I was shocked! Maybe appalled is a better word. On Tuesday, the Kendig Keast Collaborative, the city’s planning consultant, outlined a plan to reduce the number of city zoning districts and eliminate many of those rezoning hearings at city hall.

“Round up the usual suspicious characters”

You might call it “the journalist unemployment act.” If this goes through, we may have to think up our own story ideas. And there won’t be that many stories at city hall with dramatic votes while citizens are screaming and yelling. What an outrage! I thought these guys were into job creation.

Sure the plan would give developers predictability and relieve the city of a lot of red tape, like notifying people of zoning hearings. But it’s a good thing to keep a little perspective.

Keast: Character counts.
Keast: Character counts.

Bret Keast, the president of Kendig Keast, outlined his plan Tuesday before the city’s planning commissioners, key staff members and two horrified journalists.

Traditionally zoning has been based on density. RS 15, for example, means a district has minimum 15,000 square foot lots, or a little less than three lots per acre. RS 12 sets a minimum lot size of 12,000 square feet, or more than three but less than four lots an acre. In multi-family zones. RM 16 means you can have 16 living units per acre. RM 12 sets the maximum at 12 living units an acre. This system is a dream if you like to impress people at cocktail parties.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the screen.”

Now Keast wants to ruin all this. He is less interested in density than in neighborhood character. At Tuesday’s meeting he put up an overhead view on a slide of an area of the city with two RS 15 neighborhoods separated by a group of RS 12 homes.

Visually, he said, one of the RS 15 groups has more in common with the RS 12 homes than it does with the other RS 15 zone. That’s because the added lot size of the RS 15 homes comes in the rear of the lot, which no one sees. Viewed from the street, the widths of the larger and smaller lots are roughly the same.

Zoning based on neighborhood character

Keast’s pan is to boil down this hodge-podge of zoning districts into just a few that are based not so much on density but on what the city’s political leaders want a neighborhood to look like. Here are some examples:

— Rural areas: These are outside the city’s immediate growth area and aren’t likely to be developed for homes within the next 20 years.

— Suburban estates: Large lot expensive homes well beyond the reach of the average journalist. An example would be the homes on Coldstream Road off Manchester Pike and just south of Magnolia Trace.

— Suburban Residential: This would correspond to RS 10, RS 12 and RS 15.

— General Residential: Small lots of 6,000 and 8,000 square feet plus attached housing but no apartments.

— Multi-family: apartments

“We’re not in Kansas any more.”

Basically, a developer could pull out a small chart, look at the designations and decide in advance what he can build and how he needs to build it to turn a profit. Much of the heavy lifting can be done in talks with city staff rather than at planning commission meetings with unhappy neighbors of the project complaining.

The regulatory hand is lighter but still firm. Many of the zones come with three flavors — a baby bear, a mama bear and a papa bear. If you want to develop at the standard baby bear level you get a site plan approval and then just go do your thing. In the medium range, the developer clusters his living units to get more density but has to provide more open space in return. This is useful if part of a building site has drainage problems, for example, or it is a scenic area worth preserving.

The top, or papa bear option, is a planned district. Most planners I have known love this mechanism because they and the developer put the rules aside to some degree and plan together how a development will look. When finished, they bring their homework into the planning commission for approval. Typically, developers of planned districts provide even more amenities in exchange for higher density.

“Don’t put that Frank Lloyd Wright home here, buddy.”

But there seems to be a major flaw here.What about a neighborhood of Cape Cod homes, for example, with a vacant acre lot in the middle? Suppose a lover of Greek philosophy wants to build a house that looks like the Parthenon on that vacant lot. Or someone who has read “Gone With The Wind” too many times thinks a mini Tara would look great there.

Keast’s answer is the neighborhood conservation zone. I’m not sure whether this is a zone itself or an overlay that acts much like a historical district. It also comes in four flavors — NC-1 to NC-4. Unfortunately, I probably dozed off during the description of these four styles of conservation zones. Basically, you can’t build anything that clashes with the approved style in a neighborhood conservation district.

But that isn’t important. Things are getting complex again, so there is hope for me yet.

Planning is a lot like an arms race between the people who want to plan a city and developers who are simply looking a how to make the project in front of them now bring in the biggest return. As it is with the income tax, when you design a tax someone right behind you is uncovering a loophole.

Maybe there’s work for reporters after all.

The city of Fremont, Calif., had a similar system of incentives to encourage good development. Each area on the general plan had three steps. To get the added density of the medium and top steps you had to provide more amenities.

The result: A constant stream of developers filing for general plan amendments making the middle range the bottom step of the new range.

So it looks as if there will be work after all for those lazy journalists who like to make a buck covering public meetings.

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