sign regulations.
The key areas addressed were whether temporary signs in Normal should require permits or fees, and have time limits, or size limits.
Commission members agreed Thursday’s hearing only was intended to gather community feedback on the proposal, and then let town leaders consider that feedback in moving forward with a future proposal — so on a 6-0 vote, the recommendation was tabled until the group’s September meeting.
In July, the town council voted to begin the process of reconsidering sign regulations. That’s a broad area, but the first area of attention is temporary signs, said town attorney Brian Day.
If the council ultimately votes to adopt changes to the town’s sign code policy, none would take effect until the end of December, said Day, noting that specifically was a choice made to avoid November’s election.
The proposed changes stem from new legal decisions, and are intended to strengthen First Amendment rights, said Day. Under the new legal requirements all sign ordinances should be “content neutral,” as in not having separate rules for different topical signs.
Under the town’s existing temporary sign policy, three categories are considered exceptions to the general policy, and have their own rules: political campaign signs, real estate signs, and general interest signs.
Proposed changes call for eliminating those exceptions. Instead, temporary signs would fall into two categories: Residential and non-residential.
Commenters included a campus-area landlord, professionals from real estate sales, and several residents.
Andy Netzer with Young America Realty told the commission dividing temporary signs into residential vs. non-residential would mean campus area leasing signs would fall into residential rules. The proposal calls for a 7-square-foot limit.
That limits a campus-area rental’s ability to advertise its leasing options. Full occupancy translates into a better ability to maintain the building, he said.
Neaves, and Laura Pritts, speaking on behalf of the Mid-Illinois Realtors Association, shared concerns about an 84-day limit, as proposed. Neaves said while the current home sales climate is unusually fast turnovers, in general a home is on the market between 90 and 120 days.
Pritts said for commercial real estate it's even longer, on average 276 days.
“Signage is a very significant and critical part of our business,” she said, noting the positive economic impact real estate sales has on the town.
Pritts also said requiring non-residential temporary signs to apply for permits would create an unneccesary burden on real estate professionals. Her own employer generally has 60-70 such signs up, she said.
Several commenters also wondered about how the sign rules would be enforced.
Normal residents Steve Suess and Marc Tiritilli, a former mayoral candidate, said the new sign regulations should be enforceable as written, but also carefully constructed to avoid the potential for abuse.
Editor’s note: Normal Planning Commission chair R.C. McBride is WGLT’s general manager.