District on to council after objections

ADDRESSING THE COMMISSION — South Bend Boulevard resident Ed Palombizio led off a two-hour debate about a proposed LaBelle View Neighborhood Conservation District during a public hearing before the City Planning and Zoning Commission Monday evening. City Council will take up the final vote on the district, which encompasses most of the eastern end of LaBelle, at tonight’s meeting. -- Paul Giannamore

STEUBENVILLE — City Council will consider a Neighborhood Conservation District for the eastern end of LaBelle View with a positive recommendation from the City Planning and Zoning Commission over the objection of several residents.

The planning commission held a two-hour public hearing on the district, which Urban Projects Director Chris Petrossi said met the requirements of preserving and enhancing neighborhood character and the health, safety and welfare of the city. Belleview Boulevard resident James Hostetler said the process for the district started in February 2017, included meetings and resulted in the necessary two-thirds of residents in the proposed district signing the petition. He said the idea is to stabilize property values and preserve the homeowner-occupied neighborhood for future generations.

Hostetler said neighbors got to know one another through the process and noted 23 other neighborhoods in the city have formed conservation districts.

Opponents say they don’t like having two-thirds of the property owners tell the other one-third what they can do with their property. The districts restrict turning single-family homes into rental properties.

Both sides say 70 percent of the homes on all of LaBelle View are rentals and noted the district only represents one slice of the area.

Alex Plato of Reserve Avenue said he bought property for his family that he could afford and had rented on Oregon Avenue prior to buying the home. He said as his family grows, they might want to move and could face carrying two mortgages if the house doesn’t sell within two years. The conservation district permits a home to be converted to a rental for two years.

John Sengenberger of Belleview Boulevard said his family has lived in its home since 1984. He said he has raised seven children, and has seen the residents of the neighborhood change along with a decline in the character of much of LaBelle.

“We probably need this more than any other area of the city, for the families that live there and the families to come,” Sengenberger said. He noted he commutes daily to Pittsburgh, but he stays “in a community I want to live in. I think Steubenville has been a wonderful place to raise my family.”

Patrick Lee of Belleview Boulevard said the neighborhood conservation district is unjust, and not only because it can force people to hold two mortgages if they cannot sell within two years.

He said neighborhood conservation districts are usually called “exclusionary or restrictive zoning, or sometimes snob zoning.” He said making districts across the city will put a cap on the number of available rentals, driving the up price of rentals and excluding people who receive public rental assistance.

Matt Breuninger of Oregon Avenue said city officials and proponents of the districts say they’re beneficial, but there are no studies in Steubenville on their potential impact on crime, property values and blight. He said he spoke with an official in East Lansing, Mich., which he said served as the model for Steubenville’s ordinance, and was told it has had no impact on those issues while creating a mentality that pushes people to rent in areas deemed acceptable, creating ghettos.

He also said a one-size-fits-all neighborhoods solution doesn’t take into consideration the differences in various neighborhoods across the city.

“Where do folks who get squeezed out go? And who are these folks, by the way?” he asked. He said the city needs to study the impact on crime, drug use, property values and other issues, and, if no change is noted, then the districts need to be reconsidered. Planning commission Chairman William Hendricks said the commission only could consider what it was presented and couldn’t reconsider the neighborhood conservation district ordinance. Brueninger said the commission couldn’t make a reasoned judgment without data to back up its decision.

Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna said he owned two homes whose interiors were destroyed by renters. He noted the meeting was the first time anyone has brought up anything negative about the conservation district efforts. Residents, including Peter Marx of Hawthorne Court, said much of what needs to be done could be handled by increased code enforcement by the city.

Villamagna said, “To be honest, we are lucky we are afloat. We do not have the luxury of commissioning studies. We’re trying to stay afloat. We are a broke city.”

He said the city does try to enforce building codes, but the court process is lengthy.

“I can’t worry as the city about people having double mortgages. Our job is to make sure the city is cleaned up the way it was,” he said. Villamagna said many properties ended up abandoned by people who bought homes and rented them out while their children lived in the city.

“I will speak for the whole council when I say I do not think anybody on council is a snob. There are no snobs in this room. There was no intention to restrict anyone on race or religion or creed. The sole purpose is to try to make your neighborhood, my neighborhood, everybody who lives in Steubenville have a better neighborhood,” he said.

Villamagna said the conservation districts are intended to “force people out. There’s no way around that. If you’re a horrible landlord, we want you out of that neighborhood.”

Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn, who lives in the proposed conservation district, said there are 1,000 vacant properties in the city, 300 of them in LaBelle View.

“We never said the Neighborhood Conservation District was the only answer. It is drawing a line in the sand, saying we will not continue to hemorrhage property values by allowing more and more rentals,” she said.

“Property rights are not the same as property use. The right of property is peace, tranquillity and safety in your home, not being able to turn it into a financially beneficial thing. You don’t have a right to rent it. That is a property use,” she said, comparing that to restrictions to putting a business in a home.

South Bend Boulevard resident Ed Palombizio, who has spoken at several council meetings about the proposed district, read letters from three neighbors asking to be left out of the district.

He noted he and the three neighbors are at the edge of the proposed district and leaving them off before the ordinance is passed wouldn’t damage the district’s integrity.

If it’s passed as is, it would take a year and gathering signatures of two-thirds of the residents of the district to let the houses out of the district, he said.