One sentence proclaiming "no variances allowed" has sent one Utica condominium complex back to the drawing board on its plan for new apartments.
The Utica City Council couldn’t find the four votes it needed this week to remove a ban on granting variances for land parcels awarded specialized zoning.
Mayor Jacqueline Noonan said that when the city council adopted a zoning ordinance amendment governing conditional, or contract, zoning — the rezoning of a specific piece of land to suit a private interest — it was unaware that the amendment contained a sentence stating that no variances are allowed.
A variance is an authorized deviation from what is usually allowed by zoning requirements.
With one council member absent and Noonan required to abstain under state law, as she had voted on the planning commission to recommend the amendment, the city council voted 3-2 for removing the sentence. At least four votes are required, however, meaning the ban was left in place.
Removing the phrase “no variances allowed” from the zoning amendment wouldn’t have required the city to grant variances, but it would have given it the ability to do so if desired, said City Attorney William McGrail. Both Noonan and McGrail said repealing the language would allow the city greater “flexibility.”
“You’d still have to go through the procedures of having a public hearing and meeting the criteria of the ordinance in order to have the variance granted,” said City Planner John Ambrose.
The decision only applies to properties that have been granted "conditional use zoning" by the city, and won’t affect other zoning districts, Ambrose added.
For Utica Center Townhomes, a single-family living complex located on Utica Park Boulevard, the decision meant it couldn’t receive a variance even if it did receive the conditional use zoning it desired. Project developers had hoped going into Tuesday’s meeting to obtain conditional use zoning and, additionally, a variance allowing them to build apartments at a denser unit per acre than normally allowed.
In the wake of the council’s decision, however, Tim Storey of SCS Engineering said the developers and owners would reconvene to consider other building options for the site.
Councilman Ken Sikora said there are other routes for the Utica Center Townhomes development. But that specific situation aside, he said he would have opposed removing the sentence anyway because such development proposals should come to the city already meeting current zoning regulations.
Councilman William Osladil also voted against removing the one-sentence prohibition on variances.
"One of the things that was a problem for me when I was chairman of the planning commission was to not look at individual issues when we were changing ordinances or making ordinances or making recommendations," he said. "It was very difficult to remove yourself from those kinds of things."