City will object to siting of two county businesses

February 6, 2019

STERLING — The City Council voted to send letters to Whiteside County in objection to petitions for zoning changes that are needed for two business projects to locate within 1.5 miles of the city limits.

The council, by a 3-to-1 vote, opposed a petition from Juan Roman and Jolene Rodriguez for a zoning change from residential to business for a former church building they bought for $55,000 at 12717 Lawrence Road. They want to rent out the building for special events that would be restricted to Saturdays and Sundays.

The couple promised there would be no alcohol or tobacco at the events, which would include birthday parties, showers, anniversaries, and other family gatherings.

The project will bring an objection letter from Rock Falls, which also is within 1.5 miles of the site. Both cities were concerned about spot zoning – when a small piece of land is given a different zoning classification than the larger surrounding area for the benefit of the petitioner and to the detriment of the surrounding landowners.

“The biggest concern is that this is right in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” Building and Zoning Administrator Amanda Schmidt said. “This business would open the neighborhood up to a multitude of business uses.”

The residents are “100 percent against it,” and Hopkins Township also submitted an objection letter to the county, Schmidt said.

Alderman Jim Wise cast the only “no” vote on sending the letter against the special events center petition – council members Joe Martin and Chris Wilen were absent. Wise supported filling the vacant building with a new business. Wise also wanted to know what the city could do to avoid future spot zoning issues.

“The county can bolster its comprehensive plan, but about the only thing the city can do is to put in language to discourage spot zoning, but you really can’t stop it,” City Attorney Tim Zollinger said.

It was suggested that the petitioners could pursue a special-use permit rather than a zoning reclassification. The more residential-friendly alternative might minimize concerns about opening the door to other business uses.

The council unanimously objected to a zoning petition from SolAmerica Energy needed to build a 2-megawatt solar farm at 582 Stouffer Road. The Atlanta-based energy company needs a special-use permit to do business in the area that is now zoned for agriculture.

The area is between the Gregden Shores and Weaver subdivisions near Woodlawn Road. Several homeowners have voiced their displeasure over the solar farm’s preferred location.

“We’re not against solar farms, but this is a bad area for it,” said Dennis Jokerst, a longtime Gregden Shores resident. “I have a list of 15 or 16 people that I’ve spoken to who are against it – everyone’s property is just too close to the site.”

City staff expressed a larger concern over the process for siting the onslaught of solar projects throughout the area.

“They are just throwing this at any farmer open to it and seeing what sticks,” Schmidt said. “There is a disregard for comprehensive plans by proposing these projects in our growth areas.”

City officials have suggested that the solar companies first speak to them before planning a project near its borders. The city would be able to help them choose a site that wouldn’t run into problems after the zoning petitions are filed, Schmidt said.

The solar farm would have a 20-year life expectancy, but its presence could be extended.

Because the project areas are that close to the city’s borders, there is a reasonable chance that they could be annexed into the city. The city is given a say in the matter, but the county can still vote as it pleases. The objection letter, however, now requires the County Board to approve the petitions with a three-fourths majority.

The council’s votes followed the recommendations of the city’s Plan Commission which were made on Jan. 17.

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