Plans to update Rochester’s land development manual shifted gears Monday.

Don Elliot, a director with Denver-based Clarion Associates, suggested the council change direction on an expected update to the manual, which serves as the city’s rulebook for future development.

“We can do it,” he said of proposed updates to guidelines for providing flexibility in some development.

Elliot has already helped the city Community Development staff produce new zoning districts in the city to help provide infill development and transit-oriented development around key corridors entering downtown.

The next step called for an update to guidelines that can allow developers to bypass some rules if they provide specific community benefits or show reason for needing flexibility. Among developments that have been able to work around guidelines are Flats on Fourth, 412 Third Ave. SE, which provided some affordable housing and received city concessions on height requirements, and the Second Street Southwest hotel being built on the site of the former Virgil's Auto Clinic, which included negotiations for approval.

The same can be said for a variety of housing and hotel projects in the city, as well as mixed-use developments. 

No more moving targets

City staff, council members and members of the Planning and Zoning Commission, along with developers and residents, have routinely cited concerns about what can sometimes appear to be moving targets when it comes to development rules.

Elliot said part of the problem is the nature of the city land-development manual, which features a variety of tweaks that have been made since it was adopted in 1992.

“Your land-development manual is organized differently that any I have ever seen,” he said.

Council Member Nick Campion said he’s experienced the confusion that the manual can cause. As a former member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, he said it’s often hard to point people to the rules that govern a specific aspect of development.

Elliot said that’s why he’s proposing the city adopt a unified development code to replace the land-development manual. A code would provide guidance beyond land development by incorporating issues such as heritage preservation, energy commission and subdivision guidelines.

Additionally, he said it will provide a clearer picture for development with the ability to easily search the document and determine the city’s expectations for future development.

“We find a lot of building and development folks like it better,” he said.

'It's time we modernize'

Elliot is proposing using $85,000 in unspent contract funds and $300,000 in new funds the City Council has earmarked for rewriting the land development manual to create the new code.

Council members indicated they are prepared to move forward with starting what Elliot has defined as an approximately two-year process.

“To me, it’s time we modernize the ordinance,” Campion said.

Council President Randy Staver, however, said the work will also need to be done keeping an eye on past decisions, which may have been made to address specific problems in the past.

“I don’t think anyone disagrees in noting that a great deal of clean up is needed,” he said of updating development rules.

Elliot said the process will include a variety of ways for residents, developers and others to weigh in on what is needed.

“We try to open as many channels as possible,” he said, noting efforts will go beyond what was seen for recent zoning changes.

“When you do the full ordinance, you need to cast a wider net,” he added.

Long time coming

As for the timeframe, he said it would be difficult to speed things up beyond the proposal and still provide multiple opportunities for local residents and developers to monitor the progress.

“We could cut a couple months off here,” he said. “We can’t cut a year.”

Ryan Yetzer, a principal planner with the city’s Community Development Department, said the goal would be to present the City Council with a contract before the end of the year.

“We are hoping to start the project as close to the start of the year as we can,” he said.

Council Member Michael Wojcik noted the two-year timeframe means the final decision on approving a new code would come after the 2020 election, meaning council opinions could shift.

Wojcik, along with Council Member Annalissa Johnson, said it’s too early to say whether they plan to run for another term. Staver said he’s not ready to commit to another election cycle, but said, “Chances are good I will.”

Council Member Mark Bilderback has indicated he doesn’t plan to seek another term as the Fourth Ward representative.

“I won’t be the one that is sitting here when this is all done after that period of time,” he said.

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