OC panel forced to reluctantly reject zoning request

The Oil City Zoning Hearing Board faced a quandary at a session Monday as an Oil City couple asked for an interpretation of a specific entry in the city’s zoning ordinance.

Mike and Sylvia Lukasiak own a vacant property on West Eighth Street that has a potential buyer who wants to build a garage on the lot.

The buyer, Ed Sharp, lives about 165 feet from the vacant property. At that distance, it does not adjoin his home and lot.

Sharp told the hearing board he would like to construct a non-commercial garage to store his vehicles and provide a small carpentry shop for personal use.

However, an accessory building such as a garage cannot be constructed, according to the city’s 2013 revamped zoning ordinance, on a lot that has no residence located on it.

That is despite the fact there are numerous such garages that are considered “grandfathered” under previous zoning regulations, said Rick Cook, the city zoning officer.

Cook told the board that a proposal to change that zoning restriction was presented to city council two or three years ago at the request of the city Planning Commission. While no one came forward to object to the change, city council did not act on that request, said Cook.

Joseph Keebler, attorney for the zoning hearing board, said, “Council should have amended the (zoning) ordinance, … based on the current condition of Oil City and its vacant lots. It is difficult to understand why council won’t do something with this.”

Noting the issue is “the gap between the (Sharp and Lukasiak) lots,” Keebler said the zoning hearing board is charged with “determining the interpretation” while the city is responsible for changing zoning measures.

While the board discussed the need to return vacant lots to “the tax rolls” with improvements such as accessory buildings, they reluctantly ruled that the city zoning laws do not allow for accessory buildings, such as garages, to be built on vacant lots unless a residential project coincides with that.

“The zoning hearing board has a very narrow purview,” said Keebler. “The only way to approve this use is to basically shred the ordinance. But we can’t do that. … But, you get the gist we want to help you.”

Noting the ordinance relating to accessory buildings has confusing definitions and restrictions in the city zoning measure, Eric Reamer, chairman of the zoning hearing board, said, “I want this to happen. The (city) Planning Commission in the past had a proposed amendment. I urge you to approach city council. … As the town changes, … we have to fine tune this.”

“I sincerely hope you just don’t let this drop,” Reamer added.

Market request granted

In the second hearing before the board, representatives of the North Side Country Fair convenience store at 1 Spring St. asked that a variance be granted to allow for an 11-foot setback instead of the required 15-foot setback in order to accommodate a major expansion project.

Guy Strayer of the Erie-based Prime Realty that owns the store property described the renovation and expansion work as “a challenging project” because of the store’s location at the base of a steep hill.

In July 2018, Oil City Council approved the transfer of a restaurant liquor license to the Country Fair market. The Venango County Planning Commission approved the business expansion plan last month, and what remained was approval from the zoning hearing board to reduce the setback limit.

Describing the project as “a thorough remodeling,” Strayer said the work includes the addition of a 30-seat restaurant, sale of beer and an expanded lot. The company also owns the former Pierogi Palace adjacent to the store, and Strayer said it is being eyed as a “training center.”

“This is exceptional topography,” said Strayer, who added that the addition will be built on the left side of the existing building. The design and operation of the expanded business “will not alter the character of the neighborhood,” he said.

The project, estimated last year at about $250,000, will begin with site work this fall. Construction could begin next spring.

The zoning hearing board unanimously granted the variance to allow for the 11-foot setback.