Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 15, 2013

Attempt to rezone mansion fails

Heavy opposition from mayor's office splits vote 5-4.

By Scott Smith
Tribune staff writer

— An attorney’s bid to turn one of Kokomo’s historic Silk Stocking mansions into a commercial property took a blow Monday, when the Kokomo Common Council defeated a rezoning petition on a 5-4 vote.

For Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, the narrow vote was vindication of his urban planning philosophy.

But for some of the neighbors in the 500 and 600 blocks of West Sycamore Street, the vote raised concerns that a potentially good neighbor is being turned away.

Three neighborhood residents testified in favor of the rezoning, which would have allowed attorney Robert Nice to open a law firm in the old Bolinger mansion, 600 W. Sycamore St.

The mansion, which was occupied for decades by longtime Kokomo attorney Owen Bolinger and his wife, Mary Ann, went on the market over the winter and was purchased in January by the Chrystal Ziliotto Revocable Trust.

Nice sought to have the residential home rezoned office commercial, which would have allowed him to both use the home as a law office and put a sign out front. Office commercial zoning also allows for a number of other possible uses, including medical services, bookstore, convenience store and drug store.

The Kokomo Plan Commission voted 6-2 earlier this month to give the plan a negative recommendation, but Nice decided to press on and seek approval from the city council.

After 45 minutes of discussion Monday, it was clear even before the vote that the council was deeply split on the rezoning, which Goodnight’s administration opposed.

City attorney Lawrence McCormack said the city needs to maintain a “clear demarcation” between residential and commercial properties.

“We should strive to maintain these neighborhoods, because once you go commercial, you can never go back,” McCormack said.

But neighbors along Sycamore came forward to say Nice’s law office would be a good addition to the neighborhood and said they were confident the owner of the property would invest in upkeep.

Neighbor Susan Zerbe, who has a Victorian mansion two doors down, joked that her house was a “money pit,” and said she doubts a young family would be able to afford to maintain something like the Bolinger mansion.

“There’s no way people this day and age can comply with something like that,” she said. “Young people these days want to live in the suburbs ... the way the economy is now, they may not even be able to afford something like that.”

City officials have stuck by a policy of trying to get business development to at least consider reusing vacant commercial properties before building on greenspace or allowing residential property to be rezoned, McCormack said.

City director of operations Randy McKay was adamant the rezoning could jeopardize the neighborhood.

“If you allow this rezoning, you’re really undermining every effort we’ve tried to accomplish over the last few years,” McKay told the council.

Councilman Tom Miklik, R-6th, who voted for the rezoning, said he thought Nice’s plan “is the best way to maintain the historic motif of the home and neighborhood,” and dismissed McKay’s argument as “overstated.”

Councilman Bob Cameron, D-2nd, went further, and suggested some ulterior motive was behind the city’s opposition.

“There’s something underlying why you’re pushing us so hard on this, that’s just my gut feeling,” Cameron said.

Cameron also raised the specter of the massive fight in the early 1980s to designate most of the Silk Stocking neighborhood as a historic district.

That push, which failed narrowly in one of the best-attended third reading votes in city council history, would have kept the district as a single-family residential area, with strict standards for maintaining the old mansions in a historically authentic manner.

Cameron said Monday the historic district measure failed because it would have been too expensive for homeowners.

But as a result, many of the old homes ended up subdivided into apartments, and the rentals have become a source of frequent police calls. Tuesday, city police and a building inspector were looking at a vacant, boarded-up property directly across Sycamore from the Bolinger mansion.

After the vote, Nice declined comment, saying “discretion is the better part of valor.”

When Zerbe came by to tell him she was sorry about the vote, she said she couldn’t believe the council had a problem with the rezoning.

“But multi-family residential is OK,” Nice said disgustedly, shaking his head.

Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com