Vaska Parking

A movie screen shares space with a colorful mural of movie characters on the west wall of the Vaska Theater. The theater has been offering limited outside movies in its parking lot, and City of Lawton officials are being asked to ease city zoning codes to make that popular entertainment easier to conduct.

Members of the City Planning Commission said amending uses allowed in a specific zoning district is a better way to deal with potential conflict between commercial entities and adjacent residences.

Three local businessmen say they just want to be able to conduct business as they have in the past.

Commissioners were reacting to a request from property owner Jeff Sadler to put C-5 General Commercial District on a tract located between 1902 and 1930 NW Ferris. That tract, located on the south side of Northwest Ferris, now holds a C-1 Local Commercial District zoning, the most restrictive commercial zoning and the one city planners say is the most suitable when commercial property abuts residential areas.

The problem is that zoning also prevents two uses that had taken place in the past in that Northwest Ferris commercial complex: a body piercing facility and an outdoor movie theater. The piercing facility had operated previously, but closed; the small outdoor movie theater has been operated for several years by the operator of the Vaska Theater, who projects movies onto the west side of his building to a limited number of patrons who listen to the movie by tuning into a radio station.

Sadler said neither has caused problems. But, neither is a permitted use in C-1, said city planners, who also said C-5 zoning would allow both uses. The problem: CPC members say C-5 zoning is too intense for the nearby residential housing additions and also represents a “spot zoning” that could ultimately open that entire area of Northwest Ferris to the city’s least restrictive commercial zoning. Now, C-5 zoning along Northwest Ferris is restricted to a tract at North Sheridan Road and another at Northwest 2nd Street.

The original planning staff proposal to Sadler’s request had been a restricted C-5, meaning the most intense uses (bus terminal, carnival, circus, premises serving mixed beverages or beer, dance halls and printing shop/plant) were deleted, and opaque screening would have been required between the commercial tract and adjacent residences to the south.

But, the proposed revisions drew concerns from Sadler, his two tenants, and some commissioners.

Commissioner David Denham’s proposal would prevent the Vaska from selling alcohol beverages, something movie theaters are permitted to do under state law and something other theaters in Lawton do. Sadler, saying his initial goal is simply to allow a former tenant to reopen his piercing business, said he objected to being required to erect new screening when most residents to the south already have privacy fences.

Justin Hackney, who operates the Vaska Theater, said he objected to the requirement that would place his outdoor movies in the C-5 zoning category, explaining what he does isn’t the same as a dedicated outdoor movie theater. Hackney and the Vaska have been showing movies outdoors for several years; in recent months, Hackney has had to obtain a temporary permit to allow that activity and changes to the city won’t affect that permit, Rogalski said.

Commissioners said the better solution for the problems would be adding uses to C-1: specifically, piercing businesses and the type of outdoor movie showing that Hackney is using.

“I don’t think it (the zoning) should go from C-1 to C-5,” said commissioner Deborah Jones, a former city planner.

The CPC’s ultimate decision was to deny the change to C-5, but also direct city staff to craft an amendment to C-1 zoning that would allow both uses. The drive-in theater would be strictly defined as an outdoor showing of entertainment that is not the business’s primary source of income. Hackney said city code needed to be modernized to reflect changes in what used to be drive-in movie theaters and what is offered today.

“You have outdated notions of drive-in,” he said, explaining his showings don’t have cast sound through speakers; rather, the movie is transmitted on a radio station that vehicles can tune into, and without sound and without light, “there is no effect on anyone around us.”

Hackney said the Vaska has been showing movies on its outside west wall for four years, without problems until recently.

“It has not been an issue for anyone in the neighborhood,” he said, adding some nearby residents set up chairs in their own yards to watch his movies.

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