Zoning board to decide on landlord variance request

RENTAL REGISTRATION GOOF — Steubenville’s Board of Zoning Appeals will have to decide tonight if a landlord who forgot to renew the rental registration for homes located in neighborhood conservation districts should be given a variance. Landlord Dave Clarke admits he goofed, but insists his record as a landlord who tries to protect the integrity of their neighborhoods by carefully screening his tenants should count in his favor. -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — A landlord who forgot to renew his rental registration is asking the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals to give him a variance so he can continue to lease his residential properties out.

David Clarke, owner of buildings at 532 Arden and 1117 Wellesley, said the renewal “fell through the cracks, next thing I know I get a notice I have to kick my renters out.”

By ordinance, his options are limited: Apply for the variance, and if that doesn’t work list the property with a real estate agent and find a buyer within two years. The board will consider his variance request at tonight’s meeting, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers.

“I didn’t register them,” Clarke said. “I really wasn’t informed properly that such a drastic result was coming, or I would have (followed through).”

Clarke owns four rental homes in Steubenville, but he said only two of them are in conservation districts — a tool that allows residents in a particular area to preserve their neighborhood by precluding more single family homes from being turned into rentals. There’s a caveat, though: At least two-thirds of the property owners in the target area have to agree, and every property owner in the affected area has to receive and initial a fact sheet detailing their rights and responsibilities.

Rental properties existing before the neighborhood conservation district was implemented are grandfathered in — meaning that, unless the owners fail to renew their rental registry, the conservation district designation doesn’t apply to them.

Specifically, the ordinance states that, “In the event an owner of rental property, either intentionally or unintentionally, allows a rental registration to expire and more than one year passes without renewal of the rental registration, any subsequent use of the property must comply with the restrictions imposed by the district. It shall be the sole responsibility of the property owner to know the status of registration and to renew such registration prior to expiration.”

There are currently 25 neighborhood conservation districts in Steubenville; Clarke is the first landlord to seek the variance because he missed the registration deadline.

City Law Director Costa Mastros said the city’s position is clear: The neighborhood conservation district ordinance council adopted in 2014 “preserves, if you will, those districts as neighborhoods. Unless you have done all you can do under ordinance to maintain your rental unit, our position is you’re now under the dictates of the neighborhood conservation district.”

“That has to be our position, that’s the policy,” Mastros said.

Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna pointed out it’s residents, not city officials, who drove the conservation district process.

“That’s what started the whole thing, people calling about properties. (Former 2nd Ward councilman) Mike Johnson actually did the research about neighborhood conservation districts. Citizens got on board with it right away, the planning commission’s on board — people think it’s one of the greatest things that ever happened.”

While she understands Clarke’s frustration, Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn said the ordinance is clear-cut.

“A variance should not be granted,” said Hahn who lives in the Belleview Boulevard Neighborhood Conservation District near Clarke’s Wellesley Avenue property. “It’s the very reason the neighborhood conservation districts have such specific guidelines.”

Hahn said there’s “nothing burdensome” about the fee — $15 a year for one rental unit, $25 a year for two to five rental units.

“(And) if he is granted the variance, there’s no reason every other landlord wouldn’t ask for the same privilege which would make the ordinance null and void,” she said.

But Clarke maintains he didn’t realize the renewal period had changed with adoption of the neighborhood conservation district.

“I don’t know how I was supposed to know this,” Clarke said. “Before, I think it was like every five years you had to register. I’m not a resident, I don’t live in those houses.

“If I understood what I properly needed to do, I would have done it. I truly don’t think I was properly informed. But I don’t want a big legal battle out of this — what I want to do is demonstrate I’ve been a good landlord.”

And Clarke said he understands why neighborhood conservation districts have been so widely embraced in Steubenville, “but I still think I deserve a variance.”

“I’m a good property owner, I’ve never been in violation of any code or condition, and I screen my tenants very rigorously,” Clarke said. “I make sure they’re good tenants, not drug people … good tenants with jobs. I’m the kind of property owner they want, not the kind they’re trying to get rid of.”

Fourth Ward Councilman Scott Dressel also pointed out Clarke had signed off on the neighborhood conservation district, so the onus was on him to keep his rental registration up to date.

“Like every other landlord in town, (he needed) to keep his property registration up,” Dressel said.

“It expires every December and you need to renew every year, it’s as simple as that, then this wouldn’t happen.”

Clarke said his clean slate as a landlord should count for something.

“I don’t want to cause a ruckus,” he said. “I try my best to be a responsible property owner. I’ve always had decent tenants in my houses. No trouble, no arrests that I know of and there certainly hasn’t been any drug activity because I screen my tenants.”

But Villamagna said the neighborhood conservation district ordinance was adopted “to help citizens of Steubenville get rid of blight and try to make people responsible for their property.” He said people who live in the districts say it’s already stabilizing their neighborhoods.

“That’s a big plus, I think it’s great for neighborhoods,” he said. “Is it a cure all? No, but it is working.”