It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, but she is humming right now, as Vermilion City Council gets closer to approving a zoning change for property along Baumhart Road for an e-Commerce warehouse facility. Council has scheduled a public hearing for Dec. 13 at 6 p.m. as its trajectory relies on changing the city’s current standards for I-1 zoning to include a structure not to exceed 65 feet, as well as Vermilion Municipal Planning Commission approval of a rezoning of a B-3 parcel on Baumhart to I-1.
Ward 2 Councilman Frank Loucka began Monday’s public hearing by saying the property has been zoned industrial and business for a “many, many, many years.” He said the land in question has farming on the northwest section. He said the land is prime for an industrial developer, as it is flat, next to Rt. 2. He looked at all the city’s zoning codes for B-3, I-1, and I-2, and the allowable setbacks for these properties. “It appears to me that our code needs work,” said Loucka. He said only B-3 has a buffer requirement. Loucka said this piece of land is prime for development, looking at the trends coming from the east. “Right now, the only way to keep this property undeveloped would be if someone were to purchase it…I’m concerned our code has no buffering requirements... To me, without some major site plan information, and noting some serious landscape buffer zones, setbacks, possible building heights, I personally don’t have enough information, definite, to vote on changing such a major change to I-2.” According to those speaking on behalf of the project, an I-2 zoning is needed to meet the requirements for the proposed building.
Ward 5 Councilman Brian Holmes said there is a home there, the Leimbach house, that is actually situated in the industrial portion, even though it is a residence. He said that is a concern for them in I-1. “What kind of buffer do they have?” he asked. “We need more information to make an intelligent decision,” said Loucka. “Our code doesn’t specify any buffers.”
Ward 4 Councilwoman Barb Brady asked representatives of the project what is needed at the property. Gregory Stovich, vice president of development for Hillwood, “The challenge with the technology going into the four walls of this building…they are taking advantage of the vertical space instead of the horizontal space.” He agreed that Vermilion’s code needs attention, definitely where it comes to height in the I-1 district. He said 65 feet, “nine times out of ten will be more than enough.” He said he does not anticipate the height being more than 65 feet. He said there are a couple companies interested in the Baumhart property, and they would also look at it as an opportunity for their current client list.
“What I’m hearing you say is 65 is a really good number,” said Council President Steve Herron. “Yes, sir,” said Stovich. Brady asked if the height was the only thing that was needed in the I-2 zoning. “Unfortunately, that’s it exactly,” said Stovich. He said if there was more time, a different process would be navigated. “Unfortunately, we don’t have that time.” City Engineer Chris Howard verified in I-1, a 45-foot height is the max, and in I-2, it’s 60 feet, not 65. Brady said she called the law director to see if council could pass an ordinance changing the height restriction in I-1, and Brady said she responded that was not possible because it gave preferential treatment to one business. “We couldn’t do it for just this location,” she said. I-1 could be changed for all buildings zoned that. Stovich said the B-3 would still have to be zoned the same as the other three. Brady proposed changing all I-1 property to 65 feet.
Clerk Gwen Fisher proposed getting with the law director to amend the rezoning ordinance that fit specifically the B-3 property and still proceed to the Board of Zoning Appeals. She suggested checking with the zoning ordinance to see if it accomplishes what Stovich wants in B-3 to be rezoned. Stovich confirmed it would be I-1 with a variance, and still have the B-3 rezoned. Stovich said this would need to be accomplished in about 40 days.
Loucka asked Stovich about what kind of buffering could be put there, being the city’s code is insufficient. “To me, the setback is totally inadequate.” Loucka said a retention basin would be needed to hold water. Holmes said Claus and Arndt are of particular concern. Stovich said they have developed in these kinds of areas before. “The last thing we need is for us to put a shovel in the ground, launch the building, and for all your phones to be blowing up from disgruntled neighbors. We’ve been down this road before, and I’d like to say we’ve been successful in the past,” said Stovich. He said there are various solutions. He said they want to drain to the north based on the topography. He said it’s a cornfield, and once the land is stripped, there will be a lot of topsoil he cannot use. “Typically, we try to lose it on site.” He said a massive berm could be built. He said planning commission, neighbors and staff would all help.
Holmes brought up the lighting issue, especially if it is 24/7, also traffic. He said there are already numerous vehicles going through the area. Stovich said, “Yes there will be traffic.” He said there will be site light. “This is a very special piece of property,” said Stovich. “Its proximity to highway 2 is not to go unnoticed…the only reason we’re back today is because how special we feel it is.”
Mayor Jim Forthofer said, “Eventually, if this all works out, it all comes back to the Planning Commission with specifics that cannot be talked about tonight.” He said at that time, a lot of these questions can be answered. Forthofer said their knowledge comes from doing these kinds of developments. Howard said in conversations with them, they know they must meet traffic requirements, stormwater drainage requirements, landscaping. “This is kind of the first step,” said Howard. Stovich said before going in front of planning, they will know the specific business, and would know about labor statistics. In answer to traffic questions, Forthofer said Ford Motor, at its peak in the 70’s, had 7,000 employees coming in and out every day. “This will be a fraction of that.” Herron suggested employee parking being away from residents to keep the lighting issue at bay. Stovich said this could be done. “Shame on us for not taking note there were neighbors around us…we’re better than that.” He said this could be done. Herron suggested working with the city’s tree commission.
“This council is in an awkward position,” said Brady. “There is nothing this council can do to change the zoning on that property. You’re not going to have farmland there. It just isn’t going to be.” She said council’s job is to put the best structure for the city and the people around it on it, the cleanest. Herron said, “The awkwardness is protecting people who have invested in property that does relate to their view, to their environment. You don’t just invest in a parcel, but a way of life.”
Councilman Steve Holovacs said in relation to lighting, if you use asphalt, you need more lighting because it’s black. He said a project at LCCC used less lighting because of using concrete. He said this could save on lighting bills. Holmes asked for examples that council could look at that would be close.
During council’s regular meeting, several residents spoke against the project. Council President Steve Herron read into the record names of individuals who wrote letters. Cooper Foster resident Tom Palmer said, “I just please ask you to vote against this rezoning because we want to keep this a small town on a great lake.” Cooper Foster resident Marilyn Brill relayed how she and her husband watched the corn field came down and said how it may be the last time they see a corn field in that spot. “We need a cornfield. We need crops. We need farmers. We don’t need a six-story warehouse to look at…please don’t let this happen this soon to this area of Brownhelm.” She said Ward 5 is where the development is going to happen. “There’s a lot of people who aren’t going to want to happen in their front yard…please vote with common sense.”
Herron said there could be a special city council meeting on Monday. “Expect it.” Stovich said they would expect to close by the end of the year and start navigating the permit process.