Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

Local News

March 18, 2014

Austin Mansion approved as event venue

EFFINGHAM — After much debate over the past several weeks, Effingham City Council allowed Tuesday the Austin Mansion to be used as an events venue. The decision, however, was not unanimous.

Effingham City Commissioner Alan Harris let out a deep sigh. The veteran council  member said he had gone back and forth several times on his vote, which would allow Billi Lou Jansen, owner of Walnut Street Weddings, to use the Austin Mansion as a bed and breakfast and, more importantly, an  events venue.

“I have made a decision. Tomorrow morning I might make another decision,” said Harris during the council meeting Tuesday. “Let's just bring it up for a vote and get it over with.”

“Some people are going to be disappointed, and some people are not going to be disappointed,” he added.

At a previous meeting, Harris and Mayor Merv Gillenwater had voted against a change to the municipal code that was ultimately approved by a simple 3-5 majority, which allowed Jansen to request a special-use permit. Last week Effingham Plan Commission recommended the permit to the city council. 

A super majority of four of the five votes was needed for the permit to be approved Tuesday. All four commissioners voted in favor of the special-use permit, with Gillenwater dissenting.

“I appreciate both the plan commission and the city council and their willingness to give us a try,” said Jansen after the meeting. “I know that countless hours and efforts have gone into this. I appreciate everyone's support.”

Gillenwater said his decision was based on residents who voiced opposition to the proposal that would bring large events to the property.

“I have read both Plan Commission summaries very thoroughly,” said Gillenwater. “There have been a lot of issues come up concerning this amendment and permit. My concern is for the residents who live in the area.”    

Although stipulations of the approval include a six-month trial period, Gillenwater voted against the permit because of the responsibility it would impose on neighbors of the mansion who can testify in October about the effectiveness of the regulations. The City Council must reapprove the special-use permit in October for it to remain in effect.

“They (residents) would be forced to collect evidence to reference parking, noise, whatever the issue was,” he added before the vote.

Harris said he voted in favor of the permit only after Jansen made several concessions to her original request.

“If this was not a temporary deal, I wouldn't vote for it,” said Harris, noting that if there are issues running the event venue in the next six months he would vote to repeal the permit.

After hearing from City Engineer Jeremy Heuerman at a previous Plan Commission meeting that parking and noise in the neighborhood could pose a problem, Jansen changed the guidelines of her petition. She scaled back the hours of operation from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m. for small events, along with limiting the number of large events to once a week. This was in an effort to contain noise from music and event attendees, along with bringing the mansion up to the city's Life Safety Code. The agreement also stipulates that Jansen will obtain a signed parking agreement for excess vehicles, while also receiving a variance for the use of shuttles.

The special-use permit will terminate on Oct. 15, 2014, which will allow the summer wedding season to serve as a trial run for the business. Jansen said she has already had interest in holding wedding receptions and other events at the mansion.

Tony Huffman can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 138, at tony.huffman@effinghamdailynews.com or on Twitter @Ednthuffman.

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