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Council Majority Reaps What it Sows on Zoning Delay

By Kevin Osborne · August 17th, 2011 · Porkopolis

Cincinnati voters can tell it’s an election year by the blatant demagoguery and pandering that’s going on.

Instead of getting busy and crafting its own budget proposal to suggest specific cuts to avoid a $33 million deficit next year, Cincinnati City Council’s conservative majority is wasting time grandstanding about a relatively insignificant issue to garner headlines.

Barely 12 hours after WCPO-TV (Channel 9) aired an I-Team report Aug. 10 about complaints that the franchise owner of a Skyline Chili in Oakley is having with city zoning regulations, the council faction pounced and held a press conference at the chili parlor on the owner’s behalf.

But first things first: Here’s the background on the overblown Skyline brouhaha.

Steve Misleh, the franchise owner, is upset that the city’s zoning inspectors haven’t responded quickly enough to his request for an exemption from zoning code rules for his $250,000 expansion of the Skyline’s dining room. According to WCPO, Misleh filed architectural plans with the city in June, then heard back three weeks later that the plans didn’t comply with the rules because the proposed frontage didn’t contain enough windows.

That’s because when the Misleh family opened its current location on Madison Road in 1998, it moved a mural of Cincinnati’s downtown skyline circa the 1940s from an older restaurant. The mural is located on the front wall, between two large windows.

In the upcoming expansion, Misleh wants to keep the mural in essentially the same spot, between the windows. Under newer zoning rules, however, more windows are required in the front of a business located in a Commercial Community Mixed Zoning district. The requirement is designed to “engage the pedestrians’ interest and attract the pedestrian to the goods and services offered within the buildings,” according to the code.

The newer rules require a minimum transparency on a building’s street frontage of 70 percent for a project like this one. Misleh’s plans are short abut 44.8 square feet and would need a special exemption to proceed.

Misleh’s plans likely would be approved eventually, because the zoning code allows exemptions when, based on “special circumstances or conditions pertaining to a specific piece of property, the strict application of the provisions or requirements of (the) code may be unreasonable and could result in practical difficulties.”

WCPO’s report alleged Misleh filed his plans with the city on June 15. In reality, a check of records reveals Misleh filed an initial application June 21, but it wasn’t complete. A zoning examiner was assigned to the case June 22 and that person sent a letter July 8 that more documentation was needed.

On July 25, the city’s Buildings Division received an amended application and several letters from Misleh’s architect, finally making the application complete.

(The additional documentation was dated July 19.)

Staffers completed their review of the application on Aug. 3, and sent a report to the zoning hearing examiner. The next day, on Aug. 4, a notice was sent to nearby property owners informing them a hearing on the exemption request would be held Aug. 24.

The timing is dictated by the zoning code. After a completed application is received, it must be forwarded to an examiner within three working days. The examiner must hold a public hearing on the completed application within 30 days. And all property owners located within a 100-foot radius of the parcel requesting the exemption must be notified at least 14 days in advance of the public hearing.

All of this is done so the public’s interests are protected and the process is completely transparent. Importantly, none of these requirements can be administratively waived or modified.

City Council’s majority — two of whom are attorneys, Leslie Ghiz and Chris Bortz — are fully aware of this process. In fact, Bortz is also a property developer himself.

Misleh is upset because he scheduled the work for six days centered around the Labor Day weekend. He even told his employees the restaurant would be closed and they should take vacations then. Now Misleh is fretting about whether he should schedule the construction crew for that period and if he might have to pay for employees’ lost vacation deposits if the expansion is rescheduled.

As anchorman Clyde Gray somberly intoned at the beginning of WCPO’s newscast, “More than 40 local construction workers are sidelined tonight and several new jobs have been put on hold. Why? Because the city is throwing roadblocks in the way of a Cincinnati icon.”

(Gray neglects to mention the “new jobs” are part-time, minimum-wage fast-food positions. That wouldn’t be as dramatic, you see.)

Of course, those construction workers wouldn’t be working yet anyhow, and those employees wouldn’t be hired until later next month. No, the complaint is really about Misleh putting his cart before the horse and seeking special treatment.

Here’s some unsolicited advice for Misleh: Don’t make plans before you get all the needed approvals. And certainly don’t let your employees schedule their vacations based on what you hope will happen.

Not that you can blame Misleh for doing all he can to benefit his business. But who we can blame is WCPO and the City Council majority.

I guess the one-sided report with little fact-checking and containing only the pissing and moaning of a disgruntled business owner is what passes for an I-Team investigation in these days of shrinking newsroom staffs and budget cutbacks. Still, some rudimentary comment from City Hall should’ve been included in the segment to provide context.

Also, why didn’t reporter Brendan Keefe ask the simplest, most pressing questions of all: Why does Misleh need to keep the mural in the same location? Can’t he move it elsewhere in the eatery and add a window in its spot, solving the dispute in one fell swoop?

The worse culprit here, however, is the council majority. It’s comprised of Republicans Ghiz, Wayne Lippert, Amy Murray and Charlie Winburn, along with “Charterite but really a registered Republican” Bortz.

Lippert and Murray are recent appointees to council, so perhaps they can be excused. But Bortz, Ghiz and Winburn are part of the same faction that voted to reduce funding for the city’s Department of Planning and Buildings in a previous budget. As a result, although the city had 7.5 employees doing zoning reviews just three years ago, now it has 1.5 employees doing the same work. Why didn’t WCPO report that fact?

As City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. wrote in a report to City Council, “The amount of time for staff review and approval is directly correlated to reduced staffing levels.”

Anti-government conservatives like Bortz and Winburn always want to gut municipal services but never want to deal with the real-life consequences of their actions. Moreover, they always want special favors for their friends and pet projects.

Voters should remember this sorry example of leadership when they go to the polls in November.

**UPDATE: Councilman Chris Bortz informed CityBeat that although he is part of the conservative majority, he didn't attend the press conference at Skyline. 



08.17.2011 at 10:03 Reply
If you guys think this was a story about a mural, you missed the point. It was about JOBS. The city is willing to hold up dozens of jobs, including a dozen new, permanent jobs, for a single new window. This was a quick turn story (four hours) because we knew the news conference was scheduled the next morning. It's hard to get a comment from City Hall when you srat the story at 7:00 p.m. Then we followed it up with a series of reports the next day. The I-Team just won eight Emmys this month. Seven of the Emmys were mine, so there's hardly a drop in quality of I-Team stories. To attribute some perceived lack of quality to newsroom budget cuts without even a simple Google search that would have revealed the eight Emmys and two AP awards (Enterprise Reporting for Hagit Limor & Best Report in Ohio for Brendan Keefe) shows a lack of simple investigation on the part of Citybeat. We did ask the question about moving the mural -- but we used only the answer -- that the mural is an icon of the city, one the city is willing to sacrifice to cross a 'T' in a zoning application. - Brendan Keefe brendan.keefe@wcpo.com


08.19.2011 at 06:32
Seriously, that is hard hitting news? I don't think so. Local TV news is a joke. I seem to remember WCPO getting busted airing Video News Releases, otherwise known as corporate propaganda disguised as news. And is Clyde Gray a PR man or newsman? I get confused. Oh wait, that’s right he’s both simultaneously. The standards for TV news is so low that even Laurie Quinlivan won an award for her Visions on Vine piece (of poo) which was the most biased local report I’ve ever seen. And that is really saying something. And speaking of bias, I see Brendan Okeefe was an embedded reporter with the US military. There’s no better way to get the government’s propaganda straight than to get embedded with them.


08.18.2011 at 08:38 Reply
Read the zoning notes at the city's building permit portal, cagis eztrak. The transparency issue is only one of two zoning problems. The second, a far more important issue and one that everyone remains mute on, is the setback requirement. Methinks that this wagon-circle is all a smokescreen for the fact that a setback variance will be much more difficult to obtain through the proper channels; however, if you get enough people with enough juice to apply enough pressure, the hope is that the whole shebang will get squeezed through without following a real appeals process. This coney clown has the media-mongers eating from his hand. Our news outlets need to stick to news gathering or hire some real investigative reporters who know how to access and interpret online public records.


08.18.2011 at 01:21 Reply
Again, why can't this supposed "icon of the city" be moved elsewhere in the dining room? It's a wall with paint on it.


08.19.2011 at 02:09 Reply
WCPO's news coverage has really gone to ell of late. Perhaps this is because of the station's new manager, who appears to be a right wing whack job. The station refused to cover the Bob Mecklenborg story, other than to read a blip off of the newswire. And Brendan O'Keefe must be one extremely thin skinned hackneyed "journalist" to chime in with his whining comments here. Brendan, if this is about "JOBS!" then why didn't the owner of the restaurant in question submit his application in a more timely manner, and why didn't he even complete the app? And furthermore, why did he submit plans that are clearly in violation of City zoning laws?? Screw him and his minimum wage McJobs-follow the law or close your doors.