Pam Duckworth: Set requirements

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— I have been thinking about the city's zoning laws. How about enacting zoning requirements (i.e., setbacks, height restrictions, etc.) that are actual, binding requirements and not subject to negotiation on a case-by-case basis?

In theory, the zoning laws must be obeyed unless a variance is obtained or unless the project is a planned unit development and the developer provides sufficient public benefit to justify variances. In practice, variances seem to be quite easy to obtain, and almost every PUD seems to have enough public benefit to avoid the restrictions. Some of the accepted public benefits, such as LEED certification, are things one would expect developers to do on their own because they enhance the project or because the market demands them.

I was taught in law school back in the 1970s that variances are supposed to be granted rarely, and that the reason for granting them is to assuage a hardship unique to a particular piece of property. For example, with an oddly-shaped parcel, a side setback might be difficult to meet when building a traditionally-sized, traditionally-oriented building on the lot, so a variance is warranted. It's not warranted when a property owner simply wants to be closer to the lot line or build a wider building than the rules permit.

The PUD process of allowing a developer to obtain variances by supplying public benefit is an interesting concept, but it involves many subjective determinations of how much public benefit is provided and in some cases appears to allow a developer to "buy" its variances by, for example, spending more on affordable housing than otherwise required. The flexibility that the process permits can be useful, but in my opinion the uncertainty and potential for abuse outweigh the flexibility.

The PUD process was used for several of the new developments downtown. The Olympian, Howelsen Place and Alpen Glow could not have been built as they were without the variances granted through the PUD process. I think it would be better to revisit the zoning requirements in the CO and CY districts. If the policy makers in the city want to permit buildings of the size of those new buildings, then change the zoning requirements to apply to all properties in those zones. If the policy makers want to keep current height restrictions, keep them and let everyone know that there will be no variances absent hardship. Ditto for the mountain base area.

A set of binding zoning regulations and a culture of strictly enforcing them except in cases of true hardship (relative to the land, not the owner) would be beneficial and more cost-efficient to the city, its citizens and the development community. Everyone would know the rules and could plan accordingly. There would be fewer requests for variances. There would be fewer contentious Planning Commission and City Council meetings and less time required of the Planning Department, Planning Commissioners and City Council members on zoning matters.

Input from the public, the development community and land-use experts should be solicited when considering any zoning changes, and decisions should be made based on that input. Our citizen activists then could focus their efforts on periodic across-the-board rule changes and would not have to attend meetings involving every project that seeks a variance. The rules would seem more fair if created to apply to all properties in a zone rather than only to those who can't buy their way out.

Pam Duckworth

Steamboat Springs

Comments

Steve Lewis 5 years ago

Pam, Very good points. The "buying" of variances is sometimes just that, and sometimes true benefit to a community. Certainly developers love rules that bend.

As you said, PUD (planned unit development, is any developmemt that seeks 2 or more variances. A PUD variance is granted if the project is providing extra "benefit".

Another flaw to add to your list against such variances: These variances create "the new norm". Subsequent projects argue their variance simply fits with the neighborhood already shaped by similar variances, usually height. Thunderhead makes this argument and planning commissioners used that "in context" argument in their findings to approve it.

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