Cape Girardeau City Council to consider revised zoning code Tuesday

Sunday, February 14, 2010
This 1,350-square-foot garage built by Travis Rowland next to his Themis Street home would not be allowed if the Cape Girardeau City Council approves a proposed new zoning code. (Fred Lynch)

When Travis Rowland purchased a rundown house at 1716 Themis St. in Cape Girardeau, he thought he was doing the neighborhood a favor. The owner of Creative Trim & Performance wanted a house near that of his mother, and the property seemed a perfect fit.

Then last year he built a new garage, big enough for four or five cars at 1,350 square feet. Some neighbors tried to stop him but failed, petitioning the city for help. There was nothing the city could do -- the garage was allowed under the zoning code and a building permit was issued.

Rowland doesn't apologize for the size of his garage or its height, which is as tall as several nearby houses. He has remodeled the house, removing mold and three feet of standing water in the basement, he said. The house sat vacant for a long time before he purchased it, he added.

"I've sunk about 50 grand into that house," Rowland said. "Rats were living in the cabinets on food left by people who lived there three years previously."

But the efforts of the garage's opponents were not entirely in vain. Under the overhauled zoning code that will be considered Tuesday night by the Cape Girardeau City Council, "accessory buildings" larger than 800 square feet in area and 15 feet in height would not be allowed on residential lots smaller than a half-acre.

Construction of a building like the 13-story Hirsch Tower in the 300 block of Broadway in Cape Girardeau would not be allowed under a proposed revision of city zoning code. (Fred Lynch)

The council will begin its consideration of the proposed code with a public hearing that begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday at city hall, 401 Independence St.

The limit is one of several new restrictions on land use proposed in the revamped code.

"The purpose of zoning codes is to protect to some level the quality and values of people's homes in cases where neighbors and other people could be doing things that could create problems," said Bill Hinckley, chairman of the Cape Girardeau Planning and Zoning Commission. "I am not going to get into an argument that people are right or wrong. But that was a huge garage to just put in, with all that height above that thing. It blocked the views of the neighbors, and that height wasn't necessary to store two or three cars."

The 42-year-old city zoning code was identified in the city Comprehensive Plan, approved in 2008, as something that needed updating. Everything in the code was reviewed, from its basic structure to details such as how many people may share a rental home.

When experts talk about zoning, sometimes the jargon can be daunting. Terms such as "nonconforming use," "variance" or "overlay district" can quickly leave the uninitiated wondering what is being said.

But zoning rules are an area of government that have a big effect on daily lives. They describe what can and cannot be done by property owners on any particular parcel. Under the current code, the rules get progressively looser, a structure called "stacked" districts.

For example, R-1 zoning is for single-family homes. A property owner cannot build a fast-food restaurant there. But a property owner who wants to build a home next to a fast-food restaurant in a commercial district could do so. The only question would be whether anyone would want to.

The new code uses a different structure. Each section describes what can and cannot be done in a zoning district. A home in a commercial district is a nonconforming use, so a new home could not be built there.

Other new restrictions in the proposed zoning code include:

* Elimination of the "roomers" allowance that made it possible for five to seven unrelated people to share an apartment or house, depending on the zoning district. The new limit in most single-family homes will be three. The roomers provision has been among the most-watched issues in the overhaul, with landlords worried it will hurt their business.

* A maximum height of 40 feet, or three stories, for new buildings in the Central Business District downtown. With special permission, a building 60 feet tall would be allowed. But no one would be able to construct another 13-story building like the KFVS tower at 310 Broadway in the downtown area.

* How much of a property may be covered by a building in many of the zoning districts. The requirements for medium- and high-density apartment construction, manufacturing or planned developments include minimum amounts of open space, not including parking lots and driveways.

During a city council work session discussion of the proposed code, Mayor Jay Knudtson raised concerns about the height restriction on new downtown construction. He worried aloud that it could make downtown unattractive to a company that, for example, wanted to build a high-rise hotel that captured views of the Mississippi River.

But later drafts have kept that restriction in place. The reason for limiting the height of new buildings had its genesis in a desire to maintain the character of the area.

There is another, practical reason for denying that view from the sky to a new development, said Sarah Wallace, a city planner who has been deeply involved in the yearlong effort to draft the new ordinance.

"Then you would be blocking everybody's view behind you," Wallace said.

The rules are flexible, she said. For example, if a casino were ever to be built in downtown Cape Girardeau, the developers would want to include a hotel in their plan. And in the area along North Main Street targeted for that possibility, a high-rise hotel development wouldn't look as out of place as it might at William and Main streets.

To accommodate landlords, the new code includes an "Increased Occupancy Overlay District," where in addition to the basic three unrelated people, a landlord could rent to one extra person for each two bedrooms if off-street parking is available. Locations already identified for the designation include areas north of Capaha Park, from West End Boulevard to Pacific Street south of Broadway, and south of Highway 74 on both sides of Sprigg Street.

"One of the big problems we ran across with the roomers was that we were the only city in Missouri that allowed roomers in single-family neighborhoods," Hinckley said. "We felt we needed to address that because a lot of people were very concerned."

With increased occupancy districts, landlords will continue to invest in areas where property can be profitably rehabilitated. They will not be allowed to break a single-family home into multiple apartments.

"The bottom line is that it makes it a viable project for investment," said Ken Eftink, assistant city manager.

When the effort to rewrite the code began, Hinckley said he worried it would be a controversial, difficult job. It actually has gone fairly smoothly, he said. "A lot of that has been the willingness to communicate with people and listen to what they had to say," he said. "People can accept a lot if they think they are being listened to and some of their ideas are included."

But next door to Rowland's home, Lisa and John Wissinger of 1726 Themis St. said the code should encourage efforts like their neighbor's, not block them. They have seen a property that has been cleaned up, with a new roof and windows, new siding and trimmed trees. The garage doesn't bother them a bit.

The opponents, Lisa Wissinger said, "are just a bunch of retired busybodies."


Pertinent addresses:

401 Independence St., Cape Girardeau, MO

1716 Themis St., Cape Girardeau, MO

310 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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