Commissioners call for zoning overhaul

Both developers and city officials call for a streamlined process.
Sunday, May 4, 2008 | 7:22 p.m. CDT; updated 1:31 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

A call for change is echoing among the stakeholders in Columbia’s development process.

The City Council has shifted toward “smart growth,” a philosophy that emphasizes growing where infrastructure is in place and creating mixed-use development.

The development community has called for increased consistency in council decisions and is frustrated with lengthy public hearings.

The Planning and Zoning Commission and staff in the city’s Planning and Development Department are caught in the middle of a process that many say is bogged down. They, too, call for change. Commission members see a need to examine city zoning ordinances, streamline the proposal process and refine communication between neighborhood associations and developers.

Several commissioners cite contentious planned development proposals as a complication in the proposal process. Planned commercial, or C-P, zoning allows more flexibility in developers’ plans but also gives the City Council the authority to debate and demand changes in the details.

“The purpose of planned zoning is to enable a bit more creativity or innovation in terms of layouts of groupings, or with the location of parking, things like that,” said Glenn Rice, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Chuck Bondra, a senior planner for the city, said that these days it is rare that commercial property is zoned anything other than C-P because of that designation’s popularity among government officials.

“It’s not particularly popular with the developers, but the Planning and Zoning Commission and the council like it because it gives the city a little more control over the development,” Bondra said. “It’s negotiable, and in some cases that’s difficult for developers because they don’t know what to expect.”

But commissioner David Brodsky said he sometimes is frustrated by the minutiae inherent in planned zoning discussions.

“I would personally rather see us talk about issues that come up with planned developments like lights, signs, impervious surface,” Brodsky said. “Instead of dealing with things on a case-by-case basis, we should be making ordinances that govern everything.”

Brodsky cited the council’s vote in December to approve a lighting ordinance that limits the size of fixtures and amount of lighting as a step in the right direction.

Some commissioners say the city’s zoning ordinances need a complete overhaul, not just additional provisions.

The zoning code, a complex chapter of the city’s policies that totals 180 pages, has not been examined for decades. Bondra said the code was last overhauled in 1983, but some segments have since been revised.

But after 25 years, the code has become outdated and no longer addresses the community’s needs, commissioners say.

Rice said the outdated ordinances create tension between the development community and neighborhood associations.

“(Developers) are used to doing it a certain way because the zoning law says they can, and they’re taken aback when they come to a hearing and they find out people don’t want them to do that,” Rice said. “What’s happening is a reaction. It’s demonstrating that the law is insufficient.”

Commission Chairman Jeff Barrow said the ordinances should be brought up to date to reflect the type of growth the community wants.

“We not only want to accommodate the types of developments we want, we want to encourage them,” Barrow said. “We want developments to basically work in a way to enact a community vision of green space, accommodating recreation, appreciating wildlife and not polluting our streams.”

Changing the zoning ordinances is only one step toward a smoother process, commissioners said. They point to recommendations made in the Process and Procedures Stakeholders Committee Report of 2006 as ways to streamline how proposals move through city staff and the commission.

The report was submitted to the City Council as a response to a unanimous council request that the Planning and Zoning Commission review the communication process.

More than a year’s worth of work by a committee of stakeholders from the development community and neighborhood associations produced a document that outlines ways to promote good communication between developers and neighborhoods, streamline public hearings and differentiate the procedures for simple versus complex cases.

The City Council reviewed the recommendations in an April 23 work session and discussed three of the five problem areas highlighted in the report: increasing public capacity to participate; facilitating mediation between stakeholders; and eliminating duplicate public hearings. The council decided to review the other recommendations later.

Commissioner Ann Peters said she would like to come up with a way for some proposals to be “fast-tracked” through the system. The report calls for separate guidelines that would allow simple cases to move more quickly through the system than complex ones.

Rice said the commission has been differentiating on a trial basis between simple and complex cases for public hearings. Public hearings on complex issues allow more time to talk, he said, but the differentiation remains shaky.

Commissioners also are dissatisfied with the notification of neighborhood associations and communication between these associations and developers.

“There are some developers that work closely with neighbors and bring them into the process early on, and there’s others that sort of give it lip service,” Rice said. “We ask in hearings (if they’ve communicated with neighbors), and if they say no, I’m inclined to view their project with a little less favor because they aren’t involving the people that are going to be affected by it. They’re in it for business, but they don’t have to live there.”

Peters said it seems there’s a difference between developers from out of town and those from Columbia when it comes to how much neighborhoods are involved in plans.

“In my neighborhood, there’s an out-of-state developer who has gone the distance. He’s met (with neighbors) five times to go over plans and changed parts of his plans to fit in with the neighborhood,” Peters said. “He’s tried to make it a positive win-win for everybody. With some local developers, they seem to send out the required notification, and they have one meeting and that’s it.”

The Process and Procedures report also calls for the council to review zoning ordinances and subdivision regulations and to make a vision-based comprehensive plan.

Brodsky said he thinks those steps are more necessary than some of the other recommendations the report puts forth.

“A lot of their suggestions were putting mandates on these planned developments and ignoring the fact that we don’t have good comprehensive zoning ordinances,” Brodsky said. “The issues they highlighted would be greatly mitigated if we did things like fixing the ordinances and planning.”

Barrow echoed the call for a comprehensive plan, saying Columbia’s recent completion of the visioning process should serve as a guide for this plan, which would in turn guide zoning ordinances and subdivision regulations.

In all, commissioners said they want to see Columbia grow and to see proposals move more easily through the process. Peters said changes would ensure Columbia grows in a healthy way.

“Columbia reminds me a lot of like a gold-rush town, where people can’t build fast enough, but I don’t feel they are building correctly,” she said.

Missourian reporter Sarah Palmer contributed to this report.

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Jon Galloway May 4, 2008 | 8:13 p.m.

Here is how Philadelphia is handling it:

And, form-based codes information:

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