It’s been in the works for more than two years, but the re-write of Decatur’s zoning ordinance is almost done.
If all goes according to schedule, it will be on the books by the end of March.
Monday evening, the city council spent an hour reviewing the completed re-write, as the Planning and Zoning Commission had done the previous Tuesday.
Mayor Martin Woodruff kicked off the work session, calling the ordinance “the most complicated, complex and lengthy ordinance in our stack of ordinances here.
“We’ve got a 40-year-old ordinance that’s had several amendments over the years, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s very difficult to follow,” he said. “Coming up with a new one that incorporates modern language and addresses all the issues that have come up in zoning in Decatur over the last 40 years has been a real task.
“It’s been frustrating at times, but I appreciate the perseverance and diligence that Dedra [Ragland, planning director] has shown in leading this effort.”
Woodruff said the goal of Tuesday’s session was to make sure council members are “well-versed” on the new ordinance by the time it becomes law.
“My hope is, at the end of this process, all the council members will feel like you know the gist of this, you’ve got a good understanding of it and you feel confident in supporting this document, going forward,” he said.
The schedule calls for another council workshop Jan. 26, if needed, then allows the month of February for consulants and staff to make whatever edits are needed. There’s another public hearing before the P&Z board March 3, then preliminary and final readings before the city council March 9 and March 23.
After that, with final approval from the council, the new ordinance takes effect.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
The existing ordinance, which became law Jan. 1, 1976, places unneeded restrictions on lot sizes and limits opportunities for mixed-use development and multi-family properties.
The new ordinance aims to streamline the city’s regulations and cut down on the amount of time builders, developers, business and homeowners have to spend going to the city council to seek variances.
“It appears to me this new ordinance is going to provide property owners more options for the development and use of their property than we have had under the previous ordinance,” Woodruff said. “It’s going to make it easier to understand how to proceed and how to get done what they would like to do with their property.
“I think it’s going to be a win for our staff,” he added, “easier for them to try and enforce and deal with.”
City Manager Brett Shannon agreed.
“The other one is pretty rigid – these are allowed and these aren’t,” he said. “There’s a lot more flexibility in this one.”
Ragland said city officials wanted a rewrite to facilitate increased density, offer more mixed-use options and allow for a greater diversity in lot sizes, as well as updating the terminology in the ordinance.
The new ordinance calls for a public hearing to determine zoning when a property is annexed, instead of automatically bringing property in as single-family, then requiring a lengthy process to change it if the desired use is different.
It also expands the vested rights of property owners and provides clear and detailed procedures to determine what those rights are.
Procedures for zoning, rezoning, seeking exceptions and variances, and other administrative procedures are clarified and outlined, and the city’s zoning districts are updated to:
- allow smaller lot sizes including area, width and depth,
- allow single-family and duplex uses in the C-1 restricted business district,
- limit the height of buildings to three stories in C-1A around the Decatur Square,
- allow for multi-family and townhomes in C-2, the thoroughfare business district,
- split M-1 Industrial into L-1, light industrial and H-1, heavy industrial,
- allow planned developments of 15 acres or more instead of 30 acres or more,
- attach Specific Use Permits to the use of the property, not the owner, and
- do away with the infill and redevelopment overlay.
FLEXIBILITY THE KEY
Tuesday, the council listened to Ragland’s review of the highlights of the ordinance and generally approved.
Ragland said one way the new ordinance is more flexible is that it is “cumulative” – as zoning moves up from single-family to multi-family, commercial and industrial, in general the uses allowed in those more-restrictive zones are also allowed in the less restrictive.
For instance, while only single-family homes are permitted SF-1, single-family home zones, single-family homes may also be built in multi-family and commercial zones. Industrial uses aren’t permitted in residential or commercial zones, but commercial use is permitted in industrial zones, etc.
They’re even changing the colors on the city’s land use and zoning maps to conform more with what is standard across most cities.
“We’re not really adding any regulations, per se,” Ragland said. “I think we’re just clarifying those we currently have, so that it’s better understood – so that when people are reading it, they can ask intelligent questions.”
In addition to updating terms, the new ordinance puts the city’s laws back in compliance with state laws.
“In those 40 years, there’s been 20 legislative sessions for the state to enact different laws, amendments to laws regarding zoning and setbacks and all the things this ordinance encompasses,” Shannon said. “This is a way to get it back in sync with what they’ve been doing in the legislative branch.”
Shannon also pointed out that style and what is acceptable have changed a great deal since the mid-’70s. He cited lot size as a primary example.
“In the early ’70s, people chasing the American dream wanted a big lot with a big yard and lots of grass,” he said. “Nowadays, people want a 5,000-foot lot with a 4,000-foot house so they don’t have much to mow.
“In 40 years, there have been building and development ideas that have become mainstream that hadn’t even been thought of in 1975.”
Ragland said at the request of the Planning and Zoning board members, she sent out letters to 114 area developers and home builders. To date, only one has responded.