February 21, 2013

Planning commission says it won’t rezone abortion clinic site

An anti-abortion group’s effort to have the city of Wichita rezone a former abortion clinic to prevent it form reopening suffered a setback Thursday.

An anti-abortion group’s effort to have the city of Wichita rezone a former abortion clinic to prevent it from reopening suffered a setback Thursday.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Commission voted 6-4 Thursday afternoon against initiating the rezoning of physician George Tiller’s former clinic at 5107 E. Kellogg Drive.

The rezoning had been sought by Kansans for Life, which presented nearly 14,000 signatures in support of the rezoning to the Wichita City Council. The request for the city to initiate the rezoning is believed to be the first of its kind in Wichita, officials have said.

The vote came after presentations from Kansans for Life and from Trust Women, which plans to reopen the clinic under the name South Wind Women’s Center. That group plans to offer health care services to women, including abortions up to 14 weeks. A clinic official has said it will not perform late-term abortions.

David Gittrich, the development director for Kansans for Life, said he was disappointed but not surprised at the vote.

He criticized the decision by city planning officials to proceed with the hearing Thursday afternoon, held after a foot of snow paralyzed the city and closed some city events.

"No question that hurt us significantly," Gittrich said. "There would have been a huge crowd show up if it had been a nice day. Most people thought the city was closed, and it looked to those of us who were there like it was."

The presentations came after 10 MAPC members deadlocked over whether to hear Gittrich’s request. The commission, with three members absent, finally voted 9-1 to hear the request to break the deadlock, said John Schlegel, the city’s planning director.

The deadlock was an early signal the rezoning request would fail, Gittrich said.

"At that point, you knew five people had already made up their minds," he said.

Julie Burkhart, founder of Trust Women, said she was “relieved that they did not vote to take up the public hearing process.”

“We did not request a rezoning of the property,” Burkhart said. “To our knowledge, that property had been used for medical purposes since the 1950s, and (the city’s) staff report said it goes back to 1937."

She said Wichita real estate company J.P. Weigand had marketed the building as a medical office, and she noted the clinic was zoned to allow a medical office when Trust Women bought it in August.

Kansans for Life sought to rezone it as residential, office warehouse or industrial park.

Burkhart said she was thankful that planning commissioners “were able to see that their job" is to ensure buildings are zoned appropriately and to not make decisions based on personal politics.

On Feb. 5, Gittrich presented 13,937 signatures to the City Council and promised hundreds more before the planning commission meeting. He told the council that the clinic isn’t suitable for a residential neighborhood and has been the source of heavy police traffic in the past, arguments he renewed before the planning commission on Thursday.

Gittrich didn’t commit to Kansans for Life’s next move. He did not rule out asking the Wichita City Council to initiate the rezoning itself, or asking neighbors around the clinic to seek the rezoning.

It is the first time that any group has asked for a city-initiated rezoning in Wichita for a specific piece of property, Schlegel said earlier this month. The city and the planning commission have initiated broader rezonings, such as for neighborhoods, but never for an individual property, he said.

Thursday’s vote is the end of deliberations on the request by MAPC, Schlegel said, unless the City Council decides to initiate the rezoning itself.

In that case, planning staff would become involved again and a public hearing would be held, Schlegel said.

City Council members remain noncommittal about the petition and unsure whether any city action would stand up against a court challenge from Trust Women. There are also concerns about the private-property rights questions any city intervention would raise.

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