Toledo City Council has for years — decades even — ignored the advice of the city’s professional planners and the commission appointed to render recommendations on zoning requests.
A 10-2 vote last month to overturn the Toledo Plan Commission and clear the way for a new, $26 million, 123,000-square-foot Kroger Marketplace at Monroe Street and Secor Road was the latest example of council using its “super-majority” power to overrule its planners, but that has happened dozens of times over the past seven decades.
Since 1995 alone, council used its authority to make changes to allow convenience stores and gas stations in residential areas and disrupt single-family neighborhoods by approving zoning for group homes, child-care, and drug-rehabilitation centers.
Going back further to the 1950s and 1960s, a review of city and plan commission records show council overturning the commission many times during the city’s booming growth in those decades.
“The ‘50s and ‘60s was when we built a lot of Toledo out,” said Tom Gibbons, director of the Toledo plan commission. “With the war [World War II] going on [in the 1940s], we hunkered down, but then annexation started happening in the early 1960s, plus we had a lot of undeveloped land.”
In April, 1954, council approved a controversial rezoning request that mirrors some of the same issues raised by opponents of the Kroger rezoning last month that allows the grocer to build a new, larger store than the one it now operates on the other side of Secor. Like the Kroger rezoning, in 1954 council overturned the planners’ recommendation not to allow construction of a shopping center along Central Avenue in a residential area just west of Douglas Road.
Council had rejected the zoning change two years earlier, in 1952, but then reversed itself and approved the shopping complex, which now houses a Food Town.
Michael DiSalle, who later became governor of Ohio, was at that time the attorney representing the developer, according to plan commission records. He filed a brief in 1954 lobbying the nine councilmen at the time to overturn the plan commission. Council obliged, despite objections from the then Toledo Society for Crippled Children, which had a home directly across the street.
The plan commission in 1955 said no to rezoning the southwest corner of Collingwood Boulevard and Central Avenue. Council did it anyway. Two years later, the plan commission said no to rezoning the southeast corner of Sylvania Avenue and Douglas Road from agricultural to commercial. Council approved it as well.
In 1964, council was at it again, overturning city planners. That case had to do with changing 5225 and 5235 Secor Road from residential to commercial. The property, north of Laskey Road, to this day is commercial office space known as the Secor Business Center, across Secor from modest homes. The rezoning was opposed by some neighbors at the time, according to the plan commission records, but council approved it anyway.
More recently, a controversial North Toledo rezoning in January, 2015, still has some residents and the district councilman fuming.
General Truck plans
General Truck Sales of Muncie, Ind., was rejected by the plan commission and its staff to build a new facility on what had been residential land in the Shoreland neighborhood near Point Place. By a 10-1 council vote — with District 6 Councilman Lindsay Webb casting the lone dissenting vote — they approved the company’s zoning change on 25 acres between Suder Avenue and I-75 to allow for limited industrial use.
The five-member plan commission, following the advice of its staff, urged council to deny the rezoning and plans for the truck sales and service operation that would bring 200 trucks a day into the mostly residential neighborhood.
Council was at the time heavily lobbied by the company and its consultant — Steve Herwat, a retired city plan commission director and former deputy mayor for Toledo. In the end, council sided with the company over the objections of the plan commission, throngs of residents, and the district councilman.
The plan commission’s staff said that type of business did not conform to the Toledo 20/20 Comprehensive Plan, the long-term planning tool approved by council, and was out of character with surrounding zoning and land uses. The nearby area, which includes a school and church, is best suited for single-family homes, the staff said.
“I had multiple meetings with the people opposed and we worked with General Truck to modify the design to address the needs of the neighborhood,” Ms. Webb said. “That happened through a series of meetings and one of the mistakes with the Kroger rezoning is there were not any negotiations between Kroger and the district councilman. They modified the plan, but not through a series of public negotiations.”
Although not in its original plan, General Truck Sales officials agreed after arm-twisting talks with Ms. Webb to fund a sidewalk and guardrails; keep the lot at the intersection at Shoreland and Suder avenues zoned residential, and change the orientation of its planned building.
“Every time I see it I say ‘I hate that building’, but I am satisfied we did everything we could to make sure it was the best it could be for the neighborhood,” Ms. Webb said.
The plan commission’s staff said Kroger’s request to change the zoning from residential to regional commercial also did not conform to the Toledo 20/20 Comprehensive Plan.
Opponents of the Kroger rezoning do not feel enough was done to push back against the company even though it made minor modifications to its original plan from 2015, such as reducing the number of outlots from four to two and keeping more trees on the former campus of the Sisters of Notre Dame.
Lobbying today to overturn the plan commission is as common as it was in 1954, when Mr. DiSalle urged council to approve his client’s request, or in 2014 when Mr. Herwat pushed for a yes vote for General Truck.
Shaun Enright, the business manager of the Northwest Ohio Building Trades, which represents 5,000 union workers, unabashedly agreed to lobby councilmen to support the Kroger rezoning.
“Of course I did,” said Mr. Enright, himself a former member of council.
“It is construction and it is my job to lobby for construction. There was no strong-arming,” he said. “We have an interest to keep our members working, so if it’s a $28 million project, that is a large enough project [and] of course we will make our position known to everyone. That is our job.”
Mike Ferner, a former Toledo councilman and an unsuccessful 2015 mayoral candidate, spoke out against the rezoning during a public hearing and caused a firestorm of backlash from councilmen when he stated how much the building-trades unions had donated to councilmen, ranging from $33,826 for Mr. Cherry, a Democrat, to zero for Mr. Ludeman, a Republican. Mr. Ferner said Ms. Webb, also a Democrat, received $24,355 since 2011 from building trades unions. Mr. Riley rounded out the top three with $11,500.
Councilman Peter Ujvagi, who along with Sandy Spang cast the two no votes against Kroger’s rezoning, said he received more communications on the issue than any other.
“I was lobbied by opponents and proponents,” he said, noting building trades were among those lobbying.
Councilman Yvonne Harper said she wasn’t approached by any union officials, but had a chance encounter with a nun attached to the Sisters of Notre Dame.
“I admit, that nun got to me,” she said. “She came up to me and asked if I owned my house and asked if I would want someone telling me who I could sell it to.”
Other councilmen had different reasons for voting to overturn the plan commission with the 10-2 vote on March 21.
Councilmen Tom Waniewski, Cecelia Adams, Rob Ludeman, Matt Cherry, Theresa Gabriel, Tyrone Riley, Steven Steel, Larry Sykes, Ms. Harper, and Ms. Webb voted in favor.
“I have always looked at this as a land-use issue,” said Mr. Waniewski, the District 5 councilman who represents the area where the new Kroger will be built.
“I think the planners work in theory and I felt we were dealing with reality,” he said. “The reality is the sisters tried to sell that to someone over the last five years to keep it as residential or keep it as institutional campus and they couldn’t, and the use of that land is not going to follow institutional campus.”
Mr. Cherry, a business agent for Sheet Metal Workers Local 33, said it was the right decision to vote yes because Monroe and Secor “is a very busy intersection,” the nuns had “no other deals on the table,” and the vote was closely watched by other developers.
“That vote reaffirmed that they can do business in the city of Toledo,” he said.
Mr. Cherry was among the eight councilmen in 2015 who voted against the zoning change, but he changed his vote to yes last month when the controversial request was again before council. Ms. Gabriel, Ms. Harper, Mr. Riley, Mr. Steel, Mr. Sykes, and Ms. Webb all voted against the zoning change in 2015, but voted yes last month.
In 2015, the company could not promise local workers would be used to build the store, Mr. Cherry said.
“Now they said they will,” he said. “I am tired of driving by Kroger stores and seeing people from out of town building them.”
Mr. Riley said his reversal was also about land use and jobs.
“The sisters were definitely going to sell the property one way or another and in light of the fact they were going to sell, I thought the best use was for the Kroger store to go in,” he said. “Kroger assured me there would be between 100 and 125 new jobs and those will be local jobs and in terms of the construction, those will be local people who build it.”
Michael J. Young, a Toledo native, former Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commission planner, and co-chairman of the San Diego Environment and Design Council, blasted Toledo council for ignoring long-term strategic planning in exchange for short-term gain.
He said council repeated a legacy of “unforced errors” by ignoring its own master plan and rezoning property for a new Kroger’s store.
“Investors walk away from cities that ignore planning and grant zone changes to anyone, anywhere, at any time,” he said.
Steve Serchuk, a commercial real-estate agent with Signature Associates in Toledo, who sits on the city’s board of zoning appeals but previously spent a decade on the plan commission, said city council the past two decades has mostly adhered to plan commission recommendations. He was chairman of the Toledo 20/20 Comprehensive Plan.
“Checks and balances are important and they have been in the code for a long time,” he said. “Ninety percent or better, city council supports the plan commission.”
“What we did in the 20/20 plan for a lot of cases, including the sister’s property, we left the zoning in place in many cases when the use and zoning were identical,” Mr. Serchuk said. “Secor Road is probably the second-most dominant commercial [area] and you typically zone that for regional commercial ... that is a regional commercial area.”
Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas, who was elected to Toledo council in 1961 and re-elected nine times, serving until 1980, could not recall any times he voted to overturn the plan commission.
Mr. Douglas said council should give deference to the plan commission.
“You give deference to the agency the power is vested in to determine,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t overrule, but I would give deference to their decision unless it was in violation of the law or so clearly influenced by passion and prejudice.”
Neighbors near the Kroger find little comfort in the fact that the intersection’s other three corners are commercial so the fourth was likely to eventually go commercial.
Keith Sparrow, a lawyer who has lived in Old Orchard for decades, said council erred by overturning the plan commission and suspects it was a purely political move. Like others against the project, he said traffic is already bumper to bumper on Secor during rush hour; he wonders what will happen to the existing Kroger building, and is leery of what will be placed on the two outlots the company has in its plan.
“I think council drank the Kool-Aid on this one,” Mr. Sparrow said. “There is no justification to vote 10-2 against the 20/20 plan. This does not help the neighborhood.”
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