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.