Decatur Next

Decatur Diary | July 30, 2014

Questions Posed, Answers Offered

Residents meet with Decatur planning director Amanda Thompson on day one of the Q&A sessions.

Residents meet with Decatur planning director Amanda Thompson on day one of the Q&A sessions.

Nine months and seven public meetings in, specifics of the UDO are now getting a good look — not just here online at Decatur Next but through 22 hours of open house sessions in which residents came by, explored the current draft, asked questions of city staff and provided comments on the work-in-progress. These Q&A sessions were a big success. Not just in terms of getting questions answered but in helping the city and the consulting team a) better understand where there’s concern or confusion as to the impact or intent of various UDO provisions; and b) review, scrutinize and proofread what is inarguably a hefty document. So thanks to everyone who’s made the time to come by. Your comments, and those submitted here, have been invaluable.

As discussion of the issues gets more detailed, we’ll also be exploring some of them via Open City Hall, so stay tuned for that.

From all the input to date, and the concurrent discussions happening around the community, we’ve noticed a number of recurring questions. In this post we’ll address a few, then continue to add to them as they come in*.

Jump to Answers

Q: Does the UDO change any rules for R-60 or R-85 properties?

Q: What’s this R-50 about? Will the UDO rezone smaller R-60 lots to R-50? Won’t this limit my rights?

Q: What’s to stop the city commission from pushing through a rezoning of my property in the future?

Q: Is the city instituting a bunch of new historic preservation rules?

Q: I heard that the Historic Preservation Commission was going to be conducting reviews on properties outside of local historic districts. What’s that all about?

Q: The UDO includes a proposal for an up-to-90 day delay on demolition. What’s that supposed to do?

Q: Will the UDO require us to build green?

Q: There are a lot of things in the code that seem subject to the review of the City Manager. Is that the most efficient use of the City Manager’s time?

Q: There’s frequent mention of the “UDO Administrator.” Are we adding another new position to city government? Won’t this make one individual too powerful?



Q: Does the UDO change any rules for R-60 or R-85 properties?

A: No. Existing regulations and metrics associated specifically with R-60 and R-85 have been retained. What you’d be able to build by-right under the proposed UDO is identical to what you can build today, under existing regulations.


Q: What’s this R-50 about? Will the UDO rezone smaller R-60 lots to R-50? Won’t this limit my rights?

A: There is no residential rezoning associated with the UDO. The proposed R-50 designation provides a new, smaller-scale, walkable zoning option for new development, available at the request of the property owner/developer. Existing R-60 lots of reduced width will maintain their present R-60 designation, and remain subject to the current R-60 regulations + sliding scale for smaller lots, neither of which is changing. The UDO does not impose any new restrictions on R-60 lots, regardless of their physical size.

The primary anticipated use of R-50 is by developers platting multi-acre sites, giving them a legal option to build in a way that’s more consistent with the scale and walkable compactness of our historic neighborhoods. Smaller lots in new projects allow developers to build more modest and affordable homes at a density that can accommodate land cost. As proposed, R-50 renews the possibility of new, single-family homes in Decatur that are affordable to middle class buyers with median incomes.

Why might an individual homeowner choose R-50? The UDO doesn’t view lots with less than 60′ width as “non-conforming” but, rather, as a key contributor of community value. The R-50 designation offers the voluntary option of a smaller allowable home with smaller setbacks — consistent with how many of our neighborhoods were built historically — so, if you’re interested in building a little house, R-50 could facilitate certain design goals. If not, you keep the R-60 designation and the rules you presently have. It’s up to you. There will be no mandatory rezoning.

It’s readily acknowledged that, in the present market, few might be seeking to build a smaller home on an existing neighborhood lot but the UDO is written not just for today but for the next 50 years. Accordingly, it looks to create a variety of voluntary options that can best accommodate a wide scope of potential changes over time.


Q: What’s to stop the city commission from pushing through a rezoning of my property in the future?

A: While the city commission does operate at their legal discretion, the most relevant response to this question is precedent. In short, though they’ve always had the authority to do so, over the past 25 years we’ve reviewed, the city commission has never acted on any rezoning without the support of the property owner. Not one single time. There’s simply no upside.

As for future assurances, one approach would be for the commission to adopt a policy resolution addressing implementation of the UDO over time, including provisions for resident-initiated rezoning. With intentions in writing, residents would have a clearer, documented sense of what to expect. What do you think? Should this be a component of the UDO process?


Q: Is the city instituting a bunch of new historic preservation rules?

A: In short, no. UDO language related to the creation of local historic districts reflects almost the identical regulations that we have in place today and have had on the books for many years. These regulations reflect the state model ordinance which is the enabling legislation for historic preservation at the municipal level for places like Decatur that did not have historic preservation prior to the 1970s. The creation of any new, residential historic districts, should they emerge, will continue to occur in the same resident-driven manner as those presently in place.

In two instances, however, our existing regulations are not sufficiently aligned with the state’s enabling legislation, which is required by law: Demolition by Neglect and Interim Control. New UDO text closes these loopholes in the current regulations and brings Decatur into compliance with state requirements.


Q: I heard that the Historic Preservation Commission was going to be conducting reviews on properties outside of local historic districts. What’s that all about?

A: Two things emerged during the UDO process. The first was a desire by some that the UDO allow for an increase in floor area (FAR), especially for those with smaller lots. The second was a desire by others to keep regulations as they are to prevent homes that appear squeezed in. What’s currently proposed in the draft UDO is an attempt at a compromise between these polar opposites. Here’s how it works:

Both sides tend to agree that “oversized” is subjective and that big doesn’t always appear so. In short, design plays a significant role in the perception of mass. So, the UDO proposes a process by which a homebuilder or homeowner can gain an FAR increase by going through a review process that ensures such increase will not have negative impacts.

If you have no construction or renovation plans that require additional FAR beyond what’s currently allowable for your lot, this proposal has no impact on you. But if your plans do require an FAR increase above what’s allowable, the UDO offers the prospect of expanded property rights.

Currently, the citizen board proposed to conduct FAR-increase design reviews is the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). This is because we’re talking about design review and the HPC is the existing commission most familiar with reviewing physical structures on the basis of scale, mass and visual impact rather than on matters of interpreting or navigating law (as the Zoning Board of Appeals tends to do). That said, the HPC will only be granted the power to review design plans in relation to massing. They will not have the authority to review style or apply any historic district regulations (unless they otherwise apply). They will also have no control as it relates to the demolition of a house.

There is nothing in the UDO as it relates to general citywide review of building designs, and use of the HPC to conduct FAR-increase design reviews is limited in all the ways mentioned.


Q: The UDO includes a proposal for an up-to-90 day delay on demolition. What’s that supposed to do?

A: Many comments that have come up during the UDO process involve either the desire to maintain existing property rights or concern over the demolition of existing homes for new construction. The 90-day delay idea is an attempt to meet the needs of both sides by encouraging a market-based solution. Here’s how it works:

A property owner files that they intend to demolish a house. That intention is then communicated to the surrounding community and time (up to 90 days) is afforded for an alternate approach to materialize. For example, maybe someone or some organization that wants to renovate, rather than raze, the house will emerge and make an offer the owner is willing to accept. Or perhaps a design is offered that meets the needs of the property owner while retaining the structure. Any number of scenarios might be possible but, should none prove desirable to the property owner, they’re free to continue with their plans. There is nothing the property owner needs to do during the delay [note: this refers to the regulatory arena; as “macarolina” notes in the comments below, there are potential financial or logistic issues that need to be considered in one’s assessment of the proposal] and no approval of neighbors is necessary to demolish. The onus falls on the shoulders of those who wish to see the structure preserved.

The demolition delay proposal is something new that attempts to address the wide diversity of community opinion offered during the UDO process, so please continue to offer your suggestions and feedback as to how it might best accomplish this feat of balance. Bottom line, unless a property is in a local historic district, the city cannot prevent demolition.


Q: Will the UDO require us to build green?

A: The current draft of the UDO includes some new standards to require construction of high performance buildings (green buildings) in residential and commercial areas, but these regulations apply only to new construction and substantial improvements that exceed 50% of a property’s appraised market value prior to the work. This can be either your county tax appraisal or a standard market appraisal. For example, if the appraisal you receive to secure financing for your renovation lists your home’s value at $400,000, any renovation below $200,000 would not trigger high performance requirements.

These changes reflect goals inherent in the 2010 Strategic Plan, further clarified during the UDO process in which residents requested that green regulations not impact typical household scenarios — improvements, renovations and general upgrades — and instead focus on new development and large-scale transformations.

Because new construction regulations will require a learning curve, especially for the construction community, we’re proposing a rolling effective date for implementation: 9 months after the effective date of the UDO for commercial standards; 12 months after the effective date of the UDO for residential standards.

During the comment period, residents may discuss with city staff any potential projects they might be considering to determine how, if at all, the proposed regulations would apply and, if so, what cost impacts might result.


Q: There are a lot of things in the code that seem subject to the review of the City Manager. Is that the most efficient use of the City Manager’s time?

A: It’s not uncommon for the city to change titles over time. For example, from “City Engineer” to “Senior Engineer” or “Development Director” to “Planning Director.” In order to create the flexibility to accommodate this fluidity, the UDO has taken an approach of avoiding specific titles and simply using “City Manager or his/her designee.” This avoids a specifc job title that may or may not exist in the future.


Q: There’s frequent mention of the “UDO Administrator.” Are we adding another new position to city government? Won’t this make one individual too powerful?

A: The “UDO Administrator” referenced throughout the draft code is not a new position or a single individual. It’s a catch-all designation that will likely be a combination of different city employees, depending on which aspect of the code is under consideration.


Questions continue to come in. If they’re frequently asked, we’ll continue posting them here. So check back often. And note that if you haven’t reviewed the draft-in-progress, you’ll find the latest here.

 

[*Like the draft UDO, answers provided here are a work-in-progress and subject to revision for correctness and clarity as the process continues. Every effort has been made to ensure their accuracy as it relates to the UDO’s work-to-date.]
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  • macarolina

    re demolition delay, the above was stated:
    “There is nothing the property owner needs to do during the delay and no approval of neighbors is necessary to demolish.” This is not correct- the property owner must continue to make payments on the property during the delay, as well as deal with a corresponding delay to the move in/sale date. If we have to have a delay period, I prefer a delay of no more than 14 days. If there is going to be a longer allowable delay period, then anyone who requests the delay should also have to pay the carrying costs of the property during that period. Having skin in the game would help prevent many frivolous requests for delay, and compensate the property owner in part for the delay.

 
 
 
 


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