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KEVIN LEININGER: Do zoning issues with swingers’ club, ‘commercial’ house encourage bad behavior?

The former house at 6626 W. Jefferson Blvd. is being converted into a commercial building. (Courtesy image)
The site of the Champagne Club is not properly zoned for a swingers club, city officials say. (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)-- bringsor
Kevin Leininger

The city’s only swingers’ club apparently continues to operate despite notification from the Plan Commission’s attorney that it violates the city’s zoning laws. And, just last week, City Council rezoned a 10,000 square-foot building on West Jefferson Boulevard for commercial use despite the owner’s written promise it would be used for single-family residential purposes only.

Do such examples encourage indifference or even disrespect for land-use regulations? Certainly City Councilman Jason Arp and County Building Commissioner John Caywood think so, at least in the case of Martin Quintana’s renovation and expansion of a house at 6626 W. Jefferson. Both warned council its 6-3 vote allowing what had begun as a residential project to proceed as a commercial structure would encourage others wanting to cut corners to seek forgiveness instead of permission.

Whether such concerns are justified is a matter of opinion, but with Fort Wayne and Allen County on the cusp of a new master-planning process, this is the perfect time to analyze whether existing deterrents to bad behavior are adequate to prevent problems, not simply correct them.

As I first reported in June, construction on Quintana’s project began in February, and Caywood’s staff soon became suspicious when modifications, such as the new roof, took on a commercial appearance. But Caywood said his inspectors were assured the building was in fact residential, “and we had no reason to doubt it.” The department ordered work to stop in April only after inspectors discovered an unlicensed subcontractor working under E E Brandenberger Construction of Fort Wayne.

After Quintana promised in writing to install buffering to shield neighbors and to limit uses of the property, the Plan Commission agreed to rezone the 1.7-acre residential site for commercial use, and council agreed last week. Quintana’s attorney, Jim Federoff, said the project must now file a development plan before resuming work, and that won’t come at least until November.

Federoff insists Quintana initially did intend the property for residential use before changing his mind, and said his client has paid a heavy financial price despite his zoning victory. The buffering and building upgrades required by commercial code could cost Quintana more than if he had simply sought commercial zoning and permits in the first place, he said.

“It seems clear to me the system has enough safeguards to catch people who want to circumvent the land-use process,” Federoff added, noting the Plan Commission can go to court to enforce its regulations and punish violators if necessary.

But Caywood, who said city officials told him Quintana intended the project to be commercial early in the process, told council his department — meaning taxpayers — paid a high price. Because of the irregularities, his inspectors have spent about 80 hours on a project that should have taken just three. That means inspections on other projects that followed proper procedure may have been delayed as a result.

Caywood’s department did fine Quintana’s contractors $1,000, and Brandenberger has withdrawn from the project, he said — proof his department’s ability to enforce its guidelines is sufficient, he said. “Four- or five-figure fines aren’t uncommon,” said Caywood, who said his department has dramatically increased its fine collections in recent years.

“We don’t anticipate (this project) will become the norm in our community. Each project is different and is required to go through the necessary approval processes,” city spokesman John Perlich said. “The updated comprehensive plan process hasn’t officially started yet. It’s too early to say what the final product will look like and what connections it may or may not draw from previous developments.”

But whatever shape the new plan takes, it will be only as effective as the diligence with which it is enforced. City Council in August voted down an ordinance that would have put the Champagne Club at 2711 Nuttman Ave. out of business, but I first wrote about its existence in 2013. Has it really been skirting zoning laws for six years?

“The Champagne Club has referred to itself as a lifestyle/social club. If it was a swingers club, it was previously unclear whether the First Amendment protected the activity (there),” Perlich said. “We believe it’s now clear that the Champagne Club is not protected by the First Amendment . . . No zoning permits have been issued . . . The Champagne Club has been asked to provide documentation to prove that it is either a permitted use in I-2 district or a nonconforming use, and this information will be evaluated when it’s received.”

Due process is crucial, but so is the sure, speedy and impartial enforcement of the law. If these and other cases are sending a message to the contrary, now is the time to provide some clarity — and teeth.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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