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Archive for May 30th, 2008|Daily archive page

Do City Hall rules let a sufficient number of neighbors know about proposals for big land-use changes?

In Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Pat Shey, Sarah Henderson on May 30, 2008 at 2:25 pm

City Council meetings can come with some drama when meetings turn to neighborhood disputes and away from thoughtful but less-than-scintillating discussions about vision and key financial strategies.

There was a double-barrel dose of theater this week as neighbors turned out to object to the proposed Tudor Rose condominium complex on the city’s west side and a proposed Walgreens drug store on land that is now trees on busy C Avenue NE next to Road Ranger convenience store at Blairs Ferry Road NE.

The drama comes as the nine members of the City Council explain which side they are coming down on.

A pack of 100 or more angry neighbors can translate into some votes at the next election, and it’s easy to remember that.

In both instances, though, the objecting neighbors lost out, 7-2, on the drug store site, and 6-2 on Tudor Rose proposed for what now is the Baumhoefener Nursery at Johnson Avenue and Wiley Boulevard NW.

Both matters pointed up how entangled the city’s – any city’s – development approval process is and how poorly it actually is followed.

This week’s votes were to approve a change in the city’s future land-use map.

On that map, the spot for the drug store was listed as low-density residential, though city staff said it should have been office/service except for a past error. In any event, this week’s vote changed it to commercial.

Also on the land-use map, the Baumhoefener Nursery site is listed as low-density residential. It now has changed to medium-density residential, which allows for a condominium project.

In the months ahead, both developers will now seek a change in zoning on the sites, and subsequent to that, they will submit site plans.

It’s been a rather recent development, pushed by the developers, to require the City Planning Commission and the City Council to approve land-use issues and zoning issues without seeing the details of what a developer wants to build. The idea has been that often developers didn’t have a specific project in mind, and so invented projects, just to secure approval for a change in land-use and zoning.

In truth, in most instances, the Planning Commission and Council want to know what is going on a piece of ground and use that to make their decisions. In fact, developers often want to tell them if it gains their position favor.

Such was the case in both the Walgreens and Tudor Rose matter this week.

In fact, council members Pat Shey and Chuck Wieneke both voted against the Tudor Rose project – not based on land use – but on the specifics of the Tudor Rose project. They liked the project, but were afraid it would never get built, and standard apartments would go on the site instead.

All that said, former council member Sarah Henderson, who lives in the Lost Quarry residential development near the proposed new Walgreens on C Avenue NE, may have made the best point of all this week.

Henderson spoke for the larger neighborhood at Wednesday evening’s council meeting, expressing dismay that it had not been consulted about the traffic that would come with the new store on an already congested street.

Henderson acknowledged that the developer had done a masterful job of working with the homeowners immediately adjacent to the drug store site. The developer is giving each of those homeowners a section of existing timber to serve as buffer between them and the store.

But Henderson, who was on the council last summer and met with the developer as the District 2 council member, wondered why the developer had not taken time with the wider neighborhood.

In fact, none of those in the wider neighborhood knew anything about a City Planning Commission meeting last month that first approved the land-use change for the proposed drug store. The commission fell in love with the developer and landowner, Midwest Property Group Ltd. And IBEW Local 1362 Building Corp., because of the deal worked out with adjacent property owners.

The reason that no objecting neighbors surfaced then – as Henderson has pointed out — is because of the quirky specifics of the city development approval process.

For land-use changes, the developer must notify via letter only adjacent property owners within 200 feet of the development.

At the next step, the zoning change, the developer is required to post little orange signs announcing the proposed zoning change and the upcoming Planning Commission meeting at which it will be discussed.

The signs, not that easy to see in themselves, announce to a wider area the news of possible coming changes.

But the announcement comes after an all-crucial step likely already has been taken – that the land-use map has changed.

Once the map changes a use for a site to commercial, for instance, zoning to a commercial classification almost naturally follows.

Without a wider notification about a CPC meeting or council meeting to decide a change in land use, only the most devoted of City Hall followers would be paying attention to every planning commission and council agenda to know that a land-use change is in the offing, Henderson says.

Both city staff and the developer note that notification has to stop somewhere. A developer can’t notify everybody everywhere.

Henderson says she came to know of the discussion about land-use at this week’s council meeting only because the zoning signs inadvertently went up too early before the land-use matter was decided by the council.