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Neighborhood Declines - And County Zoning Blocks Any Hope of Recovery

By Liz Clancy Lerner — It doesn’t take much to get Tom Lemke fired up.

Just ask him about his neighborhood – a place he has called home for 63 years -- and his frustration is evident. 

"They say we’re a slum – run down. That's the way we've always been treated.” Lemke said all this as he takes a deep breath into his oxygen mask. “We have really been abused . . . and we have really tried to take care of the area."

A rusty sign on the corner of Second Street and Wallace Avenue.

Lemke, 64, has chronic bronchitis and lives in Wilber Heights. It’s a neighborhood where, according to Champaign County Planning and Zoning documents, homes “are not encouraged to survive.” 

Champaign County passed an ordinance in 1973 intending to turn the neighborhood into a strictly industrial region. The regulation prohibits the rebuilding of or substantial repair to any home. 

However, almost 40 years later, houses and residents still remain.

In Wilber Heights abandoned homes sit next to recycling plants, which sit next to trash-filled lots that are adjacent to trailer homes – all of this within 36 acres. 

“This wasn’t a properly thought-out thing in the first place and it’s so complicated that it’s difficult to resolve at any time,” said John Hall, the Champaign County Planning and Zoning Director.

In fact, it is so complicated that even the spelling of the neighborhood is controversial. Residents have always known is it as “Wilbur” Heights, with a “u.” County documents and a 1960 newspaper article deem the correct spelling “Wilber.” 

Clyde Forrest is a professor emeritus in planning and zoning at the University of Illinois and has known about the zoning issues in Wilber Heights for 30 years.

 â€œI wouldn’t categorize it as a terrible slum. “ said Forrest. “But it’s an area that’s not going to attract first-class residential development.” 

Residential development isn’t the goal of the ordinance, which is why it contains rules against maintaining and rebuilding homes in Wilber Heights.

Interactive Graphic — Click the image to learn the layout of the land and the history behind the community.

The Restrictions

Lemke is a retired mechanic and shares his home with his wife Velma. They raised their three children in Wilber Heights. Their home is a well maintained two-story structure, that at one time was the source of a lot of trouble for the Lemkes. 

Eleven years ago a driver lost control of his car, crashing into the home’s front porch and destroying it. Lemke was about to rebuild his porch when the Champaign County Planning and Zoning Department told him that he couldn’t. 

The zoning ordinance, deeming all homes non-conforming, prohibits any resident from adding on or renovating more than 10 percent of the replacement value annually. 

This means that if a fire were to burn down a house in Wilber Heights, then the homeowner could not legally rebuild a home on their his lot. And in Lemke’s case, he could not legally replace his deck. So, following ordinance rules, he kept the renovation to 10 percent. 

Three concrete steps now lead to the front door of his house. Aesthetically, it’s not what he had wanted, but it is what the county demanded.

The restrictions also affect home prices because residents cannot substantially improve their homes. According to a 1992 planning and zoning document from former Champaign County Zoning Administrator, Frank DiNovio, "They are also unlikely to be able to realize a market value of their property very much greater than its current use value as a dwelling."  

The size of the lots also prevents individuals from selling for much higher industrial property prices. “Industrial property is typically worth five times more than residential, but the homeowners would have to sell at the same time. If they sold one at a time, that wouldn’t happen,” said Clyde Forrest. But asking lifelong residents to move at the same time is not likely. 

Yet, commercial properties have not been selling as well as residential properties because – much like residential mortgages –  mortgages for commercial properties have not been as easily available as they once were, said Fred McDonald, president of Champaign County Association of Realtors.

While federal stimulus money has been used help jump-start residential property sales, it’s not been available for commercial property, McDonald said.

“Commercial (property) now is a bigger concern,” he said.

Wilber Heights and the surrounding area has been a good draw for business with its close proximity to Interstates 74, 57 and 52, said Matt Wavering a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Commercial Devonshire Realty. 

Because of that transportation hub, the city has pushed for higher industrial use in the Wilber Heights area, he said.

And as the area has developed into warehousing and industrial uses, property values have become low, Wavering said.

Houses in Wilber Heights have sold for less than $50,000 compared to the median housing prices range between $120,000 and $130,000, he said. 

Further, industrial property is the least valuable of commercial property, Wavering said.

Typically, industrial land in an industrial park will sell between $1.50 and $2 a square foot compared to retail property, which can sell for up to $15 a square foot, he said.

Wilber Heights and Market Street are the cutoff between retail and industrial property, Wavering said.

“On the industrial side, values are lower,” he said.

If one of the area’s rental properties stops generating rental income, then “the land becomes worth more than the house,” Wavering said.