The Vermillion City Council gave second reading and final approval to a city ordinance at its Monday meeting that will create a new LI-Light Industrial zoning district.
A second, related ordinance that would rezone portions of land adjacent to the railroad in lower Vermillion was tabled after council members heard complaints from Kevin Myron, his father and two other citizens about both ordinances.
The tabled ordinance will be reconsidered by the city council at its June 6 meeting. It is hoped that citizens with concerns may have their questions answered, give further input and be better informed about the proposed zoning district the ordinance would create.
“What I wanted to talk to you folks about today is, I guess, the general concept of zoning notification in Vermillion and within the joint jurisdictional area (Joint Jurisdiction Zoning Area – JJZA),” Myron said at the very beginning of Monday’s meeting, during a time designated for the public to comment on items that are not on that night’s meeting agenda.
“I want to try to explain … what we thought the notifications that should be in place, what we’ve realized and what our understanding of the current notification methods are, what we believe the public’s perception of how they should be notified is,” he said, “try and be very clear about what we want and then ask you guys the question, ‘how do we convey to you what we and what we think the public want, and what steps do we take to get to that?”
He noted that his family, owners of Ag Opportunities, have been going through a long, ongoing zone request in the JJZA.
“From our perspective, the zoning on that was changed without our direct notification,” Myron said. “This last week, we discovered that other properties that we own now in lower Vermillion – there has been a move towards changing the zoning on those which, also, we were not directly notified of.”
He said his family’s facilities on the west side of town and five properties down in lower Vermillion are affected.
“It was always our belief, our understanding, that if you were going to have a zoning change on your property in this community that you’d be notified,” Myron said. “Anybody that I tell this story to, some of their first comments are, ‘well, that’s not right or ‘they can’t do that. Well, they have to notify you,’ and that was our understanding.”
He said a public notice was published in the Vermillion Plain Talk by the city.
“That should have been our notification that our zoning was going to be changed,” Myron said. “Now, this didn’t contain our name, our business name, our personal name, it didn’t contain our address, it didn’t contain our legal description of our property.
“I believe in the first instance it said we’re going to have a hearing to discuss the regulations involving the joint jurisdictional agreement. No mention of the zoning changes; again, no mention of our property, anything like that,” he said. “This is what I’ve been told and I’m a little surprised we’re going through this again,” adding that the notice does mention lower Vermillion.
Myron said the county sends a letter to property owners and adjoining property owners and post a sign, when possible on the property besides publishing a notice in the newspaper, adding that he believes the public expects notifications to include names of property owners, business owners and legal descriptions of the property.
“What I want to ask you guys is what do I need to do, what method can we convey to you that this is the way the public feels? Do I need to generate some petitions? Do we need to put this to a vote? Do we create a committee of business owners, property owners, city councilmen and pursue it in a way to figure this out?” he asked. “How do I get this message across to you … and what is the path to requiring this for a zone change in this community?”
“Mr. Myron, I can convey to you that if that’s the process you would like to see, you need to take that up with your local legislators,” City Attorney Brent Matter said. “It’s a statutory scheme and the city has been following the state statutory scheme.”
Myron replied that the county takes different steps to notify property owners.
“Why can’t we have a discussion; why can’t it become a policy of the city to follow … to do what the public wants,” he said. “Isn’t that within the realm of what we can do? When I make a zone request, I have to notify everyone involved. I have to post public notices. Why can’t we make that a requirement of our local government?”
“When your issue first came up and we were talking about that question, I questioned that also,” Council member Rich Holland said. “I have presented things and asked, ‘what can we do’ and it’s not going to be done tomorrow, but we would like to make changes. We may match the county, we may not, I don’t know.
“It’s impossible for us to notify everybody that might be affected, but we are working the issue. It is not forgotten. There may be some changes,” he said, “and we’ll try to keep you informed.”
“I would say, in a very general sense, if a person is asking ‘I would like to ask for a change in policy,’ the best thing you can do is contact the city council person who represents you with what you’re asking and they can bring that … that would be for anyone who generally has something in the community that they would like to see changed,” Mayor Kelsey Collier-Wise said. “I would recommend that you start with the two people who represent you in your ward.”
City Council members’ contact information is available on the city’s website.
“I know all of us value more communication rather than less and we’ll talk with the staff about how we can improve communication on this particular kind of issue,” Council member Katherine Price said. “Thank you for bringing it up.”
A man who didn’t state his name addressed the council, stating that in 2008 his land was rezoned for no reason at all. He asked why he wasn’t notified.
“I was told the other day that it was published in the paper,” the man said. “I lived there for 43 years. I’m supposed to buy papers for 43 years and read the paper every week to see if there’s anything in the paper about my property? That’s totally asinine.”
“I also have that same issue,” said Connie Taggart, who lives at 916 W. Broadway, “as my property was changed from agricultural to light industrial, but I have no idea when or why and we were not notified at that time, either. So, how do we go about getting it back to agricultural like we were and what’s the policy of having my animals there if I’m not agricultural?”
Discussions continued regarding the role of council members and their ability to communicate with residents in their wards.
“We just need to know what’s going on,” Taggart said.
“We’re definitely continuing those conversations, but I think it’s also important to understand that there are some limitations as to how much notice … the amount of, honestly, cost it would take to physically go to every person’s house and speak to them – I don’t think that’s anything that most city residents – “
“Why can’t a letter be sent out?” Taggart asked. “They send out letters for everything else.”
“And we can certainly discuss that,” the mayor said, “but I just want people to understand that I realize that some of these solutions seem very simple and there are limitations and so I don’t want to overpromise and tell you that this is going to be perfectly fixed and everybody is always going to know.
“We have several occasions where we have physically delivered letters and we still have people that say they had no idea,” she said, “so we’re always going to run into some limitations. We can always try and do better and I think we’re all committed to that, but I’m not going to blow smoke with you guys and say, ‘well, tomorrow, you’re going to know what happens every single minute,’ because that would be unfair for us to promise that.”
“We’ll be working on this and trying to estimate what the costs are because we do, obviously, a lot of things that affect city residents. We’ll need to look into costs and I think that’s doable,” Councilperson Julia Hellwege said. “Remember that a lot of this, as Mr. Matter was saying, is part of state statute so I really encourage you all to not just come and speak to us, but also go speak to your state legislators.
“We’re lucky enough to have a local news source,” she said, “but not everyone is reading the local news source, especially for that purpose regularly, so speaking with state legislators about how things have changed and maybe its time to examine those statutes again might be also a good idea.”
The ordinance that would create an LI Light Industrial Zoning District to the City of Vermillion was given its first reading on April 18 and City Engineer Jose Dominguez reviewed the goals of that action Monday night before it was considered for its second reading and final approval.
According to a memo prepared by Dominguez for city council members, in April 2021, city staff brought a discussion item to the Vermillion Planning and Zoning Commission regarding rezoning industrial properties along the railroad. At that time, city staff was looking for direction on what the planning commission might consider and was directed to create a zoning district “lighter industrial” that would also eliminate the rear-yard setback requirements when adjacent to the railroad right-of-way.
In October 2021, the Vermillion City Council approved a variance for 308 and 318 West Chestnut eliminating the rear-yard setback along the railroad right-of-way. At that time, the city council requested that the planning commission consider amending the zoning in the area to eliminate the future need of considering variances due to the setback issues for properties adjacent to the railroad’s right-of-way.
The ordinance was presented to the planning and zoning commission on April 11. After reviewing the proposed district regulations, the commission voted 6-0 with one member abstaining to approve the proposed ordinance as being presented.
The first reading of the ordinance was held at the April 18 council meeting and it was approved unanimously.
Dominguez notes in his memo that the ordinance would rearrange most of the existing GI-General Industrial uses from permitted uses to conditional uses. Additionally, it would allow for the rear yard setback to be reduced from 25-feet to 0-feet for properties adjacent to the railroad’s right- of-way.
The changes would allow for most of the uses in the existing GI-General Industrial district to be considered after holding a public hearing and diminishes the setback requirement allowing construction on some of the small lots.
“It would allow for the public to attend a public hearing and make their concerns known at one of these public meetings and the planning commission can then make their decision at that point,” he said, “if a condition is necessary or not for that particular use.”
This zoning district would also serve as a buffer between more industrial districts and commercial or residential districts, the city engineer noted. He stated that, additionally, it would fit well with annexations of land zoned light industrial within the Joint Jurisdiction Zoning Area (JJZA) as the City’s zoning district would allow most of the uses included in the JJZA zoning district.
Dominguez stated that city staff also discussed the proposed changes with the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company to ensure that the proposed changes would not eliminate the possibility of attracting development to the City.
Council members approved this ordinance on its second reading. Council member Brian Humphrey of the Northwest Ward, where this property is located, voted no.
SECOND ORDINANCE TABLED
The ordinance that was tabled Monday was approved on its first reading by the city council at its April 18 meeting. The new city code works in conjunction with the ordinance approved on its second reading earlier during Monday’s meeting.
Had this second proposal been given final approval Monday, it would have rezoned parts of land adjacent to the railroad in lower Vermillion from the GI – General Industrial District to the LI - Light Industrial District.
Affected property is adjacent to West Street, Chestnut Street, Broadway Street, Amber Street, 12th Street, Luxemburg Street, Austin Street, and Bloomingdale Street.
Dominguez pointed out on a map the parcels of property that would be rezoned to light industrial with the approval of this ordinance. They are of a variety of shapes and sizes, primarily in lower Vermillion.
“Everything that you have below the bluff that would be zoned General Industrial right now would become Light Industrial,” he said. “The ordinance is drafted to make the rezoning of this area effective June 6, so that would be a few days after the actual verbiage of the document itself would become effective.”
Myron once again addressed the council about his concerns regarding this ordinance.
“I would love to have a city council member here make a motion to end this zoning request for the plain and simple fact that none of the property owners have been notified,” he said. “We are talking portions or full city blocks … 17 (blocks), where not a single property owner was notified. As I understand it from the planning commission notes, none of the actual property owners or adjoining property owners made comments on this and I just can’t see how all of the ins and outs of this were properly looked at and discussed.”
In his memo to city council members, Dominguez noted that at the April 2021 Vermillion Planning Commission meeting, the commission directed city staff to bring up for future consideration a new industrial district. During that meeting, the area being considered for the new zoning district was the industrially zoned land below the bluff.
This land is currently all zoned General Industrial with the majority being adjacent to the railroad right-of-way. This industrial area is also sandwiched between two residential districts, he stated in his memo, adding that rezoning this area to the new LI-Light Industrial district would allow the residential property owners an opportunity to possibly voice their concerns at a public meeting for some of the uses. The rezoning would also allow for the rear yard setback to be reduced from 25-feet to 0-feet along properties adjacent to the railroad right-of-way.
City staff also discussed the proposed changes with the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company to ensure that the proposed changes would not eliminate the possibility of attracting development to the City, Dominguez stated.
“The setbacks – that’s a great idea, but I don’t see why we need to go through all of this. This can be done with the current zoning category,” Myron said. “The new zone set category – I have absolutely no problem with that; carrying overall the business categories from the previous, I have no problem with that, but when I say that, I also include the Heavy Industrial that’s also in there.”
He also brought up reasons he opposes this ordinance.
“The wordage in this is to address what is considered offensive businesses,” Myron said. “I am opposed to removing the heavy manufacturing from this zoning of these properties in particular; absolutely opposed to the putting of the 12 business categories that are considered offensive down into the conditional use.”
Conditional uses listed in the Light Industrial Zoning District that was created by the ordinance that was approved earlier in the meeting include light manufacturing, kennel, wind energy conversion system, agribusiness, grain terminal, frozen food locker, printing shop, motor vehicle service station, bus/truck terminal, bus and/or truck wash, truck repair, sales and/or service, recycling collection facility, recycling processing facility and automobile storage yard.
Myron said most people don’t understand what “conditional use” means and, in particular, they don’t understand what conditional use means from a business or an investor standpoint.
He noted that Vermillion is lucky to have good railroad access and should look at ways to capitalize on that for industrial development. The city also has good access on the west side and an excellent bridge that helps transport to the Nebraska markets.
“We know that because we own a grain elevator here,” Myron said. “That truck traffic definitely does go there. There’s definitely renewed rail interest and I’d like to talk about that and also promoting some economic development here and businesses that use rail are very eco-friendly.”
He added that he is in the middle of a rezoning request that is very similar to this.
“I have to ask for some additions to a zoning category. This is asking for an entirely new zoning category. I’m asking for my zoning to be changed; this requests the zoning of 17 blocks,” Myron said, comparing his request to the zoning changes the city was pursuing Monday night. “The conditional use issue comes into both my issue and this. I’m about five months into my zoning changes. The earliest I can get through Phase 2 of this is the middle of June, I’m told, and then I need to go through the conditional use … the third settlement. So, I’m looking at somewhere between six-and-a-half and nine months to get through my zoning issue.”
The zoning change process being considered Monday in lower Vermillion, he said, was being completed in three weeks.
“Why the difference? I had to notify everybody. The city didn’t have to notify anybody. That’s a pretty glaring difference right there,” he said.
Myron said since the 1970s, his family has owned some of the properties that would be rezoned.
“We’re not entitled to be notified when the zoning is going to change on it? That’s pretty surprising and very disappointing,” he said.
Dominguez noted that the process of exploring the possibility of creating a new LI-Light Industrial district began in April 2021. Prior to that, an individual who owns property along the bluff contacted the city, stating that he desired to build something on his property near the railroad below the bluff, but he wasn’t sure if he would have enough room because of setbacks.
“At that point, we took that possible problem or issue to the planning commission at an informational meeting,” the city engineer said.
The planning commission advised the city to go ahead and form a zoning district that would take into account “lowering essentially the types of uses so it’s a little bit more friendly for the neighbor, and, as well, reducing the setback for that entire area,” Dominguez said.
After several more minutes of hearing input and discussion, city council members voted to table the ordinance until June 6 with the intent to give affected property owners and other citizens a chance to learn more and ask questions about the issue.