Our View: Good approach to city zoning issues

A Hillsboro Planning Commission meeting this week touched on city zoning laws and utility rules that have largely been ignored for many years.

As reported by The Times-Gazette this week, the planning commission – after morphing into an appeals board hearing – addressed the issue Monday of a house on South High Street that is being sold, but that over the years went from being a single-family home to a four-unit apartment complex. And yet, the zoning for where the property sits does not allow such apartment units.

That property is hardly unique in Hillsboro. Through the years, various homes in the city have been turned into multi-unit rental complexes. In some cases, zoning was not amended or changed. In other cases, “spot zoning” or variances allowed the properties to comply with the law. But spot zoning is a bad habit and can soon lead to a jigsaw puzzle of zones that are unfair and which confuse everyone, especially when the properties are put up for sale and variances that may have been granted are ended, in accordance with the law.

Planning commission Chairman Buck Wilkin was right to suggest that a recommendation be made to the city to revisit all local zoning laws and modernize them to reflect the reality of multi-unit rental properties in Hillsboro. He was also correct to suggest that an outside company be employed to examine Hillsboro zoning, which ensures that professionals will do the job, and which helps avoid accusations of favoritism.

A secondary issue, but an important one, is the matter of how city utilities are handled when properties are developed into apartment units. If apartment units in Hillsboro were each serviced by separate water meters as the law requires, the number of individuals paying water bills would increase substantially.

That is important. Each water bill includes a base rate that, under a one-meter situation, is being paid only once, by the landlord, even for multi-unit properties. But if each renter was paying his or her own separate bill, the base rate would be multiplied accordingly across the city, which would lower the bills of utility payers who are currently making up the difference for everyone not being billed individually.

These issues exist because they were allowed to develop over several decades. Because of the cost involved, the city is right not to resort to the harshest solution available – requiring that all landlords immediately comply with zoning laws and separate water meter rules. Instead, city leaders and planning commission officials are taking a balanced approach.

The ultimate goal is to modernize the city’s zoning ordinances as well as make sure the costs of city utilities are being applied evenly and fairly to all city residents, whether they are landlords or renters, while doing so in a way that is not cost prohibitive to property owners. We commend the public officials who are pursuing this course of action.