WORTHINGTON — The Worthington Planning Commission faced a number of complex requests at its meeting Tuesday night.
Merck & Co. asked the commission — which also acts as the Board of Variance — for a variance to allow a 53.2-square-foot generator in the front yard space of its facility at 275 S. Lake St.
As the building sits on a corner, city code requires one side to be considered "front yard." The Lake Street side has only 12 1/2 feet between the building and the street, so it cannot be considered a front yard. Therefore, the West Gateway Drive side of the property is legally considered the front yard. City code dictates that a front yard have 50 feet of open space from the ground upward.
Merck requested the variance in order to install a generator near the electric connection of the building, which is on the "front yard" side of the building. This is the most cost-effective way to add a generator.
"If you don't put the generator near where the electrical is, it adds a lot of cost," explained commissioner Amy Ernst.
Other than economic efficiency, Merck did not provide evidence that it would be a significant hardship to put the generator in a side yard, which is required by the state when granting variances. This fact was central to the commission's debate about whether or not to grant the variance.
Assistant City Administrator Jason Brisson noted that the locations of many generators and utility boxes in Worthington technically fall out of compliance with city code, and the city has not penalized property owners. He suggested that rather than granting Merck's request, the commission work on a proposed change to city code that would allow utility boxes of a certain size in commercial and industrial zones.
"I hate setting a precedent that the planning commission will approve a variance without meeting the hardship test," he said.
The downside to that solution, he explained, is that a change in city code would take time. It requires three favorable readings by the city council. By the time the city could change the code, Merck would miss its window to install the generator before winter — meaning it would likely have to incur additional cost to place the generator farther away from the electrical connection.
While sympathetic to the need to cut costs, commissioner Ben Weber noted that city code also says that economic reasons are not sufficient to grant a variance.
"That's not something I'm comfortable with," he said.
Weber favored taking Brisson's suggested approach. However, when put to a vote, the commission voted 3-2 in favor of granting the variance. Those in favor felt that it was common sense to allow the generator given the circumstances.
The request prompted a discussion among commission members about creating a provision within city code for needs such as utility boxes and ADA compliant-ramps, rather than requiring residents to come before the planning commission to appeal. Staff agreed to begin work on possible language to that effect.