A proposed zoning change in downtown Washington was the focal point of Monday’s planning and zoning commission meeting, with the owner of an iconic Washington business expressing his frustration for not being included in the downtown zone.
“I just want to be treated like everybody else in downtown,” said Tony Bequette, majority owner of Elijah McLean’s, a popular wedding and event venue at 600 W. Front St.
The proposed downtown zoning change stops two blocks east of Elijah McLean’s. City officials said Bequette wants to replace an existing event tent on his property with an outdoor pavilion that under current building codes would require Bequette to provide additional parking spaces. At the meeting, Bequette said that would mean he would have to make the Front Street-facing portion of his property into a parking lot in order to comply with current city code.
If included in the proposed downtown zone expansion, Bequette would not be required to add parking.
Cameron Lueken, who spoke during the meeting on behalf of Bequette, made the argument that because the main building at Elijah McLean’s was constructed in 1839 and is one of the five oldest buildings in Washington, it should be included in the zone. He showed commissioners a map produced in 2015 by the city’s historic preservation commission, which included the Elijah McLean property as part of the downtown region as evidence that the property should be considered.
“I just want everyone to think about how important and historic Elijah McLean’s is to the downtown and to the city,” Lueken said.
Planning and zoning commission members said though they agree that the property is historic, the proposed zoning district is not meant to be all-encompassing of every historic property in Washington.
“A historic boundary and this boundary are not the same,” said Planning and Zoning Commissioner Samantha Cerutti Wacker. She said the proposed downtown zoning district does not include the John G. Busch Event Center; the Busch mansion house, which is the home of the Washington VFW Post 2661; or other notable properties along Elm and Cedar Streets.
“I don’t believe what is proposed is an irrational boundary at all,” Cerutti Wacker said.
Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy asked Bequette if he had prepared any plans or renderings for what he wanted to build on the property. Bequette said he had not prepared any plans for the meeting.
Washington’s Community and Economic Development Director Sal Maniaci said after the meeting that developers, or individuals wanting to build a new structure on their property, can seek a special permit rather than a zoning change. To seek the permit, developers would need to submit the plans — which can cost several hundreds if not thousands of dollars — to the city, and a public hearing would be required before a decision by the city.
Cerutti Wacker and other members of the planning commission said they felt expanding the zoning district to include the venue would be problematic given that a year ago a proposed zoning change was met with fierce opposition from area residents who live on Johnson and Main streets and were concerned about parking.
“I don’t think anything has changed since then,” said Carolyn Witt, a member of the planning and zoning commission.
According to Maniaci, the planning and zoning commission will hold a hearing in August to discuss the zoning change. Every property owner who lives or owns property within 185 feet of an affected property should be receiving a letter about the public hearing. Maniaci said he is anticipating that the hearing will be well attended with property owners having lots of questions.
In other business, the commission also recommended the Washington City Council approve a request for two short-term rentals, such as an Airbnb, to operate in two homes at 309 Locust St. and 317 Locust St.