Opinions mixed over zoning update
- Published: March 28, 2013
While the phrase “zoning code” is not known to inspire enthusiasm, it lies at the heart of how land is used in the village, a topic that sparks strong opinions.
“As became very clear to me on my first five years on Council, land–use decisions bring out the passion in Yellow Springers!” Council member Lori Askeland wrote in a recent email. “And that passion is because people care deeply about this place.”
When people think of a zoning code, they may think of rules and regulations — how many feet a new home must be set back from the property line, for instance.
But those rules reflect a larger vision that does far more than just intrude into villagers’ lives.
“In its simplest terms, zoning regulates the use of land to support the community’s vision and plans….and by supporting the community vision and plans, the code shapes the community and reinforces its values,” said Paul LeBlanc, the planning consultant who is overseeing the revision of the Yellow Springs zoning code.
The Village Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the code revision on Thursday, March 21, at 7 p.m. in Council chambers. After that, Village Council will review the planners’ recommendations, and vote on the new code sometime in May. The update is the result of a year and a half long process.
As the process enters its final stage, it seems timely to ask, what, exactly, is a zoning code? What are the goals of this code update? And does the update seem to address those goals?
The code update and updated map may be reviewed at www.yso.com.
Code becomes dated
The concept of a zoning code is a fairly recent development in American history. Inspired by its development in German cities around 1870, cities in this country began implementing codes around 1910. The timing appears to coincide with the invention of busses and street cars, and later automobiles, that allowed more well-off Americans to move away from crowded homes near their inner-city work places and into more pristine suburban areas, according to William Fischel, economics professor at Dartmouth College in a 2001 paper, “An Economic History of Zoning.”
Developers of apartments and new industry, seeking larger profits than those available from building single family homes, soon followed homeowners to the suburbs. At this point, cities, which depended on property owners’ tax dollars, realized the need to keep people buying homes.
“So long as undesirable properties could encroach upon an area in which good residences and good income-bearing properties were already established, there would be no stability in trust in real estate as an investment,” according to the Fischel paper.
In a famous 1926 case, the Supreme Court upheld a zoning code in Euclid, Ohio, and after that the concept of regulating land use spread even more quickly. It’s not clear exactly when Yellow Springs first created its own code, but former longtime Council member Tony Bent believes the Village’s first code came about not long after World War II, when a fever for homeownership swept the country.
“At this time, home ownership was the biggest deal going, and the bigger the home, the better,” Bent said, stating that because GIs could borrow easily, they could now afford bigger homes. “Yellow Springs went right along with the national trend.”
Whatever the exact date, the new zoning code identified significant areas of town as Residence A, a residential district that requires larger lots than those already found in the patchwork quilt housing pattern in the historical town center, where large homes and small ones exist cheek to jowl. And the post-war trend toward living large coincided with developers’ desire to turn a profit, according to former Village zoning inspector Richard Zopf.
“Developers make more money building a big home than a small one,” he said in a recent interview. “No one was motivated by higher density.”
Decades passed, and needs changed in the village. After Village leaders in the 1970s launched efforts to create a greenbelt around village borders, the available area for residential and industrial growth declined. Over the years, villagers expressed more interest in preserving green space and less in expanding Yellow Springs borders. Consequently, leaders began looking toward higher density as a way to enhance village vitality.
But the zoning code remained stuck in a 1950s vision, along with inconsistencies created by several small updates but no large revision.
Hopes for the new code
Village leaders have in recent years repeatedly stated the need for a new code. A code update also emerged as a goal from the 2010 Village visioning effort, and was a priority in the 2011 Village Comprehensive Plan. The update was seen as necessary for the increased density that villagers saw as the best path toward continued housing and economic vitality.
“Greater density was a major stated avenue to increased sustainability. Specific goals were walkability, bikeability, preserving open space” and encouraging “quality housing for all income levels, paying particular attention to modest cost housing to ensure income diversity in our town…” said Council President Judith Hempfling in a recent email, referring to the Comprehensive Plan.
The plan also identifies environmental factors as driving these changes, Hempfling said, noting the need to conserve resources to adapt to new economic realities.
“It [the Comprehensive Plan] calls for a response to an increase in home-based businesses and also to the changing definition of family, increase in house sharing and other variations on household make-up, decrease in household size,” she wrote.
TRC and Council member Askeland also anticipated a code that would speak to the needs of a changing village.
“My hope is that we have a flexible plan that encourages creativity and the entreneurial spirit, while respecting the need for neighbors to live in peace and have some sense that they will have a say if there are changes that might be disruptive to their lives, and/or would be likely to significantly hurt property values,” Askeland wrote in an email.
As a business leader in Yellow Springs, co-owner of Millworks and former economic development director of Springfield, Hoover felt especially sensitive to how the old code affected new business development. Its contradictions and vague language proved difficult for many, she wrote, and she hoped for a business-friendly code with far more clarity.
And as executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, Karen Wintrow also seeks a business-friendly code, along with one that “that respects and maintains the fabric of our iconic downtown core as our central retail and activity hub,” she wrote in an email.
While consistency may not be a sexy goal, Askeland emphasized that a lack of it in the old code kept the Village vulnerable to lawsuits.
“It’s important to remember that as a government, which has the power to coerce people to do things and to pay us their taxes, contradictions and inconsistent legal language is a bad thing,” she wrote. “With such a Code in place, the Village risks becoming “arbitrary and capricious” in our application of the law — enforcing one part of the code on some people and another part on others. When governments behave in such a way people’s civil rights are at stake: people have a fundamental right to be treated equally before the law. This is not a trivial concern.”
According to TRC member Reed of the Planning Commission, “I hope that the new code is easy to understand and implement, while helping to make some of the desires expressed in the Visioning process (and articulated in the Comprehensive Plan) a reality. While the new code may not be to everyone’s satisfaction, it is the result of many hundreds of hours of work (much by volunteers) that includes compromises and consideration of how specific changes to the zoning code may impact the individual neighborhoods and the Village as a while, positively and negatively, in the future.”
In general, according to Village Council member Rick Walkey, “…the main difference we hope to accomplish is the expansion of possibilities, a broadening in scope of housing and occupational possibilities.”
In 2011, Village Council included in its budget $75,000 for the zoning code update, a process that involved hiring a consultant to oversee the process, along with empowering a citizens committee to work with the consultant on the code. This amount has been spent for consultant LeBlanc, according to Village Manager Laura Curliss this week. The Village has in 2013 spent $10,000 more and will probably spend an additional $10,000 before the process is finished, Curliss said, stating that the Village pays about $2,000, including travel time from his Grand Rapids home, whenever LeBlanc attends a Village meeting.
The Technical Review Committee, or TRC, was comprised of Council representative Askeland from Council, local architect Ted Donnell, Ohio State history professor Steve Conn, Matt Reed from Planning Commission, retired Home, Inc. director Marianne MacQueen and Ellen Hoover. However, Hoover later dropped out of the group due to her brother’s health problems.
Donnell and Conn declined to discuss the code update for this article, as did Planning Commission member Chris Till. Planner John Struewing could not be reached by telephone.
According to MacQueen, the TRC received about 30 responses to its Request for Qualifications, or RFQs, then narrowed the field. Council interviewed several finalists and chose LeBlanc, of LPL Planning of Grand Rapids, Mich., Washington, D.C. and Indianapolis.
LeBlanc began his process by interviewing Village manager Laura Curliss, local residents and business people, and holding a “number of small meetings with realtors, developers and business people.
“Like any project like this, you want to start out absorbing what the community’s desires are,” LeBlanc stated in a recent interview.
The TRC met with LeBlanc about six times over a six-month period, according to MacQueen. who said several issues emerged as challenges to the group. Personally, she found the learning curve steep, and didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask questions until near the end of the process.
The update, written by LeBlanc, was 150 pages long, and during the six meetings, the group only reviewed a portion of it, MacQueen said. And because LeBlanc started the code revision from scratch rather than with the original code, it was difficult to compare the new code with the original one.
Perhaps most significant, according to MacQueen, were the philosophical differences between TRC members.
“It became clear that most thought we needed more control and I thought we needed less,” she said. “It would have been good to have had some conversations at the beginning, about what do we want from the code, how do we deal with the differing opinions?”
To Askeland, the process wasn’t perfect but good enough.
“I think the TRC process was fine in general — not without problems and there could be a lot of ways to organize a process like this, but it worked overall,” she wrote in an email.
How things came out
Response to the new code has been mixed. Most involved in the code revision agree that the new code is, compared to the old one, more clear and user-friendly.
According to Hoover, “I do believe this code has been seriously reviewed and will be searchable and more easily interpreted by the citizens. I am not sure it meets the community’s wants and desires — because it has not been easy to determine what that is — but I am sure it is a legal, enforceable document.”
But greater clarity can backfire, according to MacQueen, who believes that because the new code is more easily enforced, it could ultimately end up being enforced more often, and therefore being more restrictive.
For instance, many with home businesses may be surprised to find that their business is illegal.
“People who have been doing things that in the old code either were ambiguous or not being enforced, it’s now clearer what’s not allowed,” MacQueen said. “Since the language is clearer and there is more language about what we can do and more talk about enforcement, I think the overall effect of the new code is to be more constraining.”
However, in general the TRC and Planning Commission have addressed their goals, Askeland believes.
“ …the TRC and Planning Commission have sought to accommodate current practices that our Village values (for example through much more generous allowances for accessory buildings and dwelling spaces, more live-work environment flexibility). We also did our best to anticipate the likely future needs of residents — for example, we allowed much smaller lot sizes, smaller “setbacks” are still likely to work more on allowing small homes.”
Specifically, the new code:
• Allows for more affordable housing in a variety of ways. According to Askeland, “regarding residential districts, the lot sizes in all have been reduced to allow for more affordability.” Minimum home sizes, which were not addressed in the original code, are now established in Residences B (500 square feet) and A (900 square feet) while there is no minimum in Residence C.
• The requirements for multiple-family dwellings have been simplified. Some residential setbacks have been decreased.
• The Planned Unit Development, or PUD section, which is used for more dense housing developments, has been rewritten to allow more creativity and flexibility, Askeland said.
• Short-term rentals, which were not provided for in the current code, have been allowed as conditional uses in residential districts in the new code.
The new code addresses business needs in several ways:
• Businesses are allowed to occupy larger spaces downtown.
• A new district, I-1, or Business Park, has been added to help “create a more cohesive business, research and employment zone,” Askeland wrote. The I-1 District is mainly at Millworks.
• The section on signage was significantly revised, allowing larger signs and greater flexibility with signs.
• Parking requirements downtown have been relaxed.
The code update on home businesses, seen as an economic driver in the Comprehensive Plan, has sparked discussion at recent meetings, with some citizens feeling that the update allows more flexibility and others believing it allows less. In general, the updated code, like the original code, limits the number of non-home resident employees to one, but also limits the percentage of space (20 percent) that the business may take up in the home, a limitation not in the original code.
Former Village Zoning Inspector Richard Zopf, the current inspector for Miami Township, is disappointed by the new document.
“I’ve become concerned that the rewrite is a mediocre job,” he wrote in an email. “There are internal contradictions — I don’t expect those from professionals. There are terms used that need clear definitions and some of these definitions are missing…”
Several people noted what they perceived as an excess of “boilerplate language” in the code that didn’t seem relevant to Yellow Springs.
According to Walkey, while the update remains problematic, it may be as good as possible.
“Though we remain stuck with code that is by its nature restrictive and convoluted, the current draft is proceeding as well as it can. It will probably always be unforgiving and difficult to negotiate. It will always be about checklists, rules and enforceability, rather than aspirational and visionary. But perhaps with enough tweaking of the language, it will allow us the latitude to live the lives we each imagine possible.”
According to Hempfling, just as important as the specifics of the code is how it will be enforced.
“In my view, the new zoning code needs to be flexible, and its implementation needs to be thoughtful and communicative,” she wrote in an email. “…A new code which is a phethora of rigid rules relying on top-down enforcement will not evolve the Village into the future we want. Nor will it help us achieve our goals for housing and economic development.”
Village Manager Curliss declined to comment on how the new code will be enforced, as, she said, those decisions have not been made. But in general, the process of applying for zoning permits and conditional use permits is an educational one, she said, with citizens learning about the code through the permitting process.
According to LeBlanc, the new code is a good balance of protecting property rights and permitting more flexible uses. From the perspective of his more than 40 years in the business, he sees the Yellow Springs update as more liberal than most, and one that reflects village values.
“I think the village will get a good code out of this,” he said.
But the process continues to evolve, he said, and he encouraged villagers to try out the new code for a while.
“Get it adopted, live with it for a year or so, keep track of the changes you want to consider,” he said. “After a year, go back and fine-tune it.”