By Angela Simmons
LEBANON – One Lebanon resident will go back to the drawing board after a city council vote accepted the recommendation of the Lebanon Planning Commission to deny a special use permit to open a towing company lot at 606 McAllister.
In a meeting that was heated and confusing at times to attendees and city staff, City Attorney John Long said that a council meeting vote was null and void until a hearing was held and the use was added to an existing list of possible uses for the current zone.
The property sits adjacent to Jesus the Living Word Church and is zoned MH1, Manufactured Home. The area sits in a prominently African American neighborhood that residents are hard at work to clean up, taking vacant homes and lot and revamping them into community gardens and new homes, and making sure that a nearby park is clean and safe for the community. Resident Lafarrell Price said that most of the aldermen would not want the tow yard next to their homes or churches, and it was no different for this community.
Applicant Teddy Sells currently leases the property at 606 McAllister and wants to move his towing company, 4 Sells Towing, to the lot. The lot would have a small gravel parking lot for customer parking and Sells’ three small tow trucks, as well as the office of his business. The towing lot where the cars would be held would be behind a six foot privacy fence and would be situated backing to into the woods. Sells noted at one point that no one from the street would know what was behind the fence unless they specifically tried to see over it. He agreed that chain link fencing with slats would not make the lot private enough, and added that he knows that towing businesses have a bad perception, and that he wanted to help be a part of setting the new standard. He mentioned that the lot would only contain cars that have been towed per insurance, such as after an accident, and cited not only the relative privacy, but the other towing and impound lot on the same street, catty corner to the church, Buhl’s Towing and Recovery, as part of why he felt the property was a good fit.
Planning Commission Chairman Jeff Fairlie said “To break it down, there’s a church next door to it. The residents of the community are concerned with how it’s going to look, and whether it fits with the direction they want their community to go.”
Fairlie said that the planning commission heard hours of testimony from nearby residents and Sells, and deliberated over several factors, including the individual testimony since the property would be in a residential district, that Sells is currently leasing the property, that Sells’s business is currently based out of Mattoon, and that there is a petition signed by more than 40 area residents. After weighing everything, the commission voted to recommend denying the special use permit. Fairlie noted in his presentation that the commission understood that while a towing company was not included on a list of specific uses for MH1 zoning, “we believe exceptions can be made on a case by case basis.”
Alderwoman Cheri Wright mentioned that Sells lived only two blocks from the property and had children in the Lebanon schools, and said that she visited the property and took pictures, as well as examined the property surrounding the area.
“He’s saying he doesn’t necessarily want the lot to go there and was looking for a commercial location, can’t find them. There are automotive locations down there, and there are other location businesses down there. I don’t think it’s fair that we tell someone that wants to bring business here that he can’t. Especially since he’s not interfering in the church. I did look around the neighborhood and some of the areas are a little rough,” Wright said.
Assistant Pastor Denice Price Martin spoke on behalf of audience members that took exception to Wright’s comments, saying, “I want to address when she stated she doesn’t think it’s fair. What isn’t fair is switching midstream on people that have lived there 20, 40, 50 years in an MH1 area. It’s not fair to rezone it and change it for a business to come in. You said it’s a rough area? There’s more areas of Lebanon that’s rough. Do you live there? Do you know?”
Wright responded “I don’t mean it’s rough as in the people. I mean some of the properties. The people are all very nice.”
City Attorney John Long brought up All About The Sweets Bakery, which also operates in the neighborhood, and said that when he was examining that instance, “I found out something there that applies directly to this, and that is that a provision in our code of ordinances says that if a use is not specifically allowed, neither the planning commission nor the city council has the leeway to approve it. What has to be done is it has to be taken to the Zoning Board of Appeals and written into the ordinance before we allow it. We actually have a problem with the bakery, and we have to go through the process of putting that into the zoning code, but that applies directly here because if it’s correct that this is not listed as a permitted special use in an MH district, then the city council’s vote will actually be annulling this because it has to go to the zoning board…. You can take the vote, it’s just not going to have any meaning.”
Long said that from the board of appeals, Sells would go back to the planning commission and repeat the process. Amidst confusion from aldermen, audience members, and Sells, Mayor Rich Wilken attempted to make the situation as clear as possible for what the process would be moving forward for Sells and other residents wanting to come into the area.
Later, it was figured out that the planning commission would be the ones to add the special use to the list, not the zoning board of appeals. Fairlie said he wanted to know specifically to be sure to streamline the process for residents, so that they can have as smooth a process as possible. It was later decided that a special group will look at the verbiage in the ordinances to make the process easier and more timely, as well as clear to all city boards and commissions.
Wilken called for a vote to know where the council stood on the issue, and it was a seven to one vote with Wright being the only dissenting vote. After the vote, Wilken and Sells had a heated exchange as Sells said multiple times that the vote was illegal and against the advice of the city attorney, and Wilken said that he had expressed the opinion it needed to be done.
Sells said he was not surprised to be denied, because he expected it after the planning commission meeting. “That meeting was perfectly civil, though. Everyone shook hands, and there was no animosity.”
Sells said what upset him the most was the behavior of Alderman Frank Almeter making him feel unwelcome in a town that he just wants to contribute to. When confirming the towing business was currently based out of Mattoon, Illinois, Almeter said “That’s a good place for it.“
Later, when Sells was speaking and forgot Almeter’s last name, the alderman said “It’s not important.” As Sells was leaving the building after a heated exchange with Mayor Wilken, Almeter made a comment about going back to Mattoon.
“So I’m not welcome in town anymore Mr. Frank? Because I wasn’t born and raised here in town I’m not welcome to live and operate in Lebanon,” Sells asked.
Almeter immediately responded “You don’t run the place do you? We run the place.”
Sells is not only a resident and local business owner, he is also a City of Lebanon volunteer firefighter, and says he has been attending city council meetings for months attempting to be a contributing member of the town.
“And that won’t change; that mess tonight will not run me out of Lebanon. I have a plan B, C, D, E and F,” he said. He also added that he felt bad for losing his cool, but is frustrated by what he feels is a lack of guidance and understanding from city officials.
Sells plans to move forward with his business, still hoping to bring his tax dollars to Lebanon. Residents in the McAllister area say that they will continue to attend meetings to speak out against the business opening in their neighborhood. City officials plan to refund Sells the fees that he has paid so far for the process, and will work to streamline the process not only for Sells, but for future businesses wanting to come to Lebanon.