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Green zoning catches Cleveland Heights up with its citizens

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/12/11 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Transform

Cleveland Heights has long cultivated a reputation as a community working hard to preserve historic homes, its walkable, tree-lined neighborhoods and its progressive ideals that, at times, filter up to City Hall and are engrained in policy. The inner-ring suburb is also known for its law-and-order outlook and a government that doesn't always reflect the enclave of liberals who were once on the vanguard of civil rights issues like fair housing and racial integration.

Cleveland Heights' diversity makes it a special place-not many cities in the U.S. can claim the same demographic makeup-but the plurality of liberalism hasn't affected the policies of city government, in fact, for some time, they've been placed in amber. How did such a stronghold of liberals continue to elect city governments that hold a firmer, some say more conservative line? As Bob Rosenbaum of the Heights Observer recently opined, city government here is just 'OK'.

Without discounting the many meaningful things that our City Council accomplishes-a new soccer field at Denison Park, shared paving contracts with Shaker Heights, hiring of an economic development director, to name a few-I can't help feeling that it shows evidence of a government that is a little bit too satisfied with old assumptions. Especially about the big issues that will make or break our future.

There are notable exceptions to this paradox in the 'green' ledger, too-Cleveland Heights was one of the first cities in the nation to ban pesticide use on school grounds and city property. City Hall invested in a fleet of recycling trucks, which support the impressively high rates (56%) of residents sorting recyclables into blue bags. When citizens band together-as in the recently formed Cleveland Heights Bike Coalition-and make a lot of noise, it can lead to action (the Coalition made headlines last year when it organized a ride and petition drive calling for safer streets for its hundreds of bike commuters. It led to city Planning Director Richard Wong painting "sharrows" on a few roads). When a group of citizens organized to oppose big box development on the former Oakwood Country Club, they drew the support of a wider population who value green space and parks over duplicative big box, but the city is still pursuing the development next door to its current big box center.

Long-term, systematic change is a lot harder to achieve. That said, even slow to adapt cities-and Cleveland Heights is a leader compared to most suburbs in Northeast Ohio-are starting to see the writing on the wall. A glimmer of hope for change in Cleveland Heights can be found in its review of the zoning code with a lens toward 'greening' it. Here's a case where the city is finally catching up to its citizens who have wanted the city to look at ideas that arrived on the scene in earnest with the early 1990s writings of visionaries like Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins about how infrastructure and civic investments can also restore and provide ecological function.

The green zoning review is also being driven by changes outside of the city's borders: More and more residents are telling City Hall that they want what cities like Cleveland have – policies that reflect their desire to reduce their carbon footprint or increase self-reliance: Urban farming, green building, rain gardens and raising chickens, to name a few. At the same time, Cleveland Heights sees agencies like the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District moving ahead with their stormwater program, which has a carrot-and-stick approach to capturing rain on site. The city must decide if its zoning will empower its property owners to reach for the carrot (credits and grants to do small scale projects like rain gardens).

The city's consultants, Camiros, Inc. out of Chicago recently converted citizens' and city wish list into code language which is being reviewed by City Council, says Cleveland Heights Planner Karen Knittel. She reports that the city is on the verge of liberalizing its rules for raising chickens in backyards-allowing four hens per property (in the process, City Hall will legitimize the long standing practice of many liberals who, like their brethren in Cleveland, have been raising chickens for years). The city also updated its zoning to allow vacant buildings in residential neighborhoods to be reused as businesses.

"Right now, council is looking at (the green audit) in code form and considering the impact, but quite honestly, most everything in there they are embracing," Knittel said.

"There was a lot of support for raising chickens. I think they're going to do it as a full blown conditional use until they become more comfortable and work out the administrative process. I spoke to Cuyahoga County Board of Health if they'd be willing to help us with (inspections), and we're getting an indication that that is something they would like to do."

City Planning is researching which permeable pavement options are affordable and resilient for driveways and parking lots before recommendation to the Building Department. They are developing a guideline for developers and homeowners that would spell out the 'greenest' building methods, and encourage deconstruction to composting, she said. The city is leaning toward allowing rain barrels and clothes lines, but may route them through their Architectural Board of Revision first. Lessening the impact of big parking lots is the focus of a parking space maximum for developments and provisions that allow developers to reserve would be parking areas as green space (the goal is to avoid giant parking lots like Severance where outbuildings stretch asphalt lots to the horizon). Other promising ideas from the green zoning audit include allowing community gardens by permission on vacant property, and conditional uses for renewable energy including solar panels, geothermal and air pumps.

"We're trying to move everything to be more green and sustainable in the process," Knittel said. "I hope to be done with this in a few months. I'm really pleased (council) is embracing and understanding it."

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