Millcreek Township supervisors have indefinitely postponed the adoption of a new township zoning ordinance.
Local developers say the ordinance would prohibit or significantly alter plans for new retail development in some areas including a restaurant near Presque Isle State Park, a convenience store on Interchange Road near the Millcreek Mall and retail shops along West 26th Street.
The new ordinance would change zoning for those and other areas of the township from commercial to mixed use, where retail shops would be prohibited or hamstrung by setback requirements and other "significant restrictions," developers said.
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The proposed zoning ordinance is designed to promote mixed-use development, increase housing options and accommodate flexible redevelopment along commercial corridors, according to township presentations. The proposed zoning changes are in line with Embrace Millcreek comprehensive plan objectives and will benefit the township as a whole rather than the "self interest" of developers, Millcreek Township Supervisor John Morgan said.
Supervisors voted Tuesday to delay ordinance approval for additional review and possible revisions.
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Plans for the former Joe Root's Grill at West Eighth and Peninsula Drive would have to at least be revised if the new zoning ordinance were approved as written, Greg Baldwin of Baldwin Brothers Inc., told township supervisors during their business meeting Tuesday.
"We're extremely concerned if we'll actually be able to redevelop that site," Baldwin said.
"Very stringent" requirements in the new ordinance, including setback regulations, would prevent the construction of a new building on the property and would force developers to use the existing building instead, Baldwin said.
"That wasn't really our intent when we acquired the property. We really thought it would be a nice opportunity to redevelop property in a prime location to really change the face of that particular district," Baldwin said.
Joe Root's Grill has been empty since the restaurant closed in 2019.
The proposed ordinance would shelve plans for new retail businesses on West 26th Street at Sterrettania Road and for a convenience store near the Millcreek Mall, lawyer Michael Agresti said. Agresti addressed supervisors on behalf of several area property owners.
Iadeluca Chiropractic would be unable to lease retail space in its building at West 26th and Sterrettania Road if the area is zoned for mixed use development as proposed, Agresti said.
David Iadeluca operates Iadeluca Chiropractic Center on the first floor of the building, which originally was a Rite-Aid store. The lower level, along West 26th, has space that Iadeluca is developing and currently offering for lease for retail businesses, Agresti said.
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Under the new zoning ordinance, the area would be in a Mixed-Use 2 district, which does not allow for retail uses, he said.
"Obviously that significantly reduces the potential pool of applicants for that property," Agresti said.
Proposed mixed-use zoning also would prohibit Renaud-Peck development firm from building a convenience store on Interchange Road near the Interstate 79 interchange, Agresti said. The property is currently zoned commercial.
"(That property) also would be MU2, which would not allow the development even as a conditional use because of the setback required that would make it impossible to build that," Agresti said.
Also at risk would be plans for a retail development at Interchange and Edinboro roads south of the Millcreek Mall, Agresti said.
The property, behind ErieBank, is a large tract of land acquired by the Birkmire family over decades and developed for a potential retail site at a cost of $250,000, Agresti said.
"They worked hard with the township to get it rezoned (Commercial 2) so they could put retail there," Agresti said. Under the new zoning ordinance, the property also would be zoned MU2, which eliminates the possibility of retail, he said.
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Property that no longer could be used for retail purposes will lose value if the new zoning ordinance is adopted, lawyer John Mizner told supervisors. Mizner represents several Millcreek property owners, including third-generation owners of land on the northwest corner of West 26th Street and Peninsula Drive.
"As I was coming down West 26th this morning, everything I saw is retail and commercial. By changing that, what we're doing is really limiting a large number of community citizens from developing and using their land to its full potential. If zoning changes are made, down the road they will all be heading down to the assessment office asking to lower their assessments because their properties' values will decrease.
"Once you lower those values, somebody else will have to make up that difference," Mizner said.
Country Fair Vice President Paul Rankin; representatives of the Cafaro Company, which owns the Millcreek Mall, and VCG Properties, owner of the West Erie Plaza; and others also expressed concerns about proposed zoning changes in comments and letters to the township.
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The proposed zoning law is meant to encourage flexibility, including mixed-use developments, to attract new residents and new types of businesses, Millcreek Supervisor John Morgan said.
Morgan accused developers of contributing to stagnation in the township and elected officials of bending to their will.
"This region has been in decline for about three or four decades, in severe decline, and Millcreek Township has been stagnant about the last decade, with no real population growth, no real development and no real increase in the tax base," Morgan said. "I'd proffer that most of that is due to a lack of will from elected officials to actually implement best practices and really think about things instead of having knee-jerk reactions to people coming up to advocate for their own self-interest.
"I think deferring to the wills of developers unfettered is contributing to that decline," Morgan said.
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Morgan, who lost a bid for a new six-year term on the Board of Supervisors in the May primary, urged fellow supervisors and his successor to rely on the township's "exceptional" planning and development team, legal counsel and the Pittsburgh engineering and consulting firm hired to review and revise township zoning rules.
"I think if you keep doing what you've been doing, you'll keep getting what you've always got," Morgan said.
"I would take comments from people looking to maximize their own personal interest with a big old grain of salt. I would defer to the exceptional team we have ... and rely much more heavily on them rather than folks who have been leading this township astray for a long time."
A main goal of the new zoning ordinance is filling vacant storefronts in already developed areas, Supervisor Jim Bock said earlier this month. The emphasis is on accommodating new uses for properties such as the former Kmart plaza at West 26th Street and Sterrettania Road rather than new development south of the Millcreek Mall, he said.
Morgan additionally chastised developers for "11th-hour" objections to the township planning commission and supervisors. Planners on Nov. 9 recommended that approval of the new zoning ordinance be delayed by six months to allow for review and possible action on objections.
The township has been working to revise zoning regulations for years, and a six-month delay is "absurd," Morgan said.
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The township began work on the ordinance in July 2019 and late that year hired Mackin Engineers & Consultants to update the zoning code and subdivision and land development ordinance.
The public was invited to provide information in an online survey in fall 2019. A draft ordinance and new zoning map were developed through early 2020. The public was invited to comment in a meeting in March 2020 and in open houses on the draft ordinance in August and September of this year. Comments from those meetings and from phone, email and website input were compiled and reviewed, and the ordinance was changed to address some of those concerns, township planning and development Director Matt Waldinger said.
The final draft of the ordinance was presented to the township and posted online on Oct. 28.
Supervisors voted 3-0 Tuesday to indefinitely delay the public hearing and vote on the new zoning ordinance that had been scheduled for Dec. 14.
"I don't disagree with what John said," Bock said before his vote. "It's kind of the nature of these changes we make every 10 or 20 years, that people come out at the last minute (with comments). However, I do have faith in our team and think this board as well is willing to listen to comments. I'm open to delaying the process. I'm not willing to commit to a six-month delay."
Approval in the first quarter of 2022, as suggested by the township solicitor, is more realistic, Bock said.
Bock and Supervisor Dan Ouellet voted to delay ordinance approval. Morgan afterward voted with them, saying, "As a favor to you guys, I will defer to the board's wisdom."
Solicitor Mark Shaw further suggested that supervisors schedule a special work session, possibly on Dec. 6, to accept additional comments from township officials and the public.
"(You can) move forward from there to evaluate the discussion and comments and come up with a further revised draft at some point," Shaw said.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Millcreek zoning changes are under fire from retail developers