Wilbur Heights residents stuck in industrial “hodge-podge”

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Stan James, former Champaign County Housing Development Administrator is angered over Wilbur Heights. A long-time advocate for the neighborhood, James and his former colleagues continue to fight for the residents of this zoning disaster. 

“We’re done with you, you’re on your own,” is what the city of Champaign seems to say to the residents of Wilbur Heights, says James. 

When James served as the Administrator, a man named Clarence Thomas Lemke, a resident of Wilbur Heights since his youth, contacted him about the new zoning ordinance and asked James for help. Lemke has since passed away.

The neighborhood was zoned “light industrial.” This ordinance prohibited any resident from making any substantial repairs to their home. This was over 45 years ago. Today, despite news articles and the efforts of James and his former colleagues, Wilbur Heights remains a “hodge-podge” of residential and commercial properties.

James is not optimistic about Wilbur Heights. “You can wish it until you are blue in the face, but it never will be what it should,” says James of the fate of the zoning ordinance. “The best course of action would be to zone the Wilbur Heights light industrial, buy out all the residents for a decent price, and level out the place.”

The Champaign County Assessor’s office shows that property values in Wilbur Heights are actually increasing, despite all the problems that come with living in the neighborhood. 

Paula Bates, who is the Champaign County supervisor of assessments says that when homes in Wilbur Heights are assessed annually, they are assessed with groups of other homes that are collectively known as Somers Township. 

According to Bates, homes are assessed based on property sales and every asset the property possesses like bathrooms, fireplaces, decks, and patios. Bates said that the percentage increase factor applied to the homes is applied to all the homes in Somers Township and based off of all the homes, together, in Somers Township. 

Could it be that the value assigned to homes in the Wilbur Heights neighborhood is skewed by the property sales of the rest of the homes in Somers Township? 

A former colleague of James, Susan McGraph, the now Senior Assistant State’s Attorney, has tried to help Wilbur Heights residents. McGraph says it’s sad, because nothing substantial has really changed, except that the residents are getting older.

Champaign and Urbana are both “home rule” municipalities. This means that the city can decide things for itself without a putting it to a vote or going through legislators. Champaign and Urbana are the only home rule municipalities in the state of Illinois. Wilbur Heights technically does not fall into the city limits of Champaign or Urbana. Which leaves Wilbur Heights in a little bit of a legal limbo.

McGraph refers to Wilbur Heights as a “hodge-podge” of commercial and residential properties. This “hodge-podge” leaves the residents uneasy. Residents dislike that Wilbur Avenue is left with potholes and gravel, and they dislike the heavy truck traffic – all problems that come with living in an industrially zoned neighborhood.

“My heart goes out to all the residents of Wilbur Heights,” says James. According to James, It’s saddening for him and his friends that live in Wilbur Heights to watch this ordinance turn the neighborhood around them into what James describes as a crime-filled lot of abandoned homes.

James believes that if any changes were to be made to improve Wilbur Heights, it would still be 15 to 20 years before the neighborhood looked substantially better. James, now retired, believes that there are many people still working for the county that care about Wilbur Heights – like John Hall.

John Hall, who works at the Champaign Zoning Department, provided something for Wilbur Heights residents in 2011. 

In 2011, the zoning ordinance was amended so that homeowners were able to rebuild their entire homes if the home was to acquire any significant damage. But the neighborhood is still ultimately zoned industrial, full of commercial businesses. 

John Hall says that residents of Wilbur Heights love living in Wilbur Heights and the emotional value that Wilbur Heights has outweighs the issues that come with living in an industrially zoned area for many residents. He says there is a sentimental attachment between residents and their homes, despite the undesirable surroundings like the heavy machinery and large trucks.

Hall said he wishes he could alleviate the problems in the neighborhood, like the heavy truck traffic but said the only viable alternative he sees is a buyout of the residential property. 

“But I’m not sure that is the solution to the problem, most residents of Wilbur Heights love living there,” Hall said. “And then there is the issue of finding them a fair market price.”

McGraph offers yet another issue with the buyout. “My guess is that no one would want to take that leap of faith in today’s economy,” says McGraph referring to the prospect of a commercial company buying out the residential properties. 

McGraph points out that the zoning ordinance isn’t the only problem with Wilbur Heights. The fact that Wilbur Heights is not a part of the City of Champaign leaves street cleanups and other advantages of city living up to the residents. 

McGraph explained that one creative way to go around this zoning ordinance stuck in “legal limbo” was to create a homeowner’s association that would implement its own bylaws. 

This would hold homeowners accountable in keeping their homes looking a certain way. However, the issue of the “hodge-podge” of commercial and residential areas may never be resolved. 

All it takes is a visit to the Champaign County GIS Consortium website to view side by side aerial views of Wilbur Heights from the years 1973, 1988, 2002, and 2017. The industrialization is clear, yet many homes remain. 

James, McGraph and Hall are still looking for solutions for Wilbur Heights Residents, but it seems as though Wilbur Heights is inching closer and closer to being forgotten.

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