Zoning ordinance rewrite enters final stage

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.

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Decatur City Council to act on P&Z requests

The Decatur City Council will take action on a zoning change request and four re-plats when they meet 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 201 E. Walnut. The zoning change request is from single-family to two-family at 550 Mill St., where the landowner plans to build a duplex. The replat requests are at 705 S. Cates, 402 N. Trinity, 550 Mill St. and on a 5.3-acre tract of land in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction on U.S. 81/287 South. The council is also expected to confirm on second reading the increases approved last month in the city’s residential and commercial garbage collection rates. The meeting is open to the public.

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Agenda Briefs for Saturday, October 4, 2014

BRIDGEPORT COUNCIL TO MEET – The Bridgeport City Council will discuss community center rental fees, Halloween road closures, radio-powered utilities measurements and natural gas and water line contracts at its meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. at 900 Thompson Street. The meeting is open to the public.

SCHOOL BOARD TRAINING SET – The Bridgeport school board will conduct its “Team of 8″ training and consider and take action on certified personnel at its meeting Monday night at 7 p.m. at 2107 15th Street.

CHICO COUNCIL MEETS TUESDAY – The Chico City Council will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 7, at City Hall. Agenda items include the Chicofest 5K route, Chicofest street closures, a lease/purchase of a backhoe, a purchase of a vehicle, a contract with the Wise County Appraisal District, various interlocal agreements with Wise County, a zoning change at 305 E. Kentucky and regular monthly reports.

P&Z COMMISSION TO MEET – Decatur’s Planning and Zoning Commission will meet 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 7, in the council chamber at City Hall. Replat applications from Brenda Scott, as well as feedback from the city council regarding variance requests to the city’s sidewalk, curb and gutter ordinances, and the handling of escrowed funds for those items, are among the items to be considered.

WEATHERFORD COLLEGE BOARD TO MEET – The trustees of Weatherford College, which operates a campus in Wise County, will meet 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, on the college’s main campus in Weatherford. Among the agenda items are reports on construction, enrollment and finances, contracts for printing, welding supplies, sonography and radiology equipment, policies and the annual evaluation of the college president, Dr. Kevin Eaton. The meeting is open to the public.

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Decatur P&Z, council schedule back-to-back meetings

Consider it the price to be paid for a Monday holiday.

The city of Decatur’s Planning and Zoning Commission will meet at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 2 at City Hall, followed by a city council meeting at 6.

Neither group’s agenda has much on it.

The P&Z agenda includes only two requests: a final plat for Charles H. Riley, on behalf of the Bethel Cemetery Association, that involves a large group of lots in an 8-acre section of the cemetery.

The other is a replat request from Stephen Summers, CEO of Wise Regional Health System, and Dr. Aamir Zuberi on behalf of Decatur Hospital Authority and Zuberi and Associates Inc. for lots in the Decatur Community Hospital Addition – near the hospital’s west campus off Farm Road 51 South.

The council likewise has a short agenda for its 6 p.m. meeting.

The first item is a required final public hearing on the proposed tax rate for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The council initially approved a 4.4-cent increase, from last year’s 67.30 to 71.60. After a few budget adjustments and with the Economic Development Corp. covering some capital improvements at the Decatur Civic Center, that number will come down to the proposed 70.30 that is on Tuesday’s agenda.

That is a 3-cent increase over last year. It would raise the taxes on a $100,000 home by approximately $23.60 per year.

Final adoption of the tax rate is scheduled for the following Monday, Sept. 8.

The only other item on the council’s agenda is considering a lease agreement with the Texas A&M University System effective Sept. 1 for an office in the city’s Fire Department. The space would be used by the state’s fire service.

Tuesday’s meetings are both open to the public.

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Decatur P&Z gets more direction on sidewalk rules

It’s not black-and-white, but Planning and Zoning Commission chairman Davey Edwards did get some direction from the Decatur City Council Monday evening on the issue of sidewalks, curbs and gutters.

Exceptions are rare.

Common sense is the key.

City ordinance requires that whenever a house is built or a piece of property is developed, curbs, gutters and sidewalks must be installed, or property owners must deposit the money to build them with the city, so they can be done the next time the street is upgraded.

“Granting variances is as much art as it is science,” City Attorney Mason Woodruff said. “You first try to look at the ordinance, but sometimes it’s a round peg and it just won’t fit in a square hole. You’ve got to use common sense.

“It’s not possible to write guidelines that will account for every possible situation. That’s why you have people on the commission who have good judgment, good sense and some experience with properties.”

P&Z had two requests on the council’s agenda Monday. One asked “how best to proceed” when citizens request variances to the ordinance. The other asked how the funds are handled when citizens escrow the money with the city.

“We are seeing a lot more [variance requests] over the last year-and-a-half,” Edwards said. “We still want to do it black-and-white – here’s the ordinance. We want them to understand that we’re held to the ordinance.

“I guess we just want the council to say, ‘You’re OK, you’re doing a good job.’ It makes us feel better.”

The consensus was that P&Z is doing its job – and once in a while, that may mean granting a variance.

MAKING AN EXCEPTION

That’s exactly what the council did Monday, approving the P&Z’s unanimous recommendation that property owner Stephen Eckert not be required to install just over 95 feet of sidewalk along Miller Street as he re-plats and develops a property at 300 Shoemaker.

The Miller Street side is well above street level and has an old stone retaining wall that would have to come out. The project would likely cost around $25,000, City Engineer Earl Smith said.

That would be the city’s expense, since the wall is in the city’s right-of-way.

“It’s not much different from the original owner putting in curb, gutter and sidewalk,” Mason Woodruff said. “From that point forward it’s our problem.”

Cary Bohn said it was the first time he’d seen the city grant a variance since he’s been on the council.

“I’ve seen the council before just follow a straight line on it,” he said. “Usually when we deny these, the big issue is safety – so I guess what we’re saying here is, this a big enough expense, a big enough burden, to not put in a sidewalk.

“I know we can’t quantify it completely, but it’s a healthy discussion to have.”

In general, Mayor Martin Woodruff said there are no written guidelines other than the ordinance itself.

“My judgement would be that the ordinance needs to be followed at all times, unless there is an unusual situation where the commission can be convinced that not enforcing the standards would be appropriate,” he said.

Planning Director Dedra Ragland brought in a chart showing all the variance requests back through 2007. In those seven years, including this year so far, the council has fielded 36 requests. Twenty-five have been approved – seven in the city’s ETJ and 17 along state highways (one was both).

Until Monday, only two had been approved that did not fit one of those categories – both in 2007.

TRACKING THE FUNDS

The P&Z also wanted to know how the city handles escrowed funds. Edwards got a clear answer.

The city deposits those funds into its street improvement account and keeps track of whose money is in there, and how much. That money is earmarked for that specific project. Going forward, the city will also create a liability entry on its books, making it clear that the escrowed money does not belong to the city.

“We treat it like a water deposit, because it’s really not our money,” City Manager Brett Shannon said. “Regarding the question of somebody paying in escrow and it being used somewhere else, that’s never happened. That violates the whole spirit of escrowing funds.”

Shannon said the record includes not only the property owner’s name, but the legal description of the property. The funds are attached to the property itself.

“Whenever we do the project, we use that money,” he said. “That’s what we did on Deer Park [which was paved over the summer]. We knew we had Crossroads Church escrowed, so when we re-did the street we put in the curb and gutter.”

If a resident escrows the funds, then decides to do the project himself, he can get the funds back and build his own sidewalk.

“I think a lot of the public that comes in and they’re asking for that variance, that’s their concern – ‘If I’m going to do that, where does it go?'” Edwards said. “I think if they understood that it does go to improving their lot, they’d be more willing to take that option.”

CITY, ENGINEER TO MEET ON RAW WATER LINE BREAKS

With Public Works Director Earl Smith leaving at the end of the month, Decatur city officials were already planning to meet with engineer Jeff James at the Fort Worth firm Kimley-Horn next week. In the absence of their staff engineer, it’s likely they will look more to Kimley-Horn until a successor is found.

Now, water line breaks will be on the agenda.

Decatur crews repaired a break Aug. 12 in the 20-inch PVC water transmission line that brings raw water from Lake Bridgeport into the city’s treatment plant. It was the latest of “three or four” breaks in the last six months – in a line that is less than 10 years old.

“It seems like this raw water line has given us more problems than normal, for whatever reason, this summer,” City Manager Brett Shannon said Tuesday. “Until this last one, it was concentrated in one general area. This one was quite a bit farther west.”

Shannon said he and Smith are investigating to see where the breaks have been. The line was installed in phases and may have been put in by different contractors.

Although the city has funds built into the budget for these types of repairs, they are getting expensive.

“Most of the time, we’ve had to bring in an outside contractor with a big track hoe, just to dig it up,” he said. “It’s a big pipe, and it’s 10 or 12 feet deep in some places.

“Typically, it costs around $10,000 – not including my men’s labor,” he added. “It’s more than a slight nuisance.”

So far, the city’s water supply has not been affected – in fact, water users likely never noticed, since the city’s storage tanks were full and the plant was back up and running before they emptied.

Some of the breaks can be fixed in four or five hours, he noted, while others take 10 or 12. The recent one was fixed and covered up when workers realized they had gotten a bad clamp and had to dig it up again. The whole process took more like 20 hours.

Shannon said they’ll be asking James to look into the process, providing him with photos and other information.

“We want to have the discussion with Jeff, tell him here’s what we’re finding when we get these breaks,” he said. “Whether it’s the soil, bad pipe or whatever it is – we’d like for them to stop.”

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Decatur P&Z wants to look at sidewalk issue

Decatur’s Planning and Zoning Commission wants to look at the sidewalk, curb and gutter issue – and they have put a couple of “formal requests” on the city council’s agenda for Monday.

Perhaps the most frequent variance request the commission faces is citizens asking to be excused from the requirement that they install sidewalks, curbs and gutters when they develop property.

Council policy has been to deny those requests, requiring property owners and developers to either put in the curbs, gutters and sidewalks, or deposit the money to do so in an escrow account maintained by the city.

The commission is asking the council to:

  • provide direction on sidewalk, curb and gutter variance requests – specifically, “how best to proceed” when those requests come to them; and
  • direct city staff to prepare and present a report on escrowed funds including the procedure for utilizing the funds, prioritization of usage, fund balance, designation of the account as restricted, previous projects and what criteria the city uses for determining project eligibility.

Monday’s meeting begins with a work session at 5:30, followed by the regular council meeting at 6 p.m.

Both sessions are open to the public.

The work session will be taken up mostly with reports from Planning Director Dedra Ragland on building permits, inspections, etc. Public Works Director Earl Smith will also report on a list of activities in water/wastewater, streets and other areas.

Fire Chief Mike Richardson is also scheduled to report to the council on his department’s activities.

In the regular meeting, the council will face one of those sidewalk variance requests – this one from Stephen Eckert on Miller Street, for a property he is developing on Shoemaker Street. The Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the variance.

Eckert’s replat request for the Shoemaker Street property, and a request from Jackie Hutto for a replat on property on Cottonwood Street, are also on the council’s agenda, along with a public hearing on the budget and tax rate.

The council meets at City Hall, 201 E. Walnut St.

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Decatur P&Z, council approve mixed-use zoning

The city of Decatur is getting a mixed-use zoning corridor – but it may be decades before any changes become evident.

The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, chaired by Davey Edwards, met jointly with the city council following the council’s regular meeting, for the purpose of directing staff on creating a mixed-use zoning along the U.S. 81/287 corridor from Mulberry Street north to the city limits.

“What precipitated this particular corridor really has to do with the property owner who owns the Eighter From Decatur Motel,” city Planning Director Dedra Ragland told the joint gathering. “They came to talk to staff about demolishing that structure and putting up a new building.

“When we looked at the zoning and the land use, we saw that we weren’t able to rebuild. The property is actually zoned for single-family residential.”

That zoning goes against what is on the ground, Ragland noted. The area is already home to a church, a school, several multi-family residences, an auto repair shop and some home businesses.

And south of Mulberry, very little residential property still exists along the corridor.

“The thinking for that corridor is that probably long-term, it’s not going to be residential,” Ragland said. “If there’s a redevelopment opportunity, you’re probably going to see more commercial, more retail, down the road.”

Changing it, by ordinance, to a mixed-use zone would allow individual property owners to approach the P&Z board and the council with their plans without tying them down to either commercial or residential.

“If we can have a mixed-use land use designation, individual property owners as time goes on can make a determination as to whether they want to rezone their property for something other than residential, or expand their residential use,” Ragland said.

After some discussion about what might go in along the corridor, where the majority of the lots are still residential, Ragland reminded the council that they aren’t limiting the options for the city or the landowners by approving the mixed-use designation.

“Those requests can be dealt with individually because as you remember, zoning is discretionary,” she said. “If someone turns in an application for C2 zoning, and the public comes out in numbers and says ‘We don’t want this,’ you can deny it – even in the mixed-use. They have to come and apply and go through the process.”

City Manager Brett Shannon said mixed-use makes the most sense in the corridor.

“Mixed-use designations are becoming more and more prevalent,” he said. “In the old days, nobody wanted to live where the commercial was, but you go to big cities now, everybody wants to move back downtown. Mixed-use developments are the hot-ticket item.”

He said future development along that corridor is much more likely to be commercial than residential – but the mixed-use designation protects current homeowners and allows them to use their property as they see fit, within the bounds of the city’s zoning master plan.

Ragland said there’s no downside to the change.

“Each individual property owner still has the opportunity to come in and talk to you guys about rezoning,” she said. “Then if you want to, you can put conditions on the rezoning on a case-by-case basis, and still meet the criteria of conforming to your mixed-use designation.”

Since both the council and P&Z had a quorum, both groups voted to start the process, which will still take a couple of readings to get final approval.

“Hopefully it reduces the number of zoning cases you guys have to hear and rule on,” Shannon said. “This will address the majority of concerns.”

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