Legality of Steubenville’s conservation districts challenged

STEUBENVILLE — The legality of the city’s 25 neighborhood conservation districts, which bar property owners in certain areas from turning any more single family homes into rental units, is being challenged.

The Ohio Civil Rights Commission confirmed this week it is investigating complaints filed by Crystal Zimmerman in November and Royal Mayo in March.

Details of the Zimmerman and Mayo complaints are protected by privacy laws, so OCRC cannot discuss them until the investigations are concluded. City officials, including Law Director Costa Mastros and Urban Projects Director Chris Petrossi, have repeatedly refused comment because of the potential for litigation.

Zimmerman could not be reached for comment. Her case involves an NCD, though no one will say which one or the circumstances surrounding her complaint.

Mayo, however, Thursday insisted he was denied the opportunity to rent a friend’s childhood home on Linda Way simply because it was not a registered rental unit when the neighborhood became an NCD.

“(It’s) a fancy way of saying we don’t want no blacks here, that’s what it comes down to,” said Mayo, a former president of the Steubenville Branch of the NAACP.

“But I tell people all the time cities don’t make laws, they pass ordinances — the state passes laws. I think if this ever goes to court, they’ll find these neighborhood conservation districts violate the law.”

Communities across the country have been using conservation districts to preserve what they see as the “character and integrity” of established neighborhoods, allowing them to zero in on specific development concerns.

Steubenville’s ordinance, part of its zoning code, affords owners of property within specific residential neighborhoods the opportunity to request NCD status “to preserve the attractiveness, desirability, and character” of their neighborhood by precluding all or certain types of rental properties, “thereby avoiding the potential negative effects rental properties can have on a neighborhood with regard to property deterioration, increased density, congestion, noise and traffic levels and reduction of property value.”

To be designated as an NCD, at least two-thirds of the property owners in the target area have to sign off, and every property owner in the zone must receive and initial a fact sheet detailing their rights and responsibilities. Rental properties existing before the neighborhood conservation district is implemented are grandfathered in, so unless the owners fail to renew their rental registry, they can remain.

Owners who fail to renew their rental registrations have up to two years to list their property with a real estate agent and find buyers.

Earlier this year a St. Clairsville landlord was stripped of his protected status because he’d neglected to renew rental unit registrations for properties in two separate NCDs asked the Board of Zoning Appeals to exempt him but was denied.

Residents, though, seem to appreciate the results.

A year ago, Alexander Manor East resident Greg Varner told city leaders becoming an NCD was “one of the greatest things we have done as a neighborhood.” Alexander Manor was the first neighborhood in Steubenville to become an NCD in October 2014.

“Property values are up,” he’d told council in March 2018. “Realtors want the properties because they know it’s a good neighborhood and will provide a good price to the person selling the home. It provides security for the elderly who are shut in. They feel more secure. They know their neighbors and there are not a lot of rentals in the area. It really has bonded the neighborhood.”

And in lobbying last year Belleview Boulevard to become the 25th NCD, resident Diane Hostetler had pointed out there were 35 rental homes in the district and complained of “a downward spiral in value for homes that become rentals.”

But Mayo said in his opinion, “It has nothing to do with the growth of the city, nothing to do with improving the standard of living.”

“It has to do, I think, with racial bias and people not wanting certain people to move into their neighborhood,” he said.