Thursday, August 30, 2012

Full Record Courier Letter to the Editor

An edited piece of this letter will run in Friday, August 31st's edition.

I’m writing this letter to the editor today knowing full well that it won’t be popular, but then that’s one of the many great aspects of the US, our ability to speak up and voice our opinion, right?  Since this spring in Kent there have been many people speaking out on both sides of an issue concerning the relocation of an ante-bellum home the was built for the sister of Marvin Kent, for whom the city is named, as well as the Sherman and Wells families.  The Kent Sherman Wells home had most recently been a student rental on Erie Street, and in need of demolition to make way for the Esplanade extension planned by Kent State University, when its prestigious history was rediscovered by local citizen-historians. 
As the spring and summer progressed, the group looking to save the house- Friends of the Kent Sherman Wells House, incorporated in July as Kent Wells Sherman House, Incorporated- identified 247 North Water Street as the site most feasible and working within the time constraints imposed by the university.  This site, unfortunately, is currently used and maintained, with permission of the owner, by Standing Rock Cultural Arts and the community, and has been such for two decades.  Once there was a purchase agreement was in place for the land, the possible change of ownership and usage was communicated to Standing Rock Cultural Arts.  Thus began attempts by SRCA and community members to try and help find an alternate location for the house, so as to preserve both the house and the land between Scribbles and SRCA’s North Water Street gallery. 
There has been plenty written about the two groups, and community members on either side of the issue, but what I wanted to address here is the issue of the Planning Commission’s ruling in July to not approve the site plan proposed by Kent Wells Sherman House, Incorporated.  The editorial board of the Record Courier itself has written to compel the Kent Planning Commission to overturn their verdict.  Since that ruling, the house has been temporarily moved so as to prevent its demolition, allowing until December first of this year to find a location for the house. 
Much of the argument against the Planning Commission’s ruling has rested on property rights, stating that this ruling somehow restricts an owner’s ability to do with their land as they wish.  This is not the case for many reasons.  First and foremost, the land is not currently owned by the group that had applied for the site plan; how can a group not holding the land in question have their property rights infringed?  There was no ruling that the current owner could not sell the land to Kent Wells Sherman House, Incorporated, or anyone for that matter, and the owner will not lose a sale of his property no matter the outcome, as Standing Rock Cultural Arts and the community have raised money to purchase the land from individuals and a matching grant from Kent Cooperative Housing, if it remains undeveloped. 
Another argument has been that the Planning Commission exceeded its authority in this case, as part of the reason for not approving the site plan was stated publicly as “community opinion.”  With regard to this objection, it is important to remember that the Planning Commission is part of the Kent’s Community Development Department, the body responsible for overseeing how this town develops and changes.  Part of the Planning Commission’s role in this is to consider site plans for the development of lots and judge accordingly, not simply to rubberstamp all projects that come to them.  The city’s law director has stated that the Planning Commission was within their rights to rule as they did, and that Kent Wells Sherman House, Incorporated had the right to submit a new site plan, which they have done. 
It’s important to remember that this project is also using public funds, which gives added weight to public opinion on the project, and those dollars come in the form of a grant not to exceed $40,000 in moving costs from Kent State University, and a $15,000 unsecured loan from the city.  In short, this is our community, money from our taxes, and supposed to benefit the community, giving the community a say in this project.
On the newly proposed site plan, that will be considered at the September fourth meeting of the Planning Commission, the significant difference that allows this to be re-considered is the change in setback of the house.  Previously, Kent Wells Sherman House, Incorporated had sought a fifteen foot setback to allow viewing of the mural on the building housing Scribbles Coffee, but will now be seeking a sixteen inch setback, which will effectively block the mural by Edwin George, Cherokee Elder and Ohio Arts Council Master Artist.  This change in setback goes against the variance sought for the site from the Board of Zoning Appeals, and against the recommendations of the new Architecture Review Board, both of which have already approved the project.  This change in site plan calls into question whether or not this is a good-faith change in the site plan, or simply a tactic to allow reconsideration, and could open a dangerous precedent for ad nauseum site plan revisions that are essentially the same, but tie up city resources in the approval process. 
With the additional time available while the house is temporarily housed on College and Haymaker, an alternative location can be found (and some have already been identified) so that there is no need to prioritize urban green-space, the arts, or historic preservation over each other, but instead foster a city appreciation for all three.  If the City is looking for and supports a win-win solution as they say they do, they can step forward and help in this process by offering land and/or assistance with utilities.  Considering public opinion, the existence of additional time, identified alternatives, and the lack of a legitimate legal reason to do so, there’ is no reason for the Kent Planning Commission to change its verdict in this case.

Lisa Regula Meyer, Kent

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