by Mike Kroll
The board of the Knox County Area Project (KCAP) will meet late Thursday afternoon to decide on a course of action regarding the organization's office location. It now seems quite likely that the group will be forced to move for a second time in just a few months and see their rental expense triple despite an offer of free space by the local Veteran's of Foreign Wars Galesburg Post.
Galesburg Community Development Director Roy Parkin has ruled that the zoning of the VFW Post does not permit the group to rent or even give away space to a “philanthropic agency” like KCAP unless they own five acres of more of land. Members of the VFW have approached the city council on multiple occasions seeking some kind or understanding that would permit KCAP to use their space to no avail. On their most recent attempt newly elected mayor Gary Smith showed little patience with the veterans and essentially told them to shut up and sit down because too much city council time had already been wasted in this discussion.
KCAP is an independent not for profit group that seeks to offer educational and recreational activities to area youth, particularly those from lower income families. The group has served area youth since 1985 and has probably taught more area kids to swim than any other group. The official role of area projects like KCAP is to organize community adults into local committees who then work toward the betterment of their own community's youth. Each of the committees works differently and some are more active than others but all give generously of their time toward providing a greater variety of youth activities.
In recent years KCAP's offices have been located on Grand Avenue in front of Kimberly Terrace mobile home park but when ownership of the trailer park changed hands this location was no longer affordable. KCAP accepted an offer by the VFW to relocate to that group's facility at 1001 Michigan Avenue and moved there this spring. The VFW occupy a former school and had previously rented the space out to the Veteran's Assistance office in a residential neighborhood on the city's southeast side zoned R1A single-family residential. According to Galesburg's existing zoning ordinance even the VFW itself could be deemed out of compliance in their use of the property since the group sold off some lots for residential development leaving a site of just over 3.3 acres total area.
During previous city council meetings Parkin said that the R1 zoning district only permits “hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and educational, philanthropic or religious institutions on sites of not less than five (5) acres, provided not more than fifty (50) percent of the site area may be occupied by buildings.” [Galesburg municipal code section 31-157] Parkin explained this restriction as a means of minimizing the impact of such uses on the surrounding residential neighborhood. A point Parkin did not make was that simply rezoning the VFW to an R2 low-density multi-family district would permit such uses regardless of lot size. Instead Parkin spoke of the bad precedent that would be established if the VFW were rezoned office or commercial.
Despite the pleadings of VFW members quartermaster Ken Swanson and post commander Jim Verhayen neither Parkin nor the city council would even consider some kind of adjustment to permit KCAP to remain. “We never like to give up,” explained a frustrated Verhayen, “but we surely do appear to be stymied by [city manager] Gary Goddard and Roy Parkin. I just don't understand what we have done to deserve the disrespectful treatment and lack of support. As an organization the VFW has always contributed generously toward this community and we even offered to adopt KCAP as a VFW project to get this worked out but the city said that wouldn't matter. When I read this last Saturday's Register-Mail about how flexible the city wants to be to bring in the Super Wal-Mart I take it as a slap in the veteran's face that we were treated so shabbily. And on Memorial Day weekend of all times. It seems very clear to me where the priorities of this city council lay and it apparently isn't with kids or veterans. When we spoke individually to the various aldermen not one had any objection to our housing KCAP but only Lomac [Payton] seems willing to stand up on our behalf before the administration.”
As Verhayen said only one councilman seemed at all sympathetic to the VFW's case, new fourth ward alderman Lomac Payton. He tried to induce his fellow aldermen to request that the city administration try to find some compromise solution such as reducing the required lot size to no avail. The fact that not one neighbor of the VFW objected to the KCAP use seemed lost on both Parkin and the city council. Council members quickly picked up on Parkin's point and insisted that it would be wrong to accord the VFW or KCAP any special consideration. As has become all too typical the city administration directs the city council rather than the reverse.
While some would rightfully argue that both the VFW and KCAP have earned the right to some special consideration given their contribution to this community an even more salient point is that plenty of examples of exactly similar “philanthropic” activities are already permitted throughout Galesburg. The Salvation Army, Safe Harbor, Catholic Charities, the American Legion Post, Cottage Hospital and numerous churches all exist in harmony with the residential neighborhoods that surround them. Compared to any of these KCAP would offer far less impact on the neighborhood were it to be permitted to remain at the VFW. Verhayen says the group has received letters and postcards from supporters both in their own neighborhood and elsewhere praising the VFW and attesting to how good a neighbor it is.
What is clear is that this action by the city will cost KCAP additional funds that are in short supply. “The big losers in this dispute are the kids,” said KCAP director Rhonda Brady. “We already exist in an environment of increasing need for our services and decreasing funding. Every additional dollar we must pay in overhead such as rent costs is money that we must take away from programs we offer to the kids.”
The original lease between the VFW post and KCAP called for a monthly rent of $250 that included all utilities. When this dispute began to spiral out of control the VFW offered to donate the space to KCAP essentially contributing at least $3,000 annually to the financially strapped group. Other spaces being considered by the KCAP board are at least double the rent and three times as expensive with the added utility costs. That's as much as $9,000 annually that would not be available to serve the kids programs.
“We have to face facts and admit that you can't fight city hall,” said KCAP board president Steve Watts. “It will be my recommendation to the KCAP board that we no longer attempt to win concessions from the Galesburg city council as long as their staff seem dead set against us. We appreciate the efforts of the VFW to support us but at this point we simply need to move beyond this issue and find a new office location. There are some alternatives that will work but all are much more expensive than the VFW lease.”
As we began this week honoring our nations veterans it seemed like a good time to ask alderman Payton what he foresees as the future of this issue. “I don't think the city council would even consider overruling the city staff on this matter right now. As far as I know there is not a single additional council member that would even agree to bring this up for discussion again. Personally I do believe that the zoning ordinance needs to be reviewed. Sometimes you need to change or amend ordinances to insure that you maintain the greater community good. It appears to me kind of funny to see this ruling based solely on an arbitrary number of acres. I know that the neighbors welcome both the VFW and KCAP and have no objections and I would guess that besides the city staff and city council there's not another person in town opposed to the lease between the VFW and KCAP either.”
Short of a public outcry or protest it now seems like the VFW and KCAP have lost this battle.