WORTHINGTON — During its meeting last week, the Worthington Planning Commission discussed "commercial creep" around Oxford Street, debating whether or not city staff should intervene.

The discussion was prompted by new commissioner Ben Weber, who observed a significant difference between the way the planning commission ruled on the change of zone request from Arnold Motor Supply last month versus the city council vote on it.

At the June 4 planning commission meeting, commissioners considered a change of zone request from Arnold Motor Supply, which wanted to turn the property just south of its 704 Oxford St. location into a parking lot. In order to do this, the property would have to be rezoned from R3, low-density preservation residential, to B3, general commercial.

Commissioners disagreed about the best course of action, some citing the comprehensive land use plan, which designates the parcel in question as low density residential, and others arguing that parking lot improvement would be good for the business and for the city. The commission ultimately voted 3-2 in favor of recommending the zone change to city council.

When the request came before city council for its first reading on June 10, it was met with much less discussion. Council members voted unanimously to approve the first reading.

Weber said he was surprised to hear city council members say they didn't think the business owner should have to go through the process of requesting a zone change in order to improve their business. Council members approached the vote like it was a given that the zone should be changed, he added.

This decision is in direct opposition to the comprehensive land use plan, Weber pointed out. The part of town in question is at the boundary between the Oxford West district and the Central Residential district, as designated by the comprehensive plan. The plan says that "care should be taken to maintain a strong edge between businesses and adjacent neighborhoods" and that "site edges must be defined to prevent the creep of commercial businesses into residential neighborhoods."

Weber said when citizens ask for a variance or other deviation from established plans, "you need a good reason to make a change." The Arnold Motors decision is not the first, but is just a recent example of city officials setting a precedent of deviating from the comprehensive plan in the Oxford Street area, he said.

Commissioners agreed that the real solution is to rewrite the comprehensive plan, which was last updated in 2004. State law requires cities to make land use decisions based on the comprehensive plan, noted Director of Community Development, Planning, Zoning and Building Services Jason Brisson.

Commissioners Amy Woitalewicz and Amy Ernst contended that "creep" seems necessary in that area of town in order for businesses to grow and develop.

However, Brisson reminded the commission that to change the comprehensive plan to encourage creep, the city would basically be telling the homeowners in the Central Residential district that their houses are marked for demolition.

The tension created by following the comprehensive plan and allowing reasonable improvements may be inevitable, Woitalewicz suggested.

Weber simply called for a greater sense of clarity about which side of the scale to prioritize.

"Commercial creep" is likely to be an ongoing discussion, commissioners agreed.