Brighter outlook for Sunset Overlook

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The Columbia Plan Commission met Monday night for initial discussion of proposed text amendments to zoning codes for two types of businesses. 

The majority of public input during the virtual public hearing was focused on proposed zoning amendments for C-1 “neighborhood business” districts.

One of the businesses that would be affected by the proposed amendments is Sunset Overlook, located at 11604 Bluff Road. The business has been involved in litigation since November 2018 with residents living near the establishment who have complained about “unrelenting disturbances” regarding music, other noise and patron behavior. 

In February, the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court ruled against Sunset Overlook, upholding a previous ruling that prohibited the restaurant from selling or serving food outside or providing ancillary entertainment outdoors in accordance with the city’s C-1 zoning ordinance.

Sunset Overlook is currently closed until further notice due to “substantial decrease in sales,” but one of the proposed amendments could effectively remedy a major setback for business regarding its outdoor service.

If approved, a change in zoning text would allow previously prohibited outdoor seating and service in C-1 areas with a 50-foot setback from adjacent residential properties.

Another change in C-1 zoning language would add a section prohibiting “amplification of music, voice or other sounds… Likewise, sounds shall not be amplified from within a structure in such a manner to be deliberately heard in an outdoor location (i.e. through an open door or window) or to be heard beyond the property boundaries.” 

While explaining the proposed amendments, Columbia Director of Community Development Scott Dunakey said the city had received 302 letters specific to Sunset Overlook in favor of the amendments and was made aware of a petition with over 300 signatures and an online petition with over 2,000 signatures supporting the business.

During public input, Dunakey read several letters from residents who live near Sunset Overlook expressing displeasure with the proposed amendments. One comment described  the business as “a bar in our backyard” while another noted the amplification language was not strong enough and described the area as an “amphitheater.”

Natalie Lorenz, attorney for neighboring residents of Sunset Overlook, spoke to the commission, saying her clients are “trying to compromise” and suggested changes to the proposed amendments. 

Lorenz suggested the commission change the language so that seating at Sunset Overlook would only be allowed in the front of the building and deleting the word “deliberately” from the section regarding amplified sound – a word she believed could be used to create a “loophole” in the language’s intent.

Daniel Lytle, legal representative for Sunset Overlook, said the proposed amendments are “not just a Sunset Overlook issue, it’s a C-1 issue,” adding that clarification of zoning language “needs to be codified at this point.” Lytle also urged the commission to recommend the amendments as written in order to allow Sunset Overlook to “operate as intended” when it initially sought advice from the city during its planning phase.  

The plan commission voted 8-0 to present the Columbia City Council with zoning amendment recommendations as written. Commission member Peter Ingold, co-owner of Sunset Overlook, abstained from discussion and voting.  

Lorenz responded to the vote by saying she and her clients “are disappointed in the Plan Commission’s decision not to consider the proposals,” adding that “Sunset Overlook never operated within a 50-foot setback in the first place, so the addition . . . to the ordinance is no compromise at all.”

Lorenz also stated she would be investigating comments made by Dunakey during the meeting about input received from members of Columbia City Council when drafting the zoning amendments. 

Dunakey responded by saying “Ms. Lorenz received all city correspondence on this matter via Freedom of Information Act request. To my knowledge, there has been no further correspondence on this issue between city staff and any of the elected officials.”

Dunakey noted that Lorenz has access to emails he referred to during the meeting.

Julie Ingold, co-owner of Sunset Overlook, said she was “pleased that the committee has passed language that is consistent with their historical interpretation of the code that allows us the ability to return to operation as initially approved and intended.”

The recommendations will be brought to the city council for discussion at its June 15 meeting.

Cannabis dispensary

The other amendment recommendation approved at Monday’s meeting involved creating zoning language required to build a cannabis dispensary within Columbia city limits. In November, the city council voted to recommend that such language be drafted.

When describing the proposed zoning amendment, Dunakey said the language was “very deliberately” written, adding it is “restrictive as we could be and still allow” a potential development. Dunakey also noted a dispensary is the only cannabis business allowed in the language.

Growing, cultivating, transporting, processing and other now-legal cannabis businesses would not be allowed.

The proposed amendments to the zoning code include defining “cannabis dispensary” and “disallowed cannabis use” as well as adding “cannabis dispensaries” to the list of approved commercial park zone permitted uses and criteria for establishment, such as proximity to an interstate highway and required distance from school buildings.

The only location that meets the requirements is an area in the commercial park zone near Palmer and DD roads in the north end of Columbia near the I-255/Route 3 interchange.

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