Panel rejects bid to rezone Tiller clinic property

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — While much of Wichita was huddled indoors as a major winter storm blew through, the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission voted Thursday to reject an effort to rezone the property upon which Dr. George Tiller's former clinic sits.

Kansans for Life had sought the rezoning to prevent the abortion clinic from reopening and had presented nearly 14,000 signatures in support of the move to the Wichita City Council, the Wichita Eagle reported (http://bit.ly/15z8r8e ).

The request for the city to initiate the rezoning is believed to be the first of its kind in the city, officials have said.

The commission's 6-4 vote came after presentations from Kansans for Life and from the nonprofit Trust Women Foundation Inc., which purchased the building in late August and plans to reopen the clinic under the name South Wind Women's Center.

The group has said it will provide abortions to women up to their 14th week of pregnancy, as well as other health care services. A clinic official has said it will not perform late-term abortions.

David Gittrich, development director for Kansans for life, criticized the decision by city planning officials to conduct the hearing Thursday afternoon, when much of the city was paralyzed by a winter storm that dropped up to a foot of snow.

"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."

Initially, 10 commission members deadlocked over whether to hear Gittrich's request before voting 9-1 to do so, said John Schlegel, the city's planning director.

Gittrich said the deadlock was an early sign that the rezoning request would fail.

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

Trust Women founder Julie Burkhart 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. 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."

Wichita real estate company J.P. Weigand had marketed the building as a medical office and noted that the property was zoned to allow a medical office when her organization bought it, Burkhart said.

Kansans for Life wanted it rezoned as residential, office warehouse or industrial park, but Burkhart said she was thankful commissioners chose not to make decisions based on personal politics.

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

Tiller was one of the nation's few remaining late-term abortion providers when he was murdered at his church by an anti-abortion extremist. Before Tiller's clinic closed in 2009, it was the site of regular protests by abortion rights opponents, including large demonstrations in 1991 and 2001.

Gittrich didn't rule out asking the City Council to initiate the rezoning itself or asking neighbors around the clinic to seek the change.

Schlegel said the vote Thursday is the end of deliberations on the request by the planning commission unless the City Council decides to initiate the rezoning itself. If that happens, planning staff would get involved again and a public hearing would be held, he said.

City Council members remain noncommittal about the petition and aren't sure any city action would stand up against a court challenge from Trust Women.

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