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Whitman rezoning trial begins in Monroe County

MONROE — Testifying in his land-use lawsuit against Bedford Township, Jon Whitman said on Monday that he followed the expert advice of planning officials — and the township master plan — when asking for zoning modifications for property on Lewis Avenue near his family's auto dealership.

Mr. Whitman, whose zoning battles with the township date to 2003, said he pored over trial testimony, courts documents, and the opinion in the trial verdict after Judge Joseph Costello, Jr., denied his challenge in 2007 to rezone land near the Indian Acres subdivision.

"I said, ‘I will do this exactly like [planning officials] wanted. If that is what they want, then I will do this exactly the way they want,'?" he said, referring to the rezoning application he filed with the township planning department in July, 2008, to rezone 34 acres of farmland.

The civil trial, which began Monday in Monroe County Circuit Court, stems from Bedford Township Board action in December, 2008, on the zoning request and the ensuing voter referendum that overturned the board's zoning decision. Judge Costello is presiding over the trial that is scheduled through Friday.

Mr. Whitman sued the township in July, 2009, saying the township had been unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious in decisions regarding the zoning of his land.

Among the issues Mr. Whitman said he tried to address was the lack of an appropriate transitional zoning between the neighborhood off Sterns Road and the existing land he owns that was zoned for commercial development.

He sought to have the land use changed from single-family residential and shopping center business to allow for development of professional business offices and multifamily and elderly residential housing.

Mr. Whitman, president of Whitman Ford, told Judge Costello he relied on the sworn testimony of witnesses who gave depositions or testified four years ago in the civil lawsuit against the township.

"They wanted to see these transitional uses and I was going to try to provide them," he said.

The action taken by the seven-member township board in December, 2008, allowed Mr. Whitman's requested zoning changes for five of six parcels, including the transitional zoning that experts said was needed for the vacant strip adjacent to Indian Acres.

However, Mr. Whitman was denied permission to rezone about eight acres west of the Ford dealership from single-family residential to allow for commercial development.

All modifications that Mr. Whitman wanted had been reviewed and recommended for approval by the Monroe County Planning Commission. The township planning commission recommended the rezoning with the exception of the eight acres that Mr. Whitman wanted changed from residential to commercial.

The panel believed commercial zoning for the parcel could be problematic and an additional buffer was needed to the residential areas, and instead advocated a mixed office or local business use.

However, "they have nothing in the master plan that allows for possible mixed office use or local business use," Mr. Whitman stated.

In questions from his attorney, Thomas Hanson, Mr. Whitman said that Bedfordwatch.com and the now-defunct Citizens to Preserve Bedford, in campaigning to reverse the zoning changes, unfairly and incorrectly tied the issue to the construction of a Walmart or other big-box store.

He said he wanted the changes to market the property to sell it.

Contact Mark Reiter at: markreiter@theblade.com or 419-724-6199.

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