Nothing concrete in plans

DeWayne Bartels
Fifth District councilman Pat Nichting and Jamison Shefts, owner of a lot at Richmar Road and Eva Lane, meet with neighbors Aug. 20 trying to calm fears about a proposed commercial development.

The widening of North Knoxville Avenue a few years ago has had the unintended  effect of threatening a way of life for the residents of Mt. Hawley Manor.

Jamison Shefts, the owner of a vacant lot at the corner of Knoxville and Richmar, and a novice at commerical development, is the source of that perceived threat.

The vacant lot at the entrance to the small county subdivision, which used to be filled with homes and trees, now sits vacant except for 5-foot-tall weeds, ruts and construction debris. If Shefts, owner of the six-acre lot, has his way, it will become a commercial property.

A long-awaited meeting between the residents and Shefts to discuss concerns and find out the plans for the lot occurred Aug. 20.

The almost 50 residents attending the meeting walked away knowing a little more about Shefts’ plans, but not enough to calm fears that their way of life may be forever changed.

“Will we lose our small-town feel here?” one woman asked.

“We want our peaceful neighborhood left alone.”

Varying opinions

Shefts, at the meeting with residents, handed out copies of the plans submitted to the city, but acknowledged they are virtually worthless.

“This is about the 15th version of these plans,” Shefts said. “It will probably not be the last.”

Gene Lear, senior urban planner for the city’s planning and growth management office, could say only that Shefts wants to annex the property — which becomes Ravinswood on the east side of Knoxville — into the city.

Lear said the city has been given preliminary plans showing three buildings. One is a proposed 6,059-square-foot restaurant. The other two buildings are labeled retail. One building is 13,132-square-feet, and the other 11,950-square-feet.

But, Lear said the city has not accepted those plans, and he has no idea if they are accurate at this point. Shefts, at the meeting with residents, said at this point, the only interest in the property is from a local plastic surgeon.

One thing that does not make neighbors happy is the preliminary plans show the proposed entrance and exit are on Richmar.

Residents would like to see the street shut off not far from its intersection with Knoxville, but that presents a difficult obstacle. The Illinois Department of Transportation will not allow an entrance/exit off North Knoxville.

Across the room from where Lear looked at the plans on the wall was a colorful map labeled “Future Land Use Map.”

It shows areas in different colors indicating what use that property has in the city’s comprehensive plan. The lot in question is shown as residential.

Asked if trying to convert that property would run into a staff recommendation of denial for the re-zoning because it is in consistent with the comprehensive plan brought a less-than concrete answer.

“When the comprehensive plan was done, no one knew someone might want to develop that commercially,” Lear said.

“I don’t know specifically if that will meet with a staff recommendation for denial. I can’t answer that.”

Ross Black, assistant director of the planning and growth management office, then tackled that question.

“It would be inconsistent with the current plan,” Black said.

“A recommendation of denial by staff is usually the case if it is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan.”

But, then Pat Landes, director of the planning and growth management office, stepped up to address the question.

Landes said although staff might recommend denial, the zoning commission and city council can overrule that recommendation.

And, Landes added, she is not so sure staff will recommend denial based solely on the comprehensive plan.

“With the amount of commercial development in that area, we are not completely uncomfortable with a commercial use there,” Landes said.

“But, we are as concerned as the residents are.”

Fifth District councilman Pat Nichting said he is concerned, too.

“If there’s going to be something, there I have to work as the middleman between the developer, the city and the residents,” Nichting said.

“If I become an opponent or a proponent, I’m not doing my job of finding some common ground.”

Common ground

Shefts said he wants to find common ground, too.

Last week he turned in a new set of plans to the city. That set of plans, he said, shows a berm on Eva Lane and a tree line to act as a buffer.

Shefts said he has a preliminary agreement for a piece of commercial property near the Dunlap Bank on 1.5 acres of the lot. The rest of the lot has no plans right now.

Shefts said he has recently become aware of the frustration his residential neighbors have, especially after the deferment at the zoning commission.

“That was a city screw-up,” he said. “I have gotten involved with the neighbors and told them there’s nothing we’re going to try and force feed them. We want to do the right thing. All they have to do is call me. I don’t want people worried.”

Shefts said he wanted a meeting with the neighbors to try and put rumors and frustrations to rest.  

“Nichting will not let anything go in there that is not special,” Shefts said. “I hope everyone will walk away from this happy. I don’t know if I can put rumors and frustrations aside. I just hope to come to some common ground.”

Mixed emotions

The Aug. 20 meeting between Shefts, the residents and Nichting was calm and civil.

Shefts and Nichting were peppered with questions. Some were answered and others could not be. 

Nichting worked to get across to the residents that while they are not city residents, their interests and wishes are a priority.

“This is not a real simple thing,” he said.

Nichting explained, as long as he is on the council, there will be no effort to annex the residents into the city against their wishes.

And, he said, there will not be a quick and clandestine effort by the city to put in a commercial development behind their backs.

Nichting spoke about a commercial development not far from their homes on the other side of the Huck’s gas station on Alta Road.

He said the zoning commission recommended approval of rezoning of land so a Schnuck’s and an office complex for Methodist Medical Center could be located there.

Nichting said that project has not moved any further since.

“I’ve been in meetings since November of last year on that,” Nichting said.

“I don’t like going to meetings, but I will not have something shoved down my throat in my district ... I haven’t approved anything. I have to have a comfort level.”

Even before Nichting arrived, the message he was trying to convey, that the residents had some power in this issue, had already jelled. 

“(Shefts) has got to work with us. He’s smart enough to know that,” one man said before Shefts arrived.

“He wants to have a public hearing before the zoning commission and be able to say, 'The neighbors are with me on this.’”