Allowing alley houses, or not

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Don’t you just love it? A man buys the neighboring deteriorating alley house with the intent of demolishing it. Good that will help the look of the neighborhood. Then he applies for a permit to build a nice garage to replace the neighborhood eye sore. “No you can’t do that — not permitted in your area which is designated ‘Residential Medium Density.’”

I’m referring to an article by City Editor Bruce Baker in the McCook Gazette on March 22, 2017. In the article City Manager Nate Schneider indicated that he was willing to work the problem but was afraid that making an exception in this case would be creating precedence that would lead to future problems. For sure we wouldn’t want good sense to rule. After all, that is why we make ordinances so that people can’t use good sense in managing their own property. Councilwoman Janet Hepp, of good sense, then commented “So it’s an ordinance thing then isn’t it.” Right on!

Your old columnist for health reasons, too many birthdays, has developed a habit of walking for exercise. I like the alleys because they tend to be paved and better shape than many of our sidewalks, some in terrible condition, a problem that the city administration chooses to ignore. Many dogs object and loudly greet my presence but they are just doing their job of protecting their property. Now let me state that in general people keep their properties in good shape evidencing pride in ownership. McCook is a well-kept city. A nice place to live.

In my walks I note many of the alley houses referred to by Bruce Baker. There are also a few of the sheds remaining that were used for coal storage and outhouses before installation of the city sewer system but those weren’t mentioned in the council discussion.

The alley houses mainly date back to the early 1940s. They were mostly converted from garages. It was a good-will gesture by residents at the time to provide housing for married GI’s going through training at the McCook Army Airbase. Young married men came here for three to six months training in B-17s, B-24s and later B-29s. All were headed for combat overseas on finishing their crew training. It was understandable that they would want to have their wives with them for the precious days before leaving for an unknown and dangerous future. Many would never return. They knew that and the residents of McCook responded to the need even though there might have been a bit of profit in the endeavor. Evidently the restrictive ordinances of today weren’t in place at that time to curb such humanitarian impulses.

Even my own folks provided an apartment in the basement of our farm home for several of the newly married couples. Talk about sparse living quarters! Our house at the time had no indoor bathroom, the outhouse was down the hill a ways and bathing was done in a round tin tub. No air-conditioning and heat was by an old-fashioned wood burning cast iron kitchen range. The couples didn’t seem to mind. They were just grateful to have that precious time together. My folks made lifelong friends with several of those young people and even visited them in Indiana after the war when Jerry Toplift returned to his Maxine from duty in the European Theater.

So it was with the alley houses. Temporary shelter quickly put together and greatly appreciated. The war didn’t last long and the airbase closed. Still many of the alley houses continued to be used by singles living alone. After the war when the GI’s came back home there arose another housing crunch and the alley houses were used until young couples had families and needed larger places to live. Obviously many are still used today and many yet lovingly cared for. Not a problem.

“So it is an ordinance problem.” Sometime after the war the good city fathers of McCook changed the required lot size, increased the size required for building in residential areas. That produces problems when a house is burned or torn down one can’t replace that home because the lot size is no longer adequate. It takes two of the old lots for one to build a new home or even put a welcome garage on that now undersize lot. Little wonder that homes don’t get replaced and as Janet says “It is an ordinance problem!” No good sense involved.

It is this old guy’s opinion that zoning and accompanying ordinances are crutches for management. “Oh we can’t do that! The ordinance won’t allow.” Simple matter — change the ordinance and the City Council can do just that but it takes time and effort.

How are you betting that Mr. Roger Engler gets to build his garage? Thank you Roger for cleaning up an eyesore and helping to make our fair city a nicer place to live. Good on ya!

That is how I saw it.

Dick Trail

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