Preliminary Thoughts on the Proposed Zoning Code Revision
I’m still on hiatus, but since I’ve been talking about the need to reform our zoning code for the last couple of years, I thought I’d weigh in briefly. The city is holding a public hearing at 6:00 p.m. today at City Hall in room 108. I’ve had limited time to look at the proposed changes. I have read the summary of changes, which I understand to be incomplete, but I have not made a side by side comparison of existing code and the proposed rewrite.
Before I get into specifics, I’ll talk a little more generally. Our existing code is a total mess and we need a complete change in approach. I’m on the record supporting a change away from use-based zoning to form-based zoning. The proposed changes do not switch Carbondale to a form-based code, so, in my view, they are less than ideal. But there are at least some improvements over our existing code in the rewritten code that make it superior to the code as it exists today.
Here is my bottom line: If council considers this rewrite a starting point and further reforms are to follow, then I can live with this proposed rewrite. If, as I suspect, council considers this rewrite the final word on zoning reform for the foreseeable future, then we need to go back to the drawing board and make further changes before passing this proposed code.
That said, here are a few of the good changes, the bad changes, what should have been in the new code, and a few nitpicks. If you want to follow along, then download the summary of proposed changes (pdf) and the full text of the proposed code (large pdf). The following should not be considered an exhaustive commentary, as there are certainly things I have missed and possibly things that I have misunderstood.
- Design standards for buildings in certain districts. This is the best change in the proposed ordinance. You can find the design standards in §4.6.1 of the proposed code. This would affect large buildings in R-3 (high density residential) and PUD (planned unit development), and all buildings in BPR (primary business) districts. These requirements will improve the quality and appearance of our public spaces and produce better environmental outcomes.
- Reduced side setbacks in R1 (low density) districts. These changes are in §2.11.11. Currently, the code requires side setbacks of 10% of the lot width, with a minimum of 8 feet. The minimum lot size permitted is 50 feet wide, but that still requires a minimum setback of 8 feet, leaving only 34 feet in the center of a lot to hold a building. This change would reduce the setback to five feet, which would leave 40 feet for a building on a lot 50 feet wide.
- Reduced front setbacks in pre-1974 neighborhoods. These changes are in §2.11.9. Currently, city code requires a front setback of 20% of the lot depth or 25 feet in the R-1-5 district, which has a minimum depth of 100 feet (that’s not specified in the code, but the code specifies a minimum lot area of 5,000 square feet and a 50 foot minimum width, so if you do the math that leaves you with a 100 foot minimum lot depth). The problem is in the old neighborhoods in the heart of town. The existing structures do not have such deep setbacks. This change allows a setback based on the average setback of existing buildings on the block in neighborhoods built before 1974.
- Decreased setbacks for BPL (planned business) districts. These changes are in §2.21.7 to §2.21.9. This drops the front, side, and rear yard requirements to ten feet. The old code required a 40 foot yard in the front and a 20 foot yard in the side and rear.
- Eliminated minimum lot size for BPL (planned business) districts. This change is in §2.21.5. The old code mandated a minimum of four acres. The revised code specifically declines to set a limit, though it says the minimum will “generally” be four acres or larger.
- Parking requirements for mixed use. These changes are in §4.7.4(J). This clarifies language in the existing code allowing parking requirements to be reduced in mixed use developments where the proposed users will not need the parking area at the same time. This shared parking provision reduces the space required for parking in a mixed use development.
- Business Lawns. Not only does the new code retain the noxious and wasteful “business lawns” that I have criticized before, it actually increases their depth in the PA (Professional Administrative) districts from 8 feet to 10 feet. While the lawn requirements are reduced for a BPL districts, I’d like to see them eliminated entirely and replaced with an impact fee that would go into a fund controlled by the city and dedicated to the purchase of contiguous land for parks and usable green space development. Tasteful landscaping does not require wasteful use of land.
- Buffer Yards. This change is in §4.1.8, and begins with the following: “Buffers shall be required for all new development and redevelopment in Carbondale.” This is a step in precisely the wrong direction. Buffers are designed to separate hostile forces (0r, in this case, uses) from one other. We should be trying to integrate diverse uses into fully functioning neighborhoods. Buffers are an obstacle to that. I could burn through thousands of words heaping scorn on buffer yards, but instead I’ll link to a comment from a previous post explaining my thoughts on buffer yards. This is almost a deal breaker for me.
- Parking requirements for libraries and schools. These are in §4.7.4 (I). The required parking for libraries is doubled in the new code. The required parking for schools is also increased, which would make it nearly impossible to return to neighborhood schools should the school districts wish to do so.
Things That Should Have Been Included
- Duplexes and “granny flats” in R-1 districts. There is no reason to have an R-1-5-D district. Duplexes and “granny flats” (secondary residential uses, generally in converted garages in backyards) should be allowed by right in all R1 districts. They could still be subject to R1 occupancy rules (one family and no more than one non-related person). If people are afraid that an irresponsible landlord would use this as a way to break blocks, duplexes and “granny flats” could be permitted only on an owner occupied lot. One way to do this would be to allow no more than one rental on a lot in an R1 district. That would allow a homeowner to rent one unit but would prohibit a landlord from renting two units. This is a common sense change.
- The changes permitting greater freedom in neighborhoods built before zoning in 1974 are nice, but they should go much farther. I’ve written about this before (see this link), but I will write about it again here. I suggest creating a new district. Call it a TND, for Traditional Neighborhood District, and apply it to the parts of town built before zoning. Allow the small or nonexistent front and side setbacks, rear access parking, secondary dwelling units, and neighborhood businesses that used to be a part of the fabric of American neighborhoods until misguided zoning outlawed them. Allow new developments to choose to be zoned according to the existing code or to be zoned as Traditional Neighborhood Districts. This would have the advantage of addressing some of the issues council member Jane Adams brings up in her blog post on proposed zoning rewrite.
- Sometimes people get upset about what they see as “spot zoning.” But if you want to get some of the benefits of a form based code without giving up your use based code, then small districts are the way to go. I’d like to see it specified that a district can be as small as one side of one block – say, for example, all the lots facing Willow Street, or Oakland, might be zoned one way, while neighboring lots are zoned another way. Small districts allow regulation of use while allowing varied uses in proximity to one another.
- Related to number 3, I’d like to see the zoning code zone building standing before 1974 in ways that allow them to be used for something approaching what they were designed for. A prime example is the sometimes controversial Oakland Auto Shop. The building, built before zoning as a Coca-Cola warehouse, is currently zoned R1. That is a joke. That building is not appropriate as a single family home. It, and every other commercial or institutional building standing before zoning, even those in primarily residential districts, should be rezoned to allow uses appropriate for the building. That may not be an auto shop, but in the case of the building at on the southeast corner of Oakland and Sycamore, and in several other cases, it is surely some commercial use.
- I approve of the design standards I mentioned in “The Good” item 1. But I do have one nitpick. The BPR district requires a minimum height of 2 stories. I’d prefer to base minimum and maximum heights on the width of the public right of way plus the required setback. A wider right of way with a deeper setback would require a higher height minimum. A narrower right of way with a shallow setback would require a lower height minimum.
- In “The Good,” item 2, I praise the reduction in side setbacks. Yes, five feet is better than eight, but I’d prefer to reduce them even more. A side setback of three feet, no matter how wide the lot, would be fine, provided that provisions are made to prevent fire hazards. If you are willing to use masonry construction instead of wood, then a three foot setback is plenty.
- The new code requires the longest dimension of a home to be parallel to the street (§2.11.6). Has anyone from the consultancy hired to write the code visited Carbondale? Our beloved bungalows almost never have the longest dimension facing the street. Fortunately, this change only requires the longest side to “generally” face the street. It is still a silly regulation that should be struck from the code.
It is worth remembering that the summary document is known to be incomplete. The other changes in the code may be good or bad. We should not accept this code as-is unless it is understood to be a work in progress that will be amended in the coming months. A better solution would be to make changes to the code before it is passed. Improve it now and it will require fewer amendments later.
Comments are welcome.