March 04, 2010
|More Question Mass Rezoning|
Normally when you see a presentation by city government officials at a community meeting, the city officials are very authoritative and appear to have all the facts and figures at their fingertips.
Monday, March 1, at a homeowners' association meeting near the airport in northwest Greensboro, the tables were turned. The association members had the facts and figures and Greensboro Planning Director Dick Hails spent much of the evening with that deer-in-the-headlights look.
A continuation of the discussion on the proposed Land Development Ordinance (LDO) was on the agenda for the Tuesday, March 2 City Council meeting, but that was cancelled because of snow. A continuation of the public hearing on the proposed ordinance is on the agenda for the March 16 meeting.
The March 1 community meeting was called because, in looking at the proposed new LDO, the officers of the homeowners' association discovered that their townhome development would become nonconforming – what most people refer to as grandfathered – under the proposed ordinance.
The problem is that the proposed LDO, for some reason that was never explained, limits the number of townhomes in one building to four. This townhome community had six and seven attached units in one structure. Hails said that the Planning Department was going to recommend that existing townhome communities with more than four attached units be allowed in that zoning district, but that new townhome communities would have to conform to the new ordinance limiting the number that can be attached to four.
The residents attending the meeting didn't seem to have any problem with their own townhome community, which has six and seven attached units, so it was unclear why Hails determined that allowing a community to be built like this one in the future would be detrimental.
The meeting attracted five city councilmembers, which presented some problems, since five councilmembers getting together is considered an official meeting. City Attorney Terry Wood, who was at the meeting, said that in his opinion as long as the councilmembers didn't sit together and didn't speak that it would not qualify as a meeting. The councilmembers who were present were Robbie Perkins, Mary Rakestraw, Danny Thompson, Nancy Vaughan and Trudy Wade. Rakestraw left the meeting early, and at that point, because a quorum was no longer present, Perkins made some comments, but previous to that the only comment made was about why none of them could speak.
Also there on behalf of the city was Assistant City Manager Andy Scott and Virginia Spillman, with the Water Resources Department. Spillman was there to talk about storm water runoff.
At the meeting, Hails left a number of unanswered questions. He repeatedly said he didn't think that the proposed ordinance, which rezones every single piece of property in the City of Greensboro, made any property in the city nonconforming that wasn't already nonconforming. It is an intriguing statement coming from a guy standing in a community that would be made nonconforming by the proposed ordinance. Hails said he was not aware that this and other townhome communities would be made nonconforming if the LDO passed until they notified him. But it raises the question, if the Planning Department missed several long established townhome communities, what else have they missed?
The Planning Department also missed the fact that the city cannot rezone the Ballinger farm on Ballinger Road, right next door to this townhome community. A few years ago, the Ballingers sued the city and won, getting a court order that reportedly states the city cannot rezone the farm to something other than agricultural zoning.
Hails talks quite a bit about how the new LDO has taken five years to develop, and there is constant talk about the tremendous amount of time and effort that has gone into this project. The proposed LDO eliminates agricultural zoning in the city and would rezone all of that land Residential Single Family R-3, which is the equivalent of the current Residential Single Family RS-12. Doesn't it seem like before you eliminate a zoning district some research to find out if the city can legally eliminate a zoning district would be in order? It seems like five years should be enough time to discover that legally the city is prohibited from eliminating the agricultural zoning district.
Hails said the Planning Department is going to recommend that the agricultural zoning district be added to the proposed LDO, since the city is under court order to do so.
But if this had passed on schedule, which means it would have already passed, the city would be facing yet another lawsuit instead of just being able to make an amendment to a proposed ordinance.
Hails said he didn't know how much agricultural zoning there was in the city or how many farms there were. If the LDO is now going to include agricultural zoning, doesn't the city need to know how much land is currently zoned agricultural?
Hails was repeatedly asked about the setbacks and if the change from measuring the setback from the middle of the street to the property line was going to make property nonconforming. Hails said to the best of his knowledge it would not.
He was also asked about the proposed LDO prohibiting garages closer to the street than houses and he said that wasn't the case and that properties with garages closer to the street than the house would not be made nonconforming by this proposed ordinance.
The support for the LDO seems to be coming from the city staff and the people on the committee that have been working on it for years, but the people coming to meetings keep finding problems with it – like this townhome community that discovered their homes would be nonconforming. Residents at the meeting said they had been told that if their homes were nonconforming they would have to notify the financial institutions that held the mortgages, as well as their insurance companies. They were also told that their property values could go down just because of the zoning.
The city staff tends to talk about nonconforming uses as if it should be no problem for the property owner, but the same city staff can make it a huge headache and can make it prohibitively expensive to use a nonconforming structure.
Although the city spent five years working on this proposed LDO, it doesn't appear that things like townhome communities and agricultural zoning were taken into consideration. And although the city has spent years on this proposed ordinance most citizens, including some city councilmembers, didn't realize it was in the works until recently. Most citizens found out when they received a letter from the city about the LDO, which was largely incomprehensible. But now regular people are looking at the LDO to find out how it affects them.
Hails once again said that the main differences were some parking regulations and landscaping. He also made this same statement when the proposed LDO would allow twin homes, what most people call duplexes, to be built in single family zoning. Hails said that the Planning Department is now recommending that be taken out of the proposed LDO, which muddies the water even more. There is the proposed LDO and then the revisions to the proposed LDO, and probably revisions to the revisions are next.
Despite listening to numerous presentations on the ordinance, city councilmembers said they learned about the twin homes from a resident at the public hearing who spoke about how twin homes would lower his property values. In all the presentations to the council, the fact that twin homes would be allowed in single family zoning districts was not mentioned. Hails said the Planning Department didn't see it as a big change and he hadn't included it in his presentation.
One of the complaints heard about the proposed LDO is that it gives far more power to the planning director. Some of the changes in the new LDO are promoted as "flexibility," but in many cases the sole person making the decision on how flexible to be on parking or buffers or the like is the planning director. Does the City Council want one person in city government to have that kind of power? It is a question for the City Council to answer.