City defines sorority and fraternity house futures

Joel Tianello

New fraternity and sorority houses will once again be permitted only in university zones of Kent.

Last week the Kent City Planning Commission voted three-to-one to close a “loophole” created last April when a fraternity was established outside a university zone.

Alpha Tau Omega petitioned to establish 227 E. Main St. as a dry fraternity house at the April 18, 2006, meeting of the Kent City Planning Commission.

The house was in a commercial-residential zone that does not allow for fraternity or sorority houses, said to Gary Locke, Kent plans administrator.

“The zoning code specifically states where fraternity and sorority houses can be established,” “which is only in university zoning,” Locke said.

Fraternity houses that exist outside university zones were established before 1985, when the current codes were written, Locke said.

Alpha Tau Omega’s attorney, John Flynn, argued in April that the fraternity had the right to move into a commercial-residential zone because of a provision in the code that allowed for “clubs, lodges and charitable, fraternal or social organizations to be a conditionally permitted use.”

This provision, which appear in six of the 12 city zoning codes, were intended for groups such as Boy Scout troops, Locke said.

The Planning Commission, chaired by former Alpha Tau Omega member Mathew VanNote, approved the rooming house at the April 18 meeting.

“There were already five or six frat houses on that block,” said Adam Hendrix, vice president of the Alpha Tau Omega chapter, “So it was no big deal.”

“There was no outcry from neighbors, in this case,” said Locke, who was present at the April 18 decision. “My concern was parking, which the Planning Commission chose to ignore.”

What did concern Locke, and many city residents, was the precedent set by the commission’s decision.

“It created a loophole that we felt needed to be clarified,” Locke said.

Kent City Councilwoman Beth Oswitch spoke at last week’s Planning Commission meeting on behalf of members of Ward 6, which includes University Drive.

“I’ve had some complaints about frat houses,” Oswitch said, citing a family on University Drive.

“It was more about straightening out what we had on the books for the future,” Oswitch said. “People in single-family neighborhoods wanted to be protected. Still, I feel bad making it harder on the students.”

One Ward 6 resident who didn’t feel he and his family needed protection was Tim Harrod.

Harrod, a Kent State physical education instructor, has lived on University Drive for 26 years – first as a student, then as faculty.

In fact, Tim and his wife have raised a family in their current University Drive house since 1988.

In that time, he said he’s never had a problem with the fraternity or sorority houses.

“My motto is ‘Try to be a good neighbor,'” Harrod said. “Most people respond in kind. Frat houses are really no different.”

Harrod said he thinks there is a misconception about living near fraternity.

“Living in a neighborhood like this is no different than living close to railroad tracks or the airport,” Harrod said. “I’ve never had to call the cops on anyone.”

Still, Harrod admited there are downsides to living in a college neighborhood.

“My only concern is with how the outside of some of these houses look, because it reflects on the neighborhood,” Harrod said. “But even with that, frat houses are more accountable than some of these rooming houses.”

“What would be best for everyone,” “would be if there was one section of the city for fraternity and sorority houses, like at other universities,” Oswitch said.

In the meantime, Alpha Tau Omega is gearing up for fall, when 12 to 13 members will be living in the East Main Street house, Hendrix said.

“We plan to have the letters up before then,” Hendrix said.

Other fraternity and sorority houses may not have as easy a time after the Planning Commission’s recommendation is passed.

“Change in the zoning code is a legislative action,” Locke said. “The Commission’s recommendation still has to go to the city council for final approval.”

Both Locke and Oswitch expect the changes to be passed by city council.

Contact general assignment reporter Joel Tianello at [email protected].