RUSSELL, Ky. — Russell City Council members voted Monday in favor of nixing a proposal to rezone downtown Russell after Greenup County Joint Planning Commission Chairman Tom Saylor told them downtown residents voiced “animosity” toward the idea.
The proposal, made to the planning commission in January, was to amend the city’s zoning ordinance to entice developers to put residential units on the ground floors of vacant downtown buildings. Currently, ground floors can only be used for residential purposes through a conditional use permit which must be renewed each year, a deterrence to property owners who may want to turn an entire building into apartments.
The amendment would’ve effectively removed the need for annual renewal by allowing property owners to apply for accessory use permits rather than conditional use.
The planning commission held a public hearing this month to allow local residents to weigh in, and Saylor said almost everyone who spoke up was in strong opposition. The downtown residents cited concerns about a lack of parking and the effect on existing businesses.
“Based on the comments we received, there was so much animosity, it did not seem to be in the best interest of the city,” Saylor said. The planning commission recommended no change be made to downtown zoning at this time, and the commission agreed.
Gary Boyd, who serves as a liaison between the planning commission and the city council, had advocated for the change in January, citing the decline in traffic to downtown since the new Ironton-Russell Bridge opened and the economic hit it entails. The new bridge, unlike the old one undergoing demolition, spills out onto U.S. 23, bypassing downtown Russell completely.
Saylor said the commission noted “there has been some change in the traffic pattern because of the new bridge,” but “that wasn’t everything that caused the slowdown in downtown Russell.”
He said the commission has looked back over the past few years, and “there’s been no real effort, either by the residents downtown, or by the city itself, to promote growth in the downtown area.”
“That should be something that is definitely looked at if you’re going to do anything in the downtown area,” he added.
Saylor wrote a letter to the council recommending ideas on what steps they could take to revitalize the downtown area. Later in the meeting, Mayor Bill Hopkins said he’d read the letter, as he opened the council’s planned discussion on future revitalization efforts.
“We’re going to have to do something downtown,” Hopkins said. “My first thought was to appoint someone, either council members or individuals, to head up a revitalization committee for downtown Russell.”
Hopkins said he understands a previous city council “spent a lot of money” on downtown revitalization efforts through an action plan.
But “nothing was done for it, and nothing was done by it,” Hopkins said, adding that the council is “starting out on another path” that involves hiring “someone who is qualified” to develop a new revitalization program. He said he knows “a couple of people who are qualified to establish that program as an engineer.”
“They’re not going to do it for free,” Hopkins said. “There’s enough people in the city of Russell today who feels like we must revitalize or we’re going to die. The only way to do it is the way I’m talking about. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to have to pay the preacher, I guess.”
Hopkins asked the council to authorize him to speak with engineering firms and grant writers who could help the city acquire funding for downtown projects. He said the city needs to look at economic development professionals outside the city.
“I don’t know of anyone in the city who has the knowledge and wisdom to put a revitalization plan together,” Hopkins said.
Councilwoman Esther “Sissy” Shaffer said she agreed with Hopkins. “We need somebody to come in and take over,” said Shaffer.
Saylor later addressed the council again, noting that one of the purviews of the planning commission is to examine the future of the cities and county based on each governing body’s comprehensive plan. He also agreed the city should seek professional help outside the city.
“Get someone from outside the city to give you some direction in what development is and bring some ideas to you, then go out and do a request for proposals from engineers. Don’t let someone come in and write you a grant immediately, let someone give you some ideas and then go out with the requests for proposals,” said Saylor.
Councilman Butch Meadows also said the city “needs somebody to help us.” In the meantime, he said, he’d like to see more hanging flower baskets throughout Russell, including downtown, to boost its appeal.