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Sat, Dec. 14

Council denies Jerome theater appeal

Staff photo by Philip Wright

The Liberty Theatre in Jerome is going through a protracted course of appeals to the town's parking ordinance in order to open the recently renovated theater. The upstairs of the Liberty Building is now a 118-seat movie theater.

Still, it is the town's parking ordinance that is preventing the theater from officially opening.

A parking ordinance passed in 1977 requires new businesses, except those that might be "grandfathered," to provide parking spaces before being approved. To be grandfathered, a business must be reopening for its original use. It also must have been in business in 1977 when the ordinance was passed.

The Liberty Theatre was in business, in its current location, during the era of silent movies. Because the theater wasn't in operation in 1977, it's new owners, Robert and Debra Altherr, cannot officially open their renovated theater unless, by ordinance, they provide an estimated 20 parking spaces. There aren't 20 extra parking spaces in Jerome.

But there are many empty parking spaces in the evenings when the theater would be open.

Doesn't matter.

It also doesn't matter that the town wants the theater, including all members of the Jerome Town Council.

The Planning and Zoning Commission, zoning administrator and Town Council say the business would be good for Jerome, but their hands are tied by the ordinance; government hog-tied with its own restraints.

The Altherrs asked the Planning and Zoning Commission on June 22 to grandfather the reopening of the Liberty Theatre. The commission denied the request because the ordinance allows them no wiggle room.

So the Altherrs appealed to the Town Council during a special meeting Wednesday night.

"I think this is a unique situation," said Jane Moore, mayor of Jerome. "It may be the only building [in town] to be restored to its original use."

Moore said she considered the Altheer's efforts admirable. "It has a lot of support in town," she said.

Several town residents who addressed the council supported that comment. The P&Z chairman essentially told the council that if they could have granted a special-use permit the members would have.

Council member John Scarcella said Jerome is a historical town. "We have two very good causes coming together [the zoning ordinance and the restoration of a building]," he said.

Scarcella said he was on the P&Z Commission for three years and dealt with parking issues 20 to 25 times. He said the commission foresaw that this issue would come up.

"Let's do something," Scarcella said. "Let's find a way to let this building be open."

The Altherrs were told that the council does not have the authority to overrule decisions by P&Z. Their next step is to appeal to Rick Schwab, zoning administrator.

Schwab, however, told The Verde Independent that he does not have the authority to grant the Altherr's appeal. But they must come through his department before being granted an appeal to the town's Board of Adjustment.

Although there is no guarantee that the board has the authority to override the P&Z Commission's ruling on the ordinance, it is what Robert Altherr said he intended to do.

Members of the council said they intend to find a way to amend the parking ordinance so the Liberty Theatre can officially open. A workshop has been scheduled for next week to discuss "shared parking" concepts, and the council said an amendment to the ordinance could possibly be put through in about one month, once the proper wording is agreed to.

But Altherr did not find much solace in that commitment.

"There is no way they would ever do anything that fast," Altherr said following the meeting. He said it would likely take several months, if not a year.

"We need to come up with a solution that is beneficial to everybody in town," Moore said. "It is not an unsolvable problem."

She said the council would need to research the problem and solutions. "We need to look carefully at all the aspects and ramifications of this."

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