City proposes variance settlement

STEUBENVILLE — City officials have proposed a settlement to a lawsuit they filed last month to overturn three zoning variances exempting Nelson Holdings LLC from complying with the city’s vacant building registry ordinance.

The ordinance in question requires owners of vacant buildings, loosely defined as being unoccupied for 90 days or more, to register them with the city and pay a registration fee — $200 to start for residential properties and $400 for commercial buildings. Assessments go up every year the property remains vacant, but would not exceed $400 a year for residential properties and $700 for commercial. The ordinance in question stipulates that any building with utilities cannot be considered vacant, but city inspectors say they judge occupancy solely by whether a building has water service.

The Board of Property Maintenance Appeals voted in November to grant Nelson LLC the exemptions, prompting council to file its administrative appeal with Jefferson County Common Pleas Court.

Council met briefly behind closed doors at the close of Tuesday’s business meeting to discuss the litigation, emerging to vote 5-1 to forward the proposal to Nelson Holdings owner Mark Nelson. First Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto cast the only vote against the measure.

Afterward, Law Director Costas Mastros declined to comment, as did several council members. While he wouldn’t discuss details, 6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna did say he thought the proposal was fair.

“It helps both viewpoints,” Villamagna said, adding he drafted the agreement. “I think it’s fair to all parties.”

Fourth Ward Councilman Scott Dressell would say only that it was a “good idea to get the situation resolved for everyone involved, and for all the other property owners around town so they are fairly and consistently treated.”

Nelson said he had not yet seen the proposal but questioned “why there needs to be any sort of settlement.”

“I’m already plenty happy with my variances,” he said in response to a text seeking his reaction to council’s decision. “I followed the path the city encouraged and guided me on in presenting my case before the appeals board. The board made their decision to grant me a variance on my buildings. I am not aware of anything in the city charter allowing settlements between citizens and city council members if council isn’t happy with the decisions of their boards or actions of their employees.”

DiLoreto, meanwhile, told council he’d like to see the chamber of commerce, Jefferson County Port Authority and Steubenville Revitalization Group “form a coalition of outside interests to come in and inspect all the commercial buildings in the downtown areas from Lincoln to Tweed, to the bridge in the North End, including the vacant land on Route 7, old paper mill and others from 3rd Street to 9th Street.” DiLoreto said he wants an “unbiased opinion of the buildings which can be saved for future development and those which must be demolished.”

“If a variance is given, a time limit must be placed on those buildings, and not 50 years,” he continued, pointing out organizations like the chamber, port authority and SRG “who are more qualified to make these decisions in regards to building codes.”

Dressel said he sees more inter-agency cooperation than ever.

“I do think everyone is working together better,” he said, and added that more can be done to “make the process as seamless as possible for people who want to open businesses here.”

Competing proposals by Villamagna and Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn to revisit rules dictating how and when the general public can address council will be considered at next Tuesday’s meeting.

Hahn said she wants council to overturn the ordinance in its entirety, while Villamagna said he’d like to move the deadline for residents to register to speak from Friday afternoon to 2 p.m. the Monday before council meets, and to allow residents to comment on items that came up for discussion during meetings.

Residents who address council would still be limited to five minutes.

Council also told Ridge Avenue resident John Gentile his concerns about how an ordinance regulating use of Dumpsters is being interpreted will be directed to committee.

Gentile said he lobbied city officials for two years to allow him to contract with an outside Dumpster source, only to have city officials deny his request now because his property, a five-unit apartment building, is in a residential area. Gentile said he was told that another section of the garbage ordinance requires dumpsters not provided by the city to be screened from view in residential areas.

“The Dumpster the city gave me sat there since 2003” with no screening, he said. “And I have pictures of Dumpsters throughout the city that aren’t screened.”

“I feel like I’m being targeted with this ordinance,” Gentile added.

Second Ward Councilman Craig Petrella told Gentile the matter was being referred to committee and would be “handled when they (address) other issues in the ordinance.”