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City Council, February 14

New zoning ordinance for historic districts passed
Another resolution in support of I-526 completion
Marc Knapp

Council approved the ordinance reshaping the zoning of the Historic District at the first reading last night. The reshaping has been in the works for some time and its form was presented to the public last week. There was strong applause from the public and preservation groups though many thought the ordinance needed more though modest work. From the reaction last night, City Council shared the opinion of the public and preservation groups.

It would be an impossible challenge to simply describe all the proposed changes to the zoning districts. And from the questions asked by Council members last night, some uncertainty persisted even though most members had viewed presentations by the consultants who guided the changes. As well as proposing some major changes – such as defining districts by the maximum number of floors rather than by height measured in feet- the new ordinance will provide more latitude for builders, the City and Board of Architectural Review for shaping and reviewing building projects. But it is still the intent that the ordinance and the BAR should help to maintain the historical integrity of the area to which the new zoning applies.

One Council member described the ordinance as a mix of “shall do” and “should do” clauses. There was another category and we can’t read our writing but I was something like “negotiable”. The consultant made a lot out of this. Allowing some flexibility and trade off could lead to a better final product, and better than the outcome from the more rigid system now in place.

It was stated many times, and also by the Mayor, that the new ordinance was very important for the future of the City and it had to be right. It was not going to be rushed. There would be public hearings and reviews. It would also go before the Planning Commission before it came back to Council for the second reading. And the Mayor indicated that, unlike many ordinances, the third reading would not be concurrent with the second.

Council member White, although supporting the ordinance, wondered about its vagueness. Was the City opening itself to litigation? This was partly addressed later by staff who told Council that before a project went before the BAR or City in a formal application, there would be a review - a pre application process – to help the applicant and to indicate potential issues.

Council member Moody was also concerned about the legal consequences of the first reading. Effectively, the new ordinance would replace the old after the reading even though the final shape of the ordinance may take some months to craft. Was this fair to those embarking on projects under way? Staff said that the new ordinance would not affect those projects the City had already approved. Yes, those without approval presently would be subject to the new ordinance but from the tone of comments, developers should have little to fear.

To view the proposed new Zoning and districts, go the City web site and view the City Council agenda for February 14.

The new zoning will affect nearly all properties in the historic districts. The consultant did not think the proposed changes would be an issue for most property owners and indeed thought the changes would be welcomed. Notwithstanding, the City should expect to deal with some issues, even after the third reading of the ordinance. The next month or so, after the ordinance is more thoroughly scrutinized by land owners and developers, we should know how large these issues might be.

The new ordinance was given its first reading with only one Council member opposed - Council member Gregorie.
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About a year ago, the City passed a resolution in support of the completion of I- 526. Subsequently, the State infrastructure Bank (SIB) turned off the oxygen keeping the project alive when it withdrew its financing promise. The valve may be turned on again if recent moves by the County are successful in convincing the SIB that the County can meet that part of the cost of the project not covered by the SIB’s $420 million grant.

In recent weeks the County approved a resolution that it would fund $150 million though did not indicate the source of these funds. It also sought and received support from CHATS that it would also contribute funds from those it received from Federal sources. The cost of completing the project was estimated at about $760 million a year or so ago and now, an estimate is likely to be higher.

The City action is only a resolution and represents intent rather than commitment. But the language in the resolution suggests the City would pony up funds if necessary. No doubt the resolution will help the County’s cause, but by how much, we don’t know.

Not all Council members were happy with the resolution with Council members Gregorie, Lewis and Seekings voting against. Council member Gregorie wanted the last paragraph which hinted at commitment, omitted and Council member Lewis wanted to know from where these funds would come. Neither Council member got satisfaction. Council member Seekings did not speak to the issue but we suspect he simply opposes the completion of I-526.

To see the resolution, press Download file

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