Planning commission tables zoning request, institutes lengthy study

MORGANTOWN — Since Morgantown’s Comprehensive Plan was updated in 2013, the corner of Jones Avenue and Stewart Street has been identified as part of Future Study Area No. 5, but no such study has been initiated.
That changed Thursday evening when Gregg Metheny, representing Scott Properties, came before the Morgantown Planning Commission to request a zoning map amendment to reclassify 18 parcels on that corner from R-2 (single and two-family residential) to R-3 (multi-family residential).
By a 5-2 tally, the planning commission voted to table Metheny’s request and initiate the examination of the future study area — a process that City Planner Chris Fletcher said would likely take a minimum of six to nine months.
Peter DeMasters, who was reappointed chairman of the commission, voted in the minority, as did Commissioner Sam Loretta.
The Comprehensive Plan describes future study areas as places where further examination is needed, whether that’s because existing zoning doesn’t align with existing land uses or existing zoning is not compatible with or does not fully support the desired future of the area.
In his staff recommendations, Fletcher recommended the commission approve Metheny’s request and pass the issue forward to city council with a recommendation to approve.
Fletcher noted, “The subject site represents a unique opportunity to strategically locate slightly higher residential density at the edge of WVU’s downtown campus,” adding that the site is also well served by public transit and is within walking distance of both university and commercial destinations.
Fletcher went on to state that the requested zoning change is in line with what’s spelled out in the comprehensive plan.
Further, Fletcher cautioned “Zoning map amendment requests should be evaluated on the their land-use merits alone. The petitioner’s development intentions are extraneous …”
In its consideration, the commission spoke very little about the merits of the request, focusing instead on discussions about future land use studies.
By tabling the issue and instituting the study, Metheny is left to either withdraw his request or come back and have the planning commission vote on it next month with the knowledge the body is instituting a process that could ultimately alter what’s allowed on the site.
And this isn’t the first time Metheny has made this request.
In 2015, the same request received recommended approval by the city’s planning office and a 7-1 vote by the planning commission to forward it on to city council. On first reading, city council voted to approve before later denying the request on second reading after residents from the area showed up with objections.
A handful of residents from the Wiles Hill neighborhood, including Wiles Hill Neighborhood Association President Richard Dumas, spoke out in opposition on Thursday.
Metheny explained that the topography of the land is such that it cannot be economically  developed under R-2 zoning regulations. He noted that his nearby Jones Place townhomes include 55-steps in each unit — a necessary concession in order to build on that piece of land under R-2 zoning after he had a planned unit development (PUD) request denied by the city.
He said the 18 parcels in question present even more extreme topography and noted that moving to R-3 zoning, which would allow for a taller structure, would provide the opportunity for multiple units to be split in an over-under configuration.
Those who spoke in opposition said Metheny knew the property was zoned R-2 when he purchased it and explained that the existing townhouses are already a magnet for loud parties and trash.
They asked that the planning commission initiate the future study area plan before allowing what they consider to be further encroachment on the neighborhood.
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