Decatur Next

Decatur Diary | March 13, 2014

Community Character: Regulate or don’t regulate? And if so, how?

Drilling down on unresolved issues associated with the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) got underway last night as roughly 50 residents, staff and elected officials gathered to consider the idea of community character: What it is, if it matters, and how/if it should be regulated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Decatur audience, sentiments were diverse — very diverse — from increased control over details like house size and lot coverage to loosening up regulations currently in place to removing some regulations altogether.

The meeting was organized as a workshop and bounced back and forth between presented material and group table discussion. Consultant presenter Caleb Racicot kicked things off with an overview of exactly what “community character” is (at least so far as what’s relevant to the UDO), detailing various contributing factors such as the size and placement of homes, types of buildings, architecture and landscaping. He then asked the tables to complete cards asking, “Consider the look-and-feel of your neighborhood, then list one thing you believe contributes to or threatens it.”

Next, Racicot detailed the two methods in which character is currently regulated in Decatur — through the zoning code or via historic preservation — and asked participants to separate their cards according to which approach would best address each one. They were then asked, now that you know how this issue would need to be regulated, are you still comfortable with actually doing so? If not, remove the card.

One item of note that emerged was that the previously discussed idea of Conservation Districts, commonly referred to as “Preservation Lite,” was now off the table, having been found to be impractical due to a variety of factors associated with state law.

Finally, consultants Karen Huebner and Lee Einsweiler provided an overview of different preservation and zoning tools commonly used around the country to address similar issues, making note several times that they were not being presented as any sort of proposal, recommendation or endorsement but, rather, as available tools for the community’s consideration. Each group then evaluated their remaining cards and jotted down a suggested tool or approach on the back of each one.

Submitted notes and recommendations from each table are being compiled and transcribed and will be posted here on Decatur Next soon.

The session highlighted the challenge of defining rules for growth and development to reflect the preferences of a diverse community, and why the current series of Drill Down sessions are being held. These are areas where people have very strong feelings — on both sides of the issues — and any sense of agreeable common ground will only emerge from facing the issue head on and discussing it. Even with those who may feel differently.

What Do You Think?

Ahead of any tangible recommendations or proposals to come is the broader consideration of character regulation in general. Based on the plurality of opinion displayed last night, we’d like to explore the issue a little further with an admittedly unscientific — but still useful as a loose gauge of sentiment — poll. Where do you stand?

In terms of addressing community character via zoning or historic preservation, I believe Decatur’s current regulations are:

Way Too Weak
Too Weak
About Right
Too Strong
Way Too Strong

Here’s a collection of photos from the evening. If you were unable to make it, there are still plenty of ways to plug in and get your thoughts on the record. Provide your own ideas and recommendations in the comments section below or submit more general comments and questions directly to the city here.

See you at the next meeting.

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