Kent may disband its Architectural Review Board, a source of controversy for some

Kent is poised to disband the city’s Architectural Review Board, in past years a source of consternation to some local entrepreneurs. Formal debate on the matter will begin during council’s regular meeting at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21.

The ARB is tasked with providing “certificates of appropriateness” for all new structures, exterior facade renovations and alterations, as well as signage in the downtown/West River Overlay district — roughly Kent’s downtown area and one parcel west of the Main Street bridge.

The city’s zoning code now requires that an ARB exists, but it can no longer issue certificates of appropriateness based on design guidelines that are no longer part of that code. That’s because council in 2023 approved updated design guidelines for the overlay district, and those guidelines were voluntary, not required.

On Feb. 7, Community Development Director Bridget Susel requested that council either have the city’s ARB revert to an advisory role that could issue comments and suggestions based on the city’s recently updated design guidelines, or to entirely disband it. Council discussed and voted on the proposal in committee and will officially take up the issue this evening.

Should council designate the ARB as an advisory board, current requirements for applicants to obtain a certificate of appropriateness for their projects would have to be repealed and the Community Development Department would merely note the ARB’s comments.

Should council vote to disband the ARB, Susel said the Community Development Department could simply review all submissions for zoning and building permits located in the city’s Overlay District.

Without that authorization, Kent’s building department and planning commission would be unable to approve permits for exterior work or exterior signs because no certificate of appropriateness would exist, Susel said.

Even now, the process is at a standstill, she said, noting that two applicants’ signage applications, both submitted in December, are on hold. Since such an extended waiting period is untenable, she requested that council grant her department authority to proceed with the two pending applications.

Assistant Law Director Eric Fink posited a third option: designating the downtown area as a historic district.

Susel said the idea has been floated before, and had met with considerable pushback from downtown property owners. Should council now designate downtown as a historic district, the city would need to hire a consultant to write specific guidelines for that district, she said.

She also noted that there would be a difference between the overlay district and any historical district the city may create.

Council members’ Feb. 7 debate resulted in a split decision. Leaning toward retaining the ARB but having its recommendations be advisory were Jack Amrhein, Chris Hook and Mike DeLeone.

Favoring disbandment was council member Heidi Shaffer Bish, who suggested that the ARB would not be necessary if Kent’s zoning code could be tweaked to specify exactly what exterior work and signage would be acceptable in the city’s overlay district.

Initially in opposition, though he ultimately voted to disband the board, was council member Roger Sidoti, who favored having the board revert to an advisory role for a few years, and engaging its members in tweaking and streamlining Kent’s code.

As long as Kent has design guidelines, which it has in some form since 2011, council could name the planning commission as the official arbiter, and if developers were unhappy, they could resubmit their projects or file in Portage County Common Pleas Court, Susel said.

Council members discussed having the planning commission fill that role, but newly seated council member Hook worried that it might not have input from urban planners, architects and designers. To that, veteran member Sidoti said the city could require two members of the Planning Commission to be licensed architects.

Citing the appearance of the former Huntington Bank building at Main and Water streets, council member Armheim agreed with Sidoti, saying he’d feel better if architects and historians were involved in the process.

Whatever council ultimately decides, Susel said appropriate legislation would be drafted. To expedite the two signage applications, though, she said she will ask council to grant variances for the two projects when its members meet this evening.

The issue has its roots in 2021, when would-be entrepreneur Valerie Landis petitioned the ARB for permission to install an internally-lit sign at her West College Avenue business Garage 108. When the ARB refused, Landis took her plea to City Council, saying the board’s decisions were inconsistent at best.

After all, another business in the area had such a sign, she reasoned.

For the first time ever, council overturned an ARB decision, only to be faced with a second request from local businessman Mike Beder. He’d asked the ARB to approve signage for his South Water Street business, Kent Sportswear. The ARB objected to the sign’s blue and gold color palette, which mirrors Kent State’s colors.

Council cut a deal: Beder could keep his sign, and the city would hire CT Consultants to overhaul the ARB’s design guidelines. CT Consultants submitted its report in 2023, asserting that legally, the ARB could not require applicants to adhere to voluntary design guidelines.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.