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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