My Thoughts on the Proposed Changes to the Neighborhood Business District
A furor has erupted during the last few weeks over proposed changes to the Neighborhood Business (NB) District in our zoning code. I have received several requests for comment in my email, so I’ll add my voice to the discussion. I’ll start with a brief summary of what is being proposed, followed by a lengthy explanation and discussion of the disputes as I understand them. At the end, I’ll explain my own position on this amendment.
First the explanation. Our zoning code as currently written contains a Neighborhood Business (NB) District. Click here to see the code as currently written. Currently, there are no properties zoned NB. There is a proposal working its way through the process that would change the NB district in a few ways. Click here (pdf) to view the proposed text as amended (additions to the current code are underlined, while text being removed has a line drawn through it).
First, the rewrite would remove all permitted uses. No use would be permitted by right in an NB district. This is important to note. Instead of permitted uses, the rewritten NB district would allow certain businesses as special uses. The perceived benefit of this system is that it allows more oversight. The process for getting a special use permit allows council and the planning commission to impose certain conditions on the operation of a business. Second, performance standards would be imposed for the special uses permitted in the NB district. Third, some of the requirements in the district (related to size and distance between districts) would change.
So far, so good, right? Unless you’re strictly opposed to any business in a neighborhood, then more oversight and additional performance standards would seem at first glance to be an improvement. Now we’ll turn to the concerns raised over this amendment. The dispute, as I understand it, lies in three areas, each of which I will explain.
First, although the proposed revision lists several specific special uses that Council could approve, it also allows:
- “Other personal services as permitted with the issuance of a Special Use Permit”
- “Other repair services as permitted with the issuance of a Special Use Permit”
- “Other retail trade as permitted with the issuance of a Special Use Permit”
The first concern is that by including these “other” uses, Council could open the door to potentially inappropriate businesses. While we might welcome a small neighborhood coffee shop, bakery, or corner grocery store, most of us wouldn’t want a gas station to set up shop down the street.
The second concern revolves around the following five items:
- The removal of the maximum size limit in an NB district (formerly one-half acre, which is 21,780 square feet).
- The removal of the minimum distance between NB districts (formerly one-half mile).
- The establishment of a maximum lot size of 15,000 square feet for new construction (3 standard lots in an R-1-5 district, or slightly less than two standard lots in an R-1-8 district, or exactly one lot in an R-1-15 district).
- The substitution of “shall” with “should” in paragraphs J, K, and L of the proposed amendment.
- The discretion granted to Council in paragraphs M, N, O, and P of the proposed amendment.
My understanding of the second concern is that items (1) and (2) above could result in large NB districts running the entire length of major thoroughfares (think Oakland Avenue or Wall Street), that item (3) above could result in businesses of an inappropriate scale for a neighborhood, and that items (4) and (5) could result in loose or nonexistent performance standards for any property zoned NB.
The third concern is that these changes are the result of a “backroom deal” or that the changes are being “rammed through.” This concern is really the one that drives people’s anger and fear. People can tolerate policy outcomes that do not reflect their preferences, but they rightly bristle at the thought that some powerful interest is getting a sweetheart deal. Let’s take a closer look at that concern, beginning with what has been called a “backroom deal.”
We can learn from a WSIU Radio Morning Conversation with Mayor Joel Fritzler (click here to listen) that a major mixed use development is being planned for the downtown, but that one property owner is not cooperating with the developer. And we can learn from a post on Council Member Jane Adams’ blog that the proposed changes to the NB district are, according to City Manager Kevin Baity, “a means to address this specific property owner’s demands.”
Put the two together and it looks like some horse trading is going on behind the scenes as part of an attempt to facilitate a major development downtown. At a minimum, there are two ways to look at that. One way is to see a crooked backroom deal. Another is to see the standard wheeling and dealing that is an ugly and unfortunate — but necessary — part of our democratic system. Either explanation is plausible; we won’t know which is closer to the truth until and unless we have more information.
The second part of the third concern is that the change is being “rammed through.” That implies that regular process is not being followed. As far as I can tell, that claim lacks merit. This change went before the Planning Commission, which held a public hearing on the change. That hearing was publicized both by the normal process the city follows and in a post on Council Member Jane Adams’ blog. In fact, I attended the public hearing and asked a question about the proposed change.
Now, two weeks later, the proposed change is going to be debated and voted upon in a public meeting of the Carbondale City Council. During the last few weeks, there has been speculation about and discussion of the amendment. People will again get a chance to speak their minds on this proposed change. The upcoming meeting has received even greater publicity than the public hearing at the Planning Commission.
It’s possible that there is some aspect of regular order which I am not familiar with and which has not been followed here. But based on my understanding of our process, there has not been anything unusual about the way this amendment has proceeded. It may be moving quickly, but it appears to me that regular order is being followed. If any reader believes I’m wrong about that, please feel free to spell out my mistake in the comments.
I’ve addressed the claim that the proposed change is being “rammed through.” I’ll leave it to each reader to judge whether this is a corrupt backroom deal or the admittedly ugly, but standard, horse trading that is always a part of the legislative process. I still need to address the first and second concerns listed above.
I think concerns over the possibility that the amendment as currently written is too porous and might allow incompatible uses is a legitimate concern. Likewise, I respect people’s concerns about sprawling business districts taking over our thoroughfares and producing over-sized business developments that do not fit in with surrounding residential areas. These concerns are real and deserve our consideration.
My position is that the process ought to slow down until we can be sure we are getting a good amendment that permits businesses that improve neighborhoods while prohibiting businesses that do not harmonize with residential areas. Perhaps we might specifically prohibit certain uses, or we might simply remove the language allowing “other” uses and instead amend the ordinance to add specific uses as needed.
Furthermore, I think our code should regulate the form and intensity of buildings within a Neighborhood Business District to ensure that the scale of any development respects the surrounding residential areas. The design standards that are being incorporated into the rewrite of our zoning code can provide guidance here. No one wants the thoroughfares in our residential areas to turn into auto-oriented business corridors similar to those on East Main Street.
Finally, I would also like to see performance standards in place that regulate businesses in an NB zone so we can protect the property rights of neighbors and the integrity of neighborhoods. We want to be sure that noise, odors, and auto traffic do not create a nuisance for our citizens. A neighborhood business district with appropriate regulation will enhance a neighborhood and increase property values, but a poorly regulated district could do major damage.
I think the proposed amendment is a good start, but it needs tightening. Regular readers know that I have been a supporter of mixed use at the level of the city, the neighborhood, the block, and the building. I do not believe in the strict segregation and separation of uses into single-use zones. Monoculture should not be our goal. We benefit from diversity — of people, of housing types, and, yes, of land uses. But to be successful, mixed use needs good regulation. I think it’s worthwhile to take the time to get this right.
Comments are welcome.