Landlords could face increased fines in Urbana

By Nate Sandstrom

In response to landlord infractions of city zoning laws, the Urbana City Council is scheduled to vote on an amendment that would increase fines for property owners who lease a house or apartment to more than four non-related tenants.

It is currently against the law for more than four non-related tenants to live in a single residence in Urbana. If the proposed amendment passes, fines would escalate for repeat offenders so that a first violation would result in a fine of no less than $500; a second violation would result in a minimum fine of $750, and any subsequent fines would be at least $1,000.

Each year the Urbana Community Development Department receives numerous complaints about violations of the occupancy rules, stated Libby Tyler, Urbana community development director, in a memo.

In some cases, over-occupancy occurs when tenants are misled by the landlord about the number of tenants that can legally occupy a living space. The goal of the amendment is to place additional responsibility on landlords to accurately portray the law to tenants and stop “chronic violations that appear semester after semester,” the memo states.

A vote on adopting an emergency response system created by Department of Homeland Security, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) is also scheduled for tonight’s meeting.

NIMS was created as a way for federal, state and local governments to work together to prepare, prevent and respond to events such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

“The cornerstone (of NIMS) is to coordinate everyone and make them play together,” said Urbana Fire Chief Rex Mundt.

The program will have little impact on day-to-day operations because it focuses on disasters, Mundt said.

NIMS attempts to implement standard procedures for cooperation between government agencies, such as the fire, police and public works departments, to work together during an emergency. The program also sets standards for joint operations between different governments such as the cities of Urbana, Champaign and Champaign County.

Emergency services within the cities and the county have worked well together in the past, Mundt said, but added that he thought the departments’ interoperability will improve over the next few years.

Urbana Mayor Tod Satterthwaite expressed optimism for the program during the Urbana Committee on Administration and Finance meeting on Jan. 10.

“We had a tornado in 1996, an ice storm in 1990 – we are going to get some kind of natural disaster. We don’t know if we’ll ever get a terrorist event here, but the process is the same . . . as far as the operation is concerned,” Satterthwaite said.

Fire departments are required to complete training in order to qualify for federal funds in fiscal year 2006. Other local departments will also need to complete NIMS training, although whether those groups will include just police and public works or reach other city offices is unknown.

Federal grants through the Assistance for Firefighters program provided more than $700 million to local fire departments in fiscal year 2004, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Web site. Urbana received two grants in the last four years through the program, the last providing $175,000 for equipment, Mundt said.

The City Council is also scheduled to vote on a development agreement with Bear Properties LLC on the former Gill Sports building, 400 N. Broadway Ave.

The site is planned to be used for office and/or retail space, said Tom Harrington Jr., general partner of Bear Properties, at the Jan. 10 meeting. Harrington Jr. is also chairman of Coldwell Banker Devonshire Realty and president of Devonshire Group Inc., which is comprised of real estate specialists such as engineers and designers who work with the realty company, according to the Devonshire Realty Web site.

No specific tenants have been found, and Bear Properties is drafting a long-term plan towards the property, Harrington Jr. said.

Under the agreement, the city would give a portion of Courtesy Way to the developer, which Harrington Jr. said would be used as parking for the building. Courtesy Way is a dead end street and rarely used.

The city also entered a development agreement with County Plaza LLC to help make renovations to Champaign County Plaza in downtown Urbana at their Jan. 3 meeting. The building’s primary tenant, Health Alliance, is scheduled to relocate to Lincoln Square Village in June of 2005. Joe Petry, who manages the building, said he feels renovations are necessary for a new client to move in.

Both projects would receive loans from tax increment financing (TIF) funds. Each property would receive a loan for a portion of the money they generate in increased equalized assessed value.

Also over break, Christopher Alix was unanimously confirmed alderman of Ward 7 by the members of the Urbana City Council during their Jan. 3 meeting.

Alix had previously served on the Community Development Commission from 1997-1999 and was a member of the Urbana Plan Commission since 1999; however, he resigned from the commission after being confirmed as an alderman by the City Council.

Ward 7 had not been represented on the council since Otto Milton resigned his post Oct. 18. Milton said he resigned because he was moving to a residence outside of his district after marrying his wife.

Alix said his familiarity with city government is an asset he brings to the council. He said another strength is his ability to consider an issue on its merits without involving politics.

He is scheduled to serve until a new alderman is elected to the board in April.

Alix said he plans to represent Ward 7 residents. Because he will be serving a short term, he said, “You won’t see me looking to advance any major proposals or any sweeping changes.

“I see my role as working with the existing council and making sure the business of the city continues to be done,” Alix said.

Satterthwaite said he nominated Alix because of his experience in Urbana government and because of his ability to work with others. During Alix’s work on Plus 2 for Urbana, a group that supported the since-defeated referendum to add two at-large city council seats to Urbana, he earned the respect of the opposition because of the thoughtfulness of his arguments and time he invested in research, Satterthwaite said.

Satterthwaite echoed many other city officials when he said, “He’s very insightful and contributes greatly on the boards he’s served on.”

Satterthwaite had previously nominated Lynne Barnes to the seat, but the council rejected her nomination 3-2. Barnes, vice president of clinical operations at Carle Foundation Hospital, is running in the Democratic primary for Ward 7 Alderman against Durl Kruse, a former school administrator.