2014-09-25 / Front Page

Planners may add guidelines to zoning law

By Margo Sullivan

Jamestown’s zoning ordinance could have pictures to show design guidelines for commercial buildings in the village’s special development district, the Planning Commission decided at its meeting on Sept. 17.

But details are still to be decided about how to “wrap these guidelines into zoning,” according to Chairman Michael Swistak.

Commissioners Bernie Pfeiffer, Mick Cochran, Duncan Pendlebury, Rosemary Enright, Michael Smith and Michael Jaquard attended the session, which primarily continued work on the effort to correct an unenforceable section of the ordinance related to preserving village character.

Swistak summed up the progress so far by noting that the panel at its last meeting had decided not to press homeowners to conform to new regulations if they own village property identified as a building of value. The decision was reached by consensus; however, no formal vote was taken.

The commission asked Town Planner Lisa Bryer to meet with the town solicitor to draft language that will correct the problematic sections in the zoning ordinance. The lawyer is also preparing amendments that will eventually go to the Town Council for a vote. Swistak estimated the solicitor’s work will require about a month.

Meanwhile, he said, the “discussion about residential guidelines is on the sidelines,” though he predicted the commissioners would ultimately “revisit ideas about education” as a way to encourage people to follow the design guidelines voluntarily.

Bryer said that design guidelines originally had been created to address issues with residential property. As a result, the information on commercial property was “kind of basic.” She predicted there could be “gaps in the pattern book that may not address commercial” properties.

As a first step, she suggested reviewing Article 11 of the code to “make sure everything we’re telling them to do is in here.” If not, she said, staff could take photographs and update the materials. (The section defines the “purpose and intent to recognize the importance of community character and buildings of value.”)

Bryer also advocated bringing back Don Powers of consulting firm Union Studio to refresh some “graphic guidance” in the pattern book. Powers has been a consultant on architectural guidelines in the past. She indicated the updated book could work as a companion to the ordinance.

Initially, Swistak was not convinced the time was right to consults Powers. Smith also expressed some caveats.

“These are great guidelines,” he said. “They should remain guidelines.”

Smith indicated he did not favor making the guidelines part of the ordinance.

But Bryer said the applicants often cannot understand what the town wants them to do, and the design guidelines, which should solve that problem by showing a picture, have “some obvious gaps.”

Bryer went through the guidelines completely. When she finished making a list of gaps, Swistak polled the commissioners on who wanted to make the design guidelines part of the ordinance.

“Anybody have strong opposition?” Swistak asked.

“Besides me?” Smith replied. “I just see a lot of mischief.”

If they’re adopted, he predicted, they’ll prove a roadblock to development.

“Any added verbiage just clouds the issue all the more,” Smith said. “This is Mr. Powers’ version of an ideal world. This is not my version.”

He dismissed the guidelines as “window dressing.”

Smith said every property “is going to be a special case situation,” and anticipated the guidelines would “tie the people’s hands who want to develop that property.”

Pendlebury disagreed.

“The pattern book takes away from creating a special case for every condition,” he said. Plus, it helps “obviate the potential for something going disastrously wrong” like a McDonald’s coming to town.

“McDonald’s isn’t coming to town,” Smith shot back. “That’s a silly example.”

But on a walk from East Ferry to West Ferry, he said, anyone can see buildings ”that don’t fit the guidelines.”

“All the churches have been replaced,” Smith said, adding that it’s the “purpose of that commercial property that drives its design.”

“I’m not sure what you mean by that,” Pendlebury said. The design guidelines are merely “giving a visual aid to accompany the words in the zoning ordinance.”

“We could take some of these sketches and put them right into zoning, and some communities do that,” he said.

Pfeiffer thought the code could simply refer to the guidelines, especially because they’re already referenced in the ordinance.

Bryer said ultimately the “language that connects the zoning ordinance to the design guidelines is going to be key,” especially in determining whether the guidelines are mandatory, for guidance, or at the property owner’s discretion.

Jaquard said he also sees the guidelines and the code as “handin hand” companion documents.

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