The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Notifying you of development in the backyard: District 2’s Vernon, predecessor Henderson value getting signs up

In Brian Fagan, Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Justin Shields, Monica Vernon, Sarah Henderson on June 7, 2008 at 11:19 pm

These developers are a finicky bunch. If it’s not land use, then it’s zoning or site plans.

At its work session on Wednesday evening, the City Council seemed to agree that it would speed up the city’s development-approval process without much if any downside if the City Planning Commission made final decisions on controversial site plans rather than the City Council, which has that task now.

Council member Chuck Wieneke said he didn’t particularly like the notion of the council’s appointees on the planning commission making final decisions on the tough stuff. But council members Brian Fagan and Monica Vernon argued that neighbors or others objecting to a developer’s site plan would have the ability to appeal the planning commission’s decision to the City Council.

It’s hard to just talk about site plans once you start talking about the city’s development-approval process. And the council proved that during its discussion Wednesday evening.

At times, a developer can have an idea for a piece of property, which requires three approval steps: a change in the city’s future land-use map; a rezoning of the parcel; and then a site approval of the details of the actual building that the developer is going to put on the site.

For instance, on May 28, the council approved a land-use change to help clear the way so a developer can build a new Walgreens drug store on C Avenue NE just north of a Road Ranger convenience store, which sits at the corner of C Avenue NE and Blairs Ferry Road NE.

In the latest council discussion, council member Vernon – who spent a number of recent years on the City Planning Commission and was chairwoman of the commission for some of those years – noted that the commission and then the council always considered a developer’s request for a land-use change and a zoning change at the same time.

Now, in an apparent recent change, the commission and then the council first consider land use, and then, in a second round of meetings, they consider the zoning change.

There’s probably a great reason for the change.

But one thing that comes with the change is also a change in how the city notifies the public.

The city posts little orange signs on a piece of property announcing that it is being considered for a change of zoning.

However, the city only sends what it calls “courtesy” letters to adjacent property owners within 200 feet of a proposed development announcing a proposed land-use change.

As it worked previously, zoning and land-use decisions were made at the same meeting, so interested neighbors who don’t get letters might still see the little orange signs and know that City Hall is readying to act on a coming development.

Separating the two matters seems to open up the possibility that a developer can win a change on the land-use map before a wider group of neighbors ever knows about it via the orange zoning signs.

Such almost was the case in the proposed Walgreens development on C Avenue NE.

In late April, not a single objecting neighbor showed up at the City Planning Commission meeting in which the commission considered the land-use change from residential to commercial to clear the way for the proposed Walgreens drug store. To the contrary, the developer did a remarkable thing, giving each adjacent property owner (the ones who were entitled to get courtesy letters) a piece of property to buffer them from the coming drug store. The adjacent property owners loved it and the commission loved it. In fact, the commission meeting was something of a lovefest between the commission and the developer’s representative.

By the time the Walgreens matter got to the City Council on May 28, objecting nearby neighbors beyond the reach of the courtesy letters showed up at the council meeting. Among them was Sarah Henderson, who preceded Vernon as District 2’s council member. The only reason they knew to show up at the council meeting was that the developer inadvertently put up the little orange signs too early for the second, separate step in the development approval process, rezoning.

Henderson and other neighbors had questions about the Walgreens store so close to a residential neighborhood and about additional traffic problems on what is already a busy street.

But one of Henderson’s central points was this: Can’t the city require the developer to put the little orange sign up for land-use changes, too?

Council member Vernon last week asked city staff when it had made land-use and rezoning two different steps requiring two different travels through the city’s development approval process.

Vernon noted that once the land use is changed, the zoning typically follows.

The inference: Why limit who City Hall informs about a proposed development until the crucial land-use change already has been made?

City Manager Jim Prosser said “the most important decision” is the zoning, not the land-use change.

The development-approval process was in front of the council because of recommendations made at what City Hall calls a “LEAN event” in April. The event was designed to “lean” or streamline the city’s process.

Council member Justin Shields asked who participated in the event, and Prosser and Vern Zakostelecky, the city’s land development coordinator, noted that city staff and members of the development community had.

Shields wondered why “no one from the general public” had, and Prosser explained that city staff had the responsibility to “make sure we were expressing those process concerns.”

Council member Brian Fagan had commented that the changes in the city’s handling of site plans seemed to have “checks and balances” in place. And Shields, with some sarcasm, picked up on that, saying “we have all kind of checks and balances” when Prosser said that city staff was protecting the general public.

At one point, Fagan raised the point about appropriate public notification in the development-approval process. But he seemed satisfied with the way things are.

Only Vernon seemed to place any value on former council member Sarah Henderson’s recent suggestion that the city post the little orange sign when the crucial discussion about land use is on the City Hall plate.

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  1. What is so difficult about posting a little orange sign in your yard? If I understand her proposal correctly, at the time you mail the letter to the neighbors you go to the street side portion of your land and hammer a little orange sign in the yard.

    I have a suggestion, to save time you can do it while you’re mowing. Just stop for 10 seconds and do it. If the ground is soft enough you may not need a hammer.

    Sarah Henderson is not asking that that the location of our nuclear weapons be published. Evidently this onerous posting requirement will bring the development process to a screeching halt. It could delay the development process by years and cost millions of dollars. For those of you with no sense of humor I’m exaggerating of course.

    Wasn’t it convenient that the public was not invited when the City and the developers got together to change the rules. Odd that the rule changes appear to benefit the developers? I would not have predicted that outcome.

    I like to ride bicycles, thus I hope I’m notified when the City and the group known as “Motorists for the Death of Bicyclists” get together to discuss changes in the traffic laws.

    Monica Vernon and Sarah Henderson are correct.

  2. Residents of our community should have every opportunity to voice their opinions, pro or con, about any development that could signficantly alter the landscape of their neighborhood. That’s why it’s essential that the process include the Planning Commission AND the council, both for proposed changes in the land use map and the zoning of the property. The current system should not be amended in order to expedite any development whether or not it’s a controversial project.

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