STERLING – Business owners Shannon and Heidi Scalise have worked hard to make the former Sauk Medical Clinic building once again a vital part of its West Third Street neighborhood.
The Scalises live there, and Shannon reopened his Fine Line Body Art studio in the building.
Shannon has made many upgrades to the property. He has done it in a manner that respects the historical integrity of the building and neighborhood, which is a mix of business and residential.
The Scalises also have a fishing business based at the building. Shannon makes custom rods, so they sell tackle and other fishing gear. So far, so good within the parameters of the B-2-1 zoning designation now assigned to the 2-acre property. The next logical step in their business expansion was to offer live bait.
“We’re near the bridge at Lawrence Park, and a lot of people go all the way to Thomson for live bait now,” Shannon said.
Little did they know, their business plan would become snagged on worms and grubs. They were told by the city they would have to file a petition to the Plan Commission for a zoning change to B-3 to accommodate the live bait, which they did in early April.
While the city realizes the bait shop doesn’t fall into the B-3 category reserved for more intensive uses, its hands are tied by its antiquated zoning code. Many decades ago, someone felt it was important to specifically cite live bait shops among the uses in a B-3 district, so the city found itself between a rock and a pier.
“The long-term fear in making this B-3 is that it’s a large property for this area,” planning consultant Dustin Wolff said. “The current use isn’t a problem, but someone could come in later and tear down a beautiful historic building that’s no longer protected and build a 7-Eleven.”
The building, which isn’t on a historic register, is protected as part of a B-2-1, limited service business district. The B-3 commercial district allows a new owner to replace the building with something much more intensive. For zoning code purposes, intensive refers to uses that attract disruptive elements such as increases in general traffic, delivery trucks, and pedestrians.
The other option, which the Plan Commission chose Thursday, was to table the request to rezone to B-3. The hearing notification must be published at least 15 days before a council meeting. A special meeting of the commission has been called for June 5, when an amendment to the B-1-1 zoning district will be requested. That also allows it to operate in B-2-1, to accommodate the live bait and also better protect the historic area.
That means the earliest the request could be approved would be at the June 16 City Council meeting. That timeline doesn’t work well for the business owners.
“The Cabela’s [King Kat] Tournament is June 6 and 7,” Heidi Scalise said. “We’re at a standstill because the live bait is at the heart of the fishing business. It seems the only thing we can’t sell is something that lives and breathes in dirt.”
Complicating matters is the fact the city is working on a complete rewrite of the zoning code, so no amendment is etched in stone.
“In the new code, uses will be more generalized and a live bait shop would be fine in B-2-1,” said Amanda Schmidt, city building and zoning superintendent. “If not for the specific live bait reference, it could have been OK even in the old code.”
The Scalises’ situation is one of several of late that illustrate the pressing need for a zoning code overhaul in Sterling.
“This is a good example of why the zoning code needs to be rewritten,” Wolff said. “It’s quirky that the code says bait shop in the B-3 use, but when you start listing uses so specifically, it gets you into trouble.”
The zoning code also slowed the new Francis House CILA home project at the corner of West Lefevre Road and Woodburn Street. After several months of a complicated amendment process to better reflect modern community living facilities, that fix finally was approved on March 3.
“The wording for that was so old, there was nowhere in the entire city that they could have a CILA home,” Schmidt said. “They had already purchased two city lots, had plenty of green space, but there wasn’t enough property according to the code.”
Wolff, Schmidt and the Plan Commission have been working on the code for several month. They are doing it in phases to make it more manageable for the authors and the City Council. Much work needs to be done, but a great deal of time has been wasted trying to deal with the problems piecemeal.
“Instead of putting Band-Aids on these situations, we want to fix it,” Schmidt said. “It’s not the intent of zoning departments to fix problems one person at a time.”
The piecemeal approach also is costing business owners time and money.
“This whole situation is really a shame,” commission member Bob Conklin said. “These good people are trying to make a living, but at the same time, we have to protect these areas for tomorrow.”