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City Council committee discuss updating zoning laws and sewer repairs

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A City Council committee at its Monday meeting discussed a proposed update to the city’s process for approving properties exempt from housing laws due to their construction predating modern code.

These properties, known as “non-conforming use variants,” are typically referred for approval to the Board of Zoning Appeals, the department responsible for oversight of city zoning law.

The current process to ensure properties conform to housing laws involves approval from at least four members of the zoning board, according to Joan Kraynanski, a former zoning board member.

The proposed change would instead allow an officer from Athens Code Enforcement and Community Development — the department responsible for enforcing housing laws — to approve some properties that do not conform to contemporary code.

If implemented, code enforcement will outline which properties can be evaluated by a department employee rather than the zoning board, he said.

“We all know that there are sections in code as it exists that really aren’t making major modifications to someone’s property decision on something,” Mayor Steve Patterson said. “This is … helping one of our boards and commissions streamline the process as opposed to really slowing down what someone would like to do with their property.”

The proposal originated from discussions at another City Council committee meeting in May where the president of the zoning board asked to change the appeals process for properties in situations where the board typically unanimously voted on decisions, Patterson said.

Kraynanski, who retired from the board in 2017 after a six-year tenure, raised concerns about the proposed change to the property approval process and downplayed an assumption made by some members of the council that the department is overworked.

“I did not think we were overworked,” she said.

Kraynanski raised two main concerns about the proposed change: Separation of powers and transparency. She outlined the branches of city government within city administration, including the safety director as the executive branch; City Council and committees as the legislative branch; and the law director and the zoning board as the judicial branch.

“I think the issue is how we’re going to determine the substitution for a non-conforming use of another not more objectionable non-conforming use when you’re not using part of the government structure that is not totally attached to the code office, Kraynanski said.

“The public has the opportunity to see these types of actions and how they are handled by the city government.”

The committees also discussed a request by the Public Works director to authorize bidding to repair a failing sewer line on East Columbia Avenue near Columbus Road.

The line serves about 50 homes, Councilmember Kent Butler said. A field survey and geotechnical analysis was performed to design a retaining wall to stabilize the sewer and nearby hillside.

Athens applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding to cover 75% of the $300,000 project, while the Ohio Emergency Management Agency will fund the remaining 12.5%, Butler said. 

Patterson spoke optimistically about receiving FEMA funding as the city received federal funding last year.

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