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How community comments affected — or didn’t — the proposed unified development code

Rochester's proposed unified development code as seen community-driven tweaks as it heads toward a final City Council review next month.

ADU pic from UDC.jpg
An image from Rochester's proposed unified development code shows some of the requirements related to a potential accessory dwelling unit on a residential property.
City of Rochester
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ROCHESTER — More than 4,100 hours of staff time committed to nearly three years of developing Rochester’s proposed unified development code has included soliciting public comments from builders, residents and others, which has helped shape the 448-page document.

“If you look at the sheer number of changes, the number is large,” he said of the most recent changes to create a proposed final draft set for Rochester City Council review Sept. 7, 2022. “There were a lot of changes, but they were fine-tuning changes. It wasn’t any holistic changes.”

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The city's Planning and Zoning Commission recently voted to recommend approval of the code .

With the goal of transforming zoning and development rules to better align with the city’s updated comprehensive plan, the new code provides guidance on how homes, businesses and other structures can be developed and the process for approval.

Some comments and questions coming from online and in-person forums since the effort launched in 2020 helped form the proposed code, and others didn’t make the cut.

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However, Emma Miller-Shindelar, the city planner who spearheaded much of the community engagement for the new code, said each written question or comment received a response.

Here’s a look at five community suggestions that produced changes in the code and five that didn’t:

Comments that spurred change

1. Accessory dwelling units have more flexibility. 

One of the most common topics for questions and comments was authorization of accessory dwelling units, which are secondary living spaces built on a property with an existing dwelling.

Frequently referred to as “granny flats,” ADUs come with a variety of restrictions, but one comment questioned whether they needed to be limited to the rear yard, since some side yards could accommodate the small units.

“Once somebody made the comment, we ran through a couple theoretical scenarios and decided it makes sense to allow it in the side yard as well,” Miller-Shindelar said.

2. Pedestrian connections remain in place.

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Another comment raised awareness of an unintended shift from the city’s existing land development manual, which requires neighborhood pedestrian connections within blocks longer than 600 feet.

Miller-Shindelar it was a case of an alert community reviewer catching something that exists today and was mistakenly dropped from the new code, so it was added to the latest revision.

3. Trees get room to grow. 

The spacing required for trees along walkways was addressed thanks to a suggestion that a 6-foot separation wasn’t enough.

“That was another comment from our stakeholders who pointed out trees need more space to live,” Miller-Shindelar said.

A variety of other comments also addressed trees and landscaping requirements, including one that questioned why meeting minimum planting requirements were restricted to counting trees in the front and side yard.

Yetzer said the Community Development team reviewed the comment and realized the requirements could limit efforts to build some structures closer to the sidewalk or street.

“There are a lot of reasons we feel that change was warranted,” he said, adding that counting backyard plantings could help save existing trees amid development.

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4. Recent zoning changes provide insight.

The required amount of windows and see-through doors in mixed-use developments, which frequently include retail on the lower floors and housing above, was increased in areas outside the downtown and transit corridors, which already have steep requirements.

While the proposal came from a community comment, Yetzer said experience along the Broadway transit corridor in recent years has pointed to a need for flexibility, since some construction is mixing uses on the first floor.

He said requiring 60% of the exterior to provide an interior view when housing is included is problematic.

“We have cleaned that up, but that’s a perfect example of an unintended consequence,” he said. “We’ve had the advantage of having that standard and learning a bit from it over the last three years.”

5. Some fast food is good for neighborhoods.

A comment calling for banning fast-food restaurants next to residential neighborhoods led to a change in the recent draft, where neighborhoods meet commercial areas.

At the same time, Miller-Shindelar said coffee shops and ice cream parlors are considered fast-food businesses and might be desirable next to a neighborhood.

As a result, the change bans the use of drive-thrus and limits size to make the area undesirable for larger businesses.

“That’s how we prevented that while still providing for the type of fast food people would want near neighborhoods,” Miller-Shindelar said.

Comments that didn’t spur change

1. Some accessory dwelling units will need an owner on site. 

One comment requested removing a requirement that the property owner reside in the home or ADU when a secondary dwelling is built in a zoning district dedicated to single-family homes.

Yetzer said the request was considered, but staff opted not to make a change that would allow both units to be rented.

“There is nothing materially different between a duplex and an ADU, so if you can’t have a duplex in that district, a true ADU creates some questions in our mind,” he said, citing the intent of an ADU in such areas is to provide added housing for someone connected to the owner, such as a family member.

2. Public hearings will see a modified approach. 

Several comments received during the public review process have centered on changes to when public hearings are needed.

Yetzer said the city’s current practice calls for hearings during the development process that aren’t legal requirements.

The new code aims to hold more community meetings for developers to discuss plans with neighbors, while also limiting public hearings to substantial decisions.

“The public hearings are still going to happen,” Yetzer said, adding that he believes concerns about focusing the process are unwarranted.

3. Electric car service won’t fuel leniency on development plans. 

A comment asked Community Development staff to consider adding electrical vehicle infrastructure to a list of incentives developers can add to projects in exchange for increased development density, size, or flexibility.

The proposed code includes incentives in four areas — affordable housing, added infrastructure, sustainable development and specific public amenities. Miller-Shindelar said they are considered community benefits that might not be achievable without flexibility in the code.

In addition to electric vehicle infrastructure, comments throughout the process sought incentives for added landscaping and other design elements, but staff determined those could be encouraged within the overall code, rather than as added amenities.

“There are some things we find are just good planning,” Miller-Shindelar said.

4. Building and development codes will provide differing height requirements. 

One commenter pointed out that height restrictions in mixed-use zones don’t match local building code allowances for some potential development.

For example, development of four residential floors over a main floor with commercial space and apartment amenities would be permitted by the building code, but might not pass muster in a particular zone.

Miller-Shindelar said in those cases, the required height won’t be considered automatically allowed, but a developer will be allowed to seek flexibility through the incentive process, which would provide added community benefit.

5. Lighting changes won’t spur new planning staff reviews. 

Another request called for Community Development planning staff to review all exterior lighting changes, whether it’s new lighting or updates and replacement.

Miller-Shindelar said the number of changes made within the city means it would require staff time and training not currently in the planning budget.

“That would be a whole type of other application we would be reviewing,” she said, pointing out that lighting permits are reviewed by other city staff.

The code will see future changes

With the City Council slated to vote on whether the unified development code is ready for adoption, Yetzer said it won’t be implemented until January, giving the Community Development staff time to make operational adjustments.

During that time, he said staff plans to continue fielding questions and comments if someone sees a conflict in the code.

“We welcome those sorts of comments and we’re happy to think through all of those things because that’s how you avoid unintended consequences,” he said.

He said many design standards will need to be tested before changes are considered, but proposed reviews every six months would seek to address conflicts and concerns that are raised.

“I think it’s safe to assume that some sort of unintended consequence is going to get pointed out between now and then, and if we can fix it, why not,” he said.

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Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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