Neighbors allege Sunset Overlook bias

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Pictured, Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson swears in new CPD officer Luke Moravec as he repeats the oath of office during Monday’s city council meeting. Moravec is a Dupo native and graduate of Gibault Catholic High School.

The Columbia City Council had its first virtual hiccup at Monday night’s meeting. 

Prior to the meeting, the council only had a few minor issues regarding public input from remote locations during the socially distant “virtual meeting” format due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Comments for public input on Monday were postponed until after an executive session, scheduled for the end of the meeting, because of connection issues with the computer program used to facilitate remote input. 

Those in attendance were asked to leave the meeting during that time and return about 10 minutes later when the executive session concluded. By that time, the connection issue was resolved and those wishing to provide public input were able to do so. 

The input involved a proposed special use permit for Sunset Overlook, located at 11604 Bluff Road, to have indoor ancillary entertainment. The Columbia Plan Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval at its July 13 meeting.

The first to speak was Natalie Lorenz, attorney for residents near Sunset Overlook who took the business to court over actions that were found to be zoning code violations according to Judge Julia Gomric’s ruling in last August. That ruling was upheld in the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court in February. 

Lorenz asked that the council not approve the special use permit request, saying Sunset Overlook was “not entitled” to the permit and the business has not been compliant with zoning code changes the council recently adopted for C-1 “neighborhood business” zones.

“(My clients) were promised the zoning code would protect them” when plans were being made for the business, “then the code was re-written to benefit Sunset Overlook,” Lorenz said, also noting the owners of Sunset Overlook were ordered to pay around $63,000 in legal fees “because it was not compliant” with the previous zoning code, referring to the court ruling. 

The owners have filed a “motion to reconsider” in Monroe County regarding legal fees, but that hearing has not yet taken place.

Paul Galeski, a resident who lives near the business, was next to speak. 

“It’s  always something new with Sunset Overlook,” he said, adding that nearby homes of “four longtime residents have gone on the market within weeks of each other” because of the problems with the business.

“It’s getting old,” Galeski continued, referring to ongoing issues between some neighbors and Sunset Overlook, also claiming that Columbia city government “bias toward (Sunset Overlook) is really stunning.”

Julie Ingold, co-owner of Sunset Overlook, responded to claims of violations, specifically that patrons were on areas of the property adjacent to residential properties after 9:30 p.m., action prohibited by the updated C-1 zoning code. 

“We have (video) surveillance 24/7. The patio is empty by 9:30,” Ingold said. 

Dan Lytle, attorney for Sunset Overlook, also denied claims of code violations when addressing the council.

Columbia Director of Community Development Scott Dunakey responded to a comment made by Lorenz during the plan commission meeting stating that Dunakey misrepresented public response when he said there was no opposition specifically to the special use permit.

Dunakey said he reviewed letters and other correspondence and found “one email that could be construed as opposition” to the permit, so he included it in a revised staff report.

Ward I Alderman James Agne and Ward II Alderman Mark Roessler both had questions regarding the use of amplification  of music inside the building. The zoning code prohibits “amplification of sound… in such a manner to be deliberately heard in an outdoor location.”

The aldermen asked about specific situations in which music might be heard for a short period, such as a waitress opening a door.

Dunakey noted that the code’s language regarding amplification was written specifically for such concerns, adding the intent of the language was to prevent outdoor entertainment while also recognizing that it would be unrealistic to expect all noise to be contained within the business property boundaries at all times.  

The council will vote on this special use permit at its Aug. 3 meeting.

In other business, the council approved a service agreement for electricity and natural gas services for city facilities. It also approved a side letter of agreement between the city and the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council.

At the beginning of the meeting, Columbia Police Department officer Luke Moravec took the oath of office. Moravec was formerly a patrol deputy with the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department.

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