A developer’s proposal to convert the old Arkhaven Nursing Home complex on North Walnut Street into an apartment complex was shot down by Iola Planning Commission members.
Commission members voted 5-2 Tuesday to recommend the city reject Meo Development Co. LLP’s request to have the property rezoned from single-family to multi-family use. The property must be rezoned in order to build apartments there.
The matter now goes to the Iola City Council, which has the final say. City Administrator Matt Rehder said the decision is set for the Council’s Feb. 14 meeting.
The Planning Commission’s role in the matter is advisory.
TUESDAY’S vote came with minimal comment from Planning Commission members, but plenty of comment from neighbors opposed to seeing an apartment complex built at 1336 N. Walnut St.
At issue is the request from Meo Development owner Rocky Meo, who spelled out his vision for the complex, which consists of two large wings and an adjoining building that housed several apartments for senior citizens.
Meo said he hoped to essentially take the building down to its exterior walls, and refit them with new electric, plumbing and HVAC systems, and convert it into 51 one- or two-bedroom apartment units.
The complex also would include laundry facilities, a community room for tenant use and off-site parking.
Meo said a property manager would live on site, and assured the Planning Commission all of his work would be up to city codes.
He also noted the complex would be rented at market rate, and would not be subsidized for low-income tenants.
Meo said he planned for long-term ownership. “We won’t build it and vacate,” he said. “We won’t cut corners.”
Meo provided the Commission with drawings of his proposal.
After the meeting, Meo said the apartments would rent for $450 a month for single-bedroom units, and $650 for the two-bedroom units.
The development would be an estimated $5 to $6 million investment.
THE SUBSEQUENT hour of discussion came mostly from residents who lived nearby, all of whom spoke out in opposition.
Becky Nilges noted that while Iola needs housing, it needs single-family homes much more than another apartment complex.
Her main sticking point was that Meo purchased the property knowing it’s zoned for single-family usage.
“‘That’s something I can’t get over,” she said;. “They knew the situation to begin with.
“Our fear is a lack of upkeep,” Nilges continued. “What happens down the line when the next person doesn’t keep it up? How long is it gonna sit there the way it is right now?”
The building has been vacant since the owners of Iola Nursing Center closed its doors in 2015.
Nilges asked the Commission members “not to judge” those opposed to Meo’s plans.
“We’ve been very frustrated,” Nilges said. “Through the years, we feel like we’ve been ignored. We’ve been referred to as elitist. It’s been suggested to us to buy the property ourselves.
“Our only concern as a neighborhood is to keep it in good condition and to keep it safe,” Nilges said. “We’re gonna have to live with it every day. The day-to-day issues that take place here, will be in our backyard.”
Leon Brack said his concern was that having a nearby apartment will hurt his property’s valuation.
“Who’s gonna make a profit?” he asked. “Who’s gonna benefit? It’s not gonna be any of us that live there.”
Mike Ford pointed to the building’s current appraised value — roughly $15,000 — and said the city should have it demolished because the price to fix it is more than 50% of its value.
Nancy Ford, meanwhile, noted those who live near the nursing home are unique.
“We know each other,” she said. “There are lots of children. They’re outside, playing kickball, riding bikes. If you put in 51 apartments, that will bring 60, 80, 90 cars. What happens to that neighborhood?
“I don’t want to live in a neighborhood where people are coming and going and I don’t know who they are,” she continued. “I want to keep the neighborhood safe for my grandkids.”
Scott Fehr asked the Commission to consider the state of other apartment complexes in Iola.
“Do you want apartments right across the street from your house?” Fehr asked.
A number of opponents, including Bob Droessler and Reine Meyer, spoke to the influx of cars in a neighborhood with only one outlet road.
Bob Walden said the apartment would attract low-income families, and that if the property is rezoned for multi-family, it will remain zoned that way forever, even if the apartments are sold years down the road.
“We need housing,” Walden said. “But I don’t think that’s the place to achieve it.”
Jim Lewis, who built the facility and ran the nursing home in its first years of existence, said the city will need to “have a lot of supervision” if apartments were built.
“There are rules and regulations the city needs to have, so people know what’s going on,” Lewis said.
THE HEARING had a single Iolan speak out in favor of Meo’s plan: Mary Kay Heard, who said she felt compelled to speak through her affiliation with Iola Industries.
Heard hammered at Iola’s need for affordable housing.
“Our goal is to keep the companies we have,” Heard said. “And they can’t get workers. There’s no place for them to live. Every single one of them is looking for help.
“It’s a real problem with our industries,” she continued. “We want to keep Gates and Russell Stover, but we’ve got to keep their shifts running. If they can’t, it’s a problem.”
While Heard appreciated the neighbors’ desire to see homes built instead of apartments, she noted others have had the option to do so.
“Nobody’s building,” Heard said. “They can’t afford it. This gentleman is ready to invest in Iola. It’s really important not to overlook that aspect of it. We need places to live.”
Heard noted Iola Industries built the Eastgate Lofts apartment complex on the old Allen County Hospital site in 2016.
Those apartments have been filled to capacity since then.
ONCE the visitors had their say, the Planning Commission members had their turn.
Only Teresa Longbotham spoke up, saying she was not ready to make a decision.
“I understand the traffic concerns,” Longbotham said. “Are there options for access? We need to do our homework.”
Her proposal to table any recommendation was shot down by City Administrator Rehder, who said the Commission’s only role is to advise the City Council on the matter.
“In my entire career, I’ve never heard of a planning commission table an item,” Rehder said.
“It’s not an option to table it,” Planning Commission chairman Tony Godfrey agreed. “Our job is solely to advise, not make a decision.”
WITH THAT, Planning Commission members voted on the matter. Longbotham, Ben Middleton, Larry Crawford, Bill Hobbs and Eddie Johnson were opposed to approving the rezoning request. Godfrey and Cathy Greenwood endorsed the plan.