CHAGRIN FALLS — Business owner Chris Swanson says he wants village residents to decide if barber shops belong in office buildings and has mounted a petition drive to put the question on the ballot this November.
“I have an attorney who drew up the petition and two people are circulating them now,” he said this week.
Mr. Swanson, a Bainbridge resident, also has a petition in his Mug and Brush barbershop in the Chagrin Falls Shopping Plaza and said he hopes registered village voters will stop in and add their names.
“We need something like 130 signatures, and we’re sure we’ll have them before the filing deadline [Aug. 19].”
He added that he is not using the ballot box to stop a new barbershop from coming into the village, but said it is too early to make sweeping zoning changes to what is a temporary post-pandemic situation.
Mr. Swanson’s action is the latest round in the debate which began earlier this year when the Board of Zoning Appeals granted a variance allowing Larry Shibley to lease space in his Bell Street office building to a barbershop.
The village code does not permit retail service businesses such as barbershops to exist in office buildings. The initial philosophy of the zoning rule was that to maintain a vigorous downtown, retail businesses should be discouraged from migrating away from Main Street.
Mr. Shibley argued during hearings that times have changed, and the coronavirus pandemic took its toll on office space. Vacancies had mushroomed, and landlords were feeling the pinch not only in Chagrin Falls but nationwide.
At the time, he told the Zoning Appeals Board that he feared the situation would not resolve itself when the health emergency passed because office employees, forced to work from home, liked the economy and ease of their home offices and were in no rush to return to their cubicles.
The appeals board granted the variance based on information that a retail service business had operated in the space and was therefore a grandfathered use.
That proved not to be the case and the variance was challenged when three Village Council members – Janice Evans, James Newell and Andrew Rockey – used their petitioning power to bring the issue to council for a re-hearing and final decision.
Council overturned that variance. But that was still not the end of the barbers-in-office buildings debate.
The village Planning and Zoning Commission was to review office zoning and, if members saw fit, recommend a zoning change which would provide relief to office building landlords.
On June 28, council voted on those recommendations in an amendment to office zoning which allows 30 percent of gross space in all office building to be used for retail service businesses.
Mr. Shibley said Monday that his office space vacancies are 60 percent and headed north toward 70 percent.
“Times change, the manufacturer’s reps are gone so what are we supposed to do with these buildings?” he asked.
While he has no intention to campaign against a ballot measure opposing the new zoning, Mr. Shibley said he would like voters to take the time to understand what retail service means.
“These are not big clothing stores with a lot of inventory or high foot traffic in and out,” he said.
For example, he has had requests to lease office space from “one-person, by-appointment office-style operations” which could include medical message therapists or weight loss consultants.
“And whose to stay customers coming to town for these services won’t stick around and go shopping or to a restaurant,” Mr. Shibley said.
“Our zoning code is outdated. Every other city allows these kinds of businesses,” he concluded.
But Mr. Swanson disagrees. “The village used to be very conservative about zoning but now that is no longer the case.”
He added that the drive to get the zoning issue before voters is not in reaction to competition from another barbershop.
The Mug and Brush has been a fixture in Chagrin Falls for 60 years, Mr. Swanson pointed out. He has worked there for 20 years and bought the shop 10 years ago.
His barbershop does well because of its longevity, loyal customers and a location in the plaza that provides parking for his customers.
“We are lucky, our business is coming back and I’ve put back some of it away,” he added, referring to savings he was forced to use during the pandemic and the impact of COVID-19 health guidelines which required that he cut his business from a five-chair to two-chair barbershop.
Mr. Swanson also took to the Village Block Club Facebook recently to plead his case.
“An ongoing problem is that many citizens and business owners are simply unaware of what is happening in the Village,” he stated in a post citing the dwindling post-pandemic workforce and the problem businesses have in finding employees.
His conclusion, he noted, is that the village should “focus on the problems retail businesses are having before making big changes to the code.”
He hopes village voters agree.
“If they want to help the existing small businesses catch their breath and see a return of Main Street first [and] believe we should focus on our existing problems and support our existing shops as they struggle to return.”
Former Chagrin Falls Councilman Karl Maersch also chimed in, in response to Mr. Swanson’s post.
“To me, this is actually a good example of one of the weaknesses in village government and that is getting the word out to residents on important pieces of legislation.
“The zoning code is complicated and boring and it takes work to try to convey what is going on, but stuff like this can have a major effect on this town.”