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Bingen Says No To Zoning Change Idea

Council votes against allowing rebuilding of dwellings in commercial zones.

A proposal to allow pre-existing, multi-unit residential dwellings destroyed by fire or other causes to be rebuilt in commercial zones has been shot down by the Bingen City Council.

With a 3-2 vote on Jan. 15, the council decided that it was more important to ensure that the city maintains sufficient property for commercial buildings.

The city's current zoning allows for the rebuilding of single-family dwellings if they are damaged or destroyed, but not duplexes or other multi-unit residences.

"I'm concerned our commercial buildings would go away if we pass this," said council member Teresa Schuemann. "This ordinance would mean a lot of non-conforming units would now be considered conforming, and I'm concerned about that."

The proposed ordinance set forth the following: "When a building or other structure containing a non-conforming use is damaged by any cause to an extent exceeding 75 percent of the cost of the structure's fair market value ... such building shall not be rebuilt unless the building and its construction and uses conform fully to this title and other codes of the city as applied to new buildings and structures ... or in the case of a single-family detached dwelling, duplex, triplex, or fourplex if a building permit for repair or replacement with a similar structure is obtained from the city within 12 months of the damage."

The ordinance would have allowed pre-existing residences in the commercial zone to be rebuilt to the same size, but if they are ever converted to commercial, they would have to remain as commercial buildings.

Council members were wary of the proposed changes.

"I'd like to see the ordinance stay as it currently is," said Schuemann.

Council member Randy Anderson made a motion to reject the proposed changes and maintain the city's existing ordinance. That motion passed 3-2, with council members Schuemann, Anderson, and Larry Murphy wanting to maintain the current ordinance, while Terry Trantow and Laura Mann supported the proposed new ordinance.

Shirley Cox, a real estate agent with Pacific Rim Brokers who came to the meeting, said she was upset with the way the vote was handled.

"They had already approved this in October, then they pulled what they pulled the other night," Cox explained. "For them to do a full turnaround is rather shocking. They haven't heard the last from us on this."

Cox pointed out that the city sent her a letter, dated Oct. 23, which read: "At the city of Bingen's council meeting on Oct. 2, the City Council voted to begin the process to amend its zoning ordinance so that dwellings up to four units could be replaced when destroyed. It is expected that the amendment process will be completed by the end of the year."

Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel defended the city's process.

"The council at the time did agree to draft language and look at it," Prigel said. "I can see how it looked like the council leaned toward allowing the change -- but we all know it's not done until it's done, and not approved until it's voted on."

Dan Melkonian, owner of a fourplex at 110 E. Humboldt Street in Bingen, said the city's decision was troubling.

"What this means for any insured property owner of a non-conforming use in Bingen is, if you cannot rebuild outright, even though you paid for replacement cost insurance in your insurance policy, you will not get replacement cost dollars," Melkonian explained. "What you will get is actual cash value minus depreciation. In the case of a 13-year-old fourplex, that would be very little."

Cox said she believed council members did not understand the real estate business very well.

"We've had several failed sales because banks are unwilling to provide loans on buildings that can't be rebuilt, and buyers are reluctant to purchase if it can't be rebuilt," Cox said. "I don't want to pick a fight with Bingen, but I've been in this business for 15 years and I know what the banks require."

Cox added that Bingen currently has a lot of vacant commercial space.

"With so much now vacant, how does it make sense to say you need more?" she wondered.

Mayor Prigel disagreed that the council's failure to pass the zoning amendment is a drawback.

"For the long run of the city as a whole, I think it's better to leave the ordinance as it is now," he said. "In time, we would like to see the area changing character from residence to commercial. We do allow residential in conjunction with commercial if the primary first floor use is commercial."

Prigel noted that the Bingen post office is an example of a building currently used in that way.

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