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Planning Commission, December 13, 2006

Planning and Zoning Ordinances under review
Preliminary thoughts by new head of City department
Warwick Jones

A few months ago, the City hired Josh Martin to head its planning and preservation efforts. His role was recently expanded to encompass economic development. Mr. Martin clearly has an important role in shaping the City's course, in both a figurative and literal sense. Last night, he addressed the Planning Commission (PC), posing many questions as to what the City was doing and should be doing. He had only a few answers. We liked both his questions and answers.

Mr. Martin is enthusiastic, clearly very bright, and exuding energy. He is also young enough to be idealistic. We suspect that he is very much his own man and will call things as he sees them. If this observation proves true with time, then hurrah from us! As readers of this blog are aware, we feel that too often some members in the City administration view the opinion of the Mayor as more important than their own. We suspect that we will not agree with all of Mr. Martin's conclusions when they are finally formed, but we hope and believe, that they will be thoughtful, based on bona fide research and a thorough sounding of the views of the community.

Complimentary of staff
And one other thing before we speak of his address, Mr. Martin was very complimentary of the Staff with whom he worked. He spoke of their capability, enthusiasm, cooperation, and team spirit. Such praise is obligatory usually for a new head within an organization. But last night, we felt that Mr. Martin really meant it. He has formed an informal committee with staff members, to assist him in the task of reviewing the Ordinances

Suggests change for subdivision approval process
The only recommendation that Mr. Martin made last night related to the sub division approval process for the PC. There may have been more recommendations but the Chairman called an end to the discussion to begin the regular PC session. Mr. Martin drew attention to the inordinate amount of time that was spent by the PC on subdivisions. All subdivision matters came before it , small and large. His suggestion seemed very logical. Let staff handle all issues relating to the creation of less than 5 lots. For the bigger sub divisions, he suggested a larger role for staff and the involvement of the PC only at the Conceptual stage. The staff would be responsible for meeting with a developer and helping it at the pre-application stage. The concept, presumably with more details than presently submitted, would then be passed to the PC. With acceptance by the PC, the staff would then take over the administration of the application to the Final Plat stage.

Opportunity for public comments?
Nobody on the PC seemed to object to this but time was needed to consider it. The Chairman asked members of the audience to make comments. Most questions related to the opportunity under the proposed system for the public to air their views, particularly in relation to the small subdivisions. They may be small in one sense, but they can be very important to a community, speakers said. Also, the public has an opportunity to speak at the PC meeting where the Concept is discussed, but what about beyond? Mr. Martin said he had no wish to suppress the views of the public. He noted that often the wishes of the public expressed at meetings were beyond the ability of the PC to grant. It was bound by ordinances which is some cases, probably should be amended but beyond the PC to do so. The implication was that the City had to look at the whole picture. The complete overhaul that he planned for Planning and Zoning hopefully would help eliminate some issues.

Mr. Martin noted that his recommendations were more in the nature of suggestions. But he wanted the PC to think about what he proposed and make other suggestions.

Some of his other comments and questions
The suggestions relating to the PC were probably the shortest part of his presentation. The major part was devoted to questions that he was asking arising from observations and discussions. We would add that we have 9 pages of notes. So what follows is certainly not a complete précis of his address. But some of the points raised and questions he asked follow:

Ordinances need to be amended - staff, citizens, developers and members of Boards and Commission were all unhappy with the present ordinances.
Too many variances are granted. "Scary", he said. If there are so many variances, there may be something wrong with the ordinance. A study of variances over the last 5 years was underway to determine patterns and trends.
Ordinances were more a system of incentives and prohibitions. Developers were always looking for loopholes. Common sense needed to be applied.
Many approvals for zoning and variances were made without sensitivity to the context.
The system was very complex. It needed to be simplified and user friendly. Does the City need 44 zoning districts? Did it need overlays?
Why is the Planned Unit Development (PUD) preferred for development? Wouldn't it be better to develop better standards?
Are we over regulating ourselves? He contrasted some recent subdivisions with that at Byrnes Downs and other made in the earlier part of the 20th Century and which are superior to those of late.
Can trees and urban areas coexist? How far do you go in tree preservation?
There were issues of connectivity. It was all very well to have sidewalks but some subdivisions may meet setbacks and parking requirement but still have vehicles projecting onto the footpath and blocking pedestrians. (And the photograph showing a subdivision with parking in the short driveways, was a good illustration of how ugly suburbia can be if appropriate steps are not taken)
Should garbage truck size dictate design? Get smaller garbage trucks and the design the structure or community that is appropriate for the context.
What kind of architecture is appropriate for a specific site? Mr. Martin showed an extract from some publication that showed pictures of many building styles. Presumably he was asking whether the City should develop something similar to guide developers.
He wanted the City web site to be user friendly and be used by developers to see where they are in the approval process. But his comment about friendliness extended to the whole site. He said he found it complex, and for a Mac user, some text was garbled. As Mac users, we share his view. E mail addresses and texts, particularly relating to agendas are garbled.

We look forward to hearing more from Mr. Martin next year as he develops his thoughts about the City’s planning and zoning process, and regulations.

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