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‘Commercial creep’ on East Third Avenue?


East Third Avenue is also known as “The Boulevard” because of its tree-lined median.

By Jim Haug Herald staff writer

The Turtle Lake Refuge Cafe, a raw-food restaurant, serves edible weeds in a Third Avenue neighborhood where residents like to whack an invasive species called “commercial creep.”

Lemonade dandelion ice cream, hollyhock burritos and wheatgrass shots are offered twice a week from the back patio of an East Third Avenue home built in 1892. Owners of the property called the Rocky Mountain Retreat “jumped through all the hoops” to get a compatible-use permit because the conversion of homes for commercial use in this historic neighborhood is often controversial.

The Boulevard Neighborhood Association has helped kill four proposals for bed-and-breakfasts on East Third Avenue since the mid-1980s. Most recently, it rallied opposition against allowing a 7,000-square foot, five-bedroom Victorian at 11th Street from becoming a B&B. It was the Jakway House’s second attempt at getting permission for B&B status since 1992.

The mansion was built between 1884 and 1886. Keeping the surrounding neighborhood residential is key to preserving its landmark status as a historical district, said Maxine Peterson, a former mayor, but Jakway owner Carole Withers doesn’t see it that way.

“There’s a belief that a historic district prevents change,” Withers said at a City Council meeting. “I disagree. I think historic districts are a useful tool for managing change in an increasingly complex reality.”

B&Bs must be well-maintained to attract clientele. Because the caretaker and host would live in the B&B, “it’s not a hotel, but someone’s home,” Withers said.

But city councilors were sympathetic to neighbors’ arguments that allowing such a precedent would open the door for homes turning into offices for lawyers, dentists and real-estate firms. It would no longer be a neighborhood where kids went trick-or-treating or residents shoveled each other’s sidewalks.

Councilor Sweetie Marbury said she saw the residential character of a historic district “melt away” in her hometown of Houston. She joined councilors Paul Broderick and Doug Lyon in opposing a conditional-use permit for the Jakway House in a 3-2 vote April 3. Former Mayor Christina Rinderle, whose father runs a B&B in southern Indiana, and Councilor Dick White, who said he likes staying at B&Bs, supported it.

Residents also had urged the council not to be persuaded by economic arguments.

“We cannot sacrifice the character of the neighborhood for economic gain. It’s just not right,” said Third Avenue resident Holly Jobson, whose house turns 100 this year.

The Jakway House, named after former resident Louis Jakway who owned a lumber mill, has been on the market for the last 10 years. Its asking price has dropped from $2 million to $925,000, said its real-estate agent, Judi Mora.

Despite its many amenities such as a wrap-around porch, a wood-paneled library, a wine cellar and fireplace, it’s in danger of going into foreclosure because its enormous size and energy inefficiency has made it obsolete as a residential property, Mora said.

Because potential buyers have expressed interest in turning it into a B&B, the sellers wanted permission to market it as a potential B&B under a set of conditions outlined by the city.

Pat Blair, co-director of the Rocky Mountain Retreat on Third Avenue where the raw-food restaurant is located, believes in the principle of one home, one family but thinks the opposition to the Jakway B&B was shortsighted.

“What can you do with a big house?” Blair said. “Families can’t afford it.”

If no one can take care of it, then it becomes “an elephant, not a showpiece,” Blair said.

Opponents raised all sorts of arguments, one neighbor feared the B&B guests would be voyeurs who would stare at sunbathers in their backyards.

But Mora noted that B&B guests are, on average, 50 years or older, well-educated visitors who like to walk or ride bicycles to shopping or restaurants. They’re not the type to stay up all night, Mora said.

“They’re not voyeurs,” she said.

Supporters of the Jakway B&B argued that it would not be creating a precedent for more B&Bs on East Third Avenue because of the special circumstances of its location. The house is surrounded on four sides by public property. So City Attorney David Smith did not think future city councils would be obligated to approve other applications in the neighborhood.

As far as parking, Mora said a nearby site would handle overflow. In fact, she said it would be an improvement over the current situation where the 10 renters in the house “park anywhere and everywhere.”

Greg Hoch, the city’s chief planner, believes there are much bigger problems than commercial creep.

“It strikes me that amidst day care homes and centers, home occupations, vacation rentals, and, most importantly, absentee landlords, there is more than a hint of commercialization happening in virtually all our neighborhoods,” Hoch said.

“The city receives way more complaints about rundown, overpopulated rental properties than from vacation rentals, home occupations, day cares, bed-and-breakfasts combined,” he said.

East Third Avenue already has commercial properties such as Hood Mortuary, whose existence as a business precedes the city’s zoning laws. A law office, an investment firm and La Plata County Democrats headquarters are located in a commercial zone of East Third Avenue at College Drive.

The raw-food restaurant was permitted under an exception that allows property to be used for charity, Hoch sad. The Turtle Lake Refuge is a not a commercial restaurant, and it does not charge customers. Instead, it accepts donations. Lunch is served only on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The house also is used for meditation, yoga and office space for small nonprofits.

“Our whole approach is to help the little guy,” Blair said.

Gabriela Ranzi, a raw-food chef, is happy to educate the public about the nutritious benefits of wild edibles, a great “source of energy.”

She wants to change the “consciousness around wild plants. They’re here as gifts for us,” Ranzi said.

But East Third Avenue residents remain vigilant at keeping commercial creep out of the historic neighborhood.


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