West U Residents Speak on Zoning Proposals

The West University Place City Council and the Zoning and Planning Commission held a lengthy public hearing Monday on proposed revisions to the zoning ordinance for non-single family residential properties in the city.

The proposed revisions are the result of a year-long effort to update the city’s zoning rules for commercial properties, the townhome district along Kirby Drive, and the Town Center Commercial District on the east side of Edloe St. between University Blvd. and Rice Blvd.

The proposed zoning changes are very different from a controversial 2011 effort to change the zoning for those areas, said consultant Gary Mitchell, of the Kendig-Keast Collaborative.

The proposed Town Center Commercial District, a block of buildings that do not comply with the city’s current zoning rules, was a key focus of the 2011 plan to redevelop “downtown” West U.

Because the buildings are “grandfathered” in the city’s current zoning code, they could not be rebuilt in the event of a catastrophe, such as a fire or flood. The proposed new zoning ordinance would not include a parking garage, would limit the buildings’ height to two stories, or 35 feet, and would require rebuilt properties to be built at the front of the property line, with parking behind the structures.

The proposed change would allow, however, for a property owner in the Town Center who wanted to rebuild after a catastrophe to seek a “special exception” from the new zoning rules from the Zoning Board of Adjustment.  In such a case, the property owner would have to show that rebuilding is necessary to avoid substantial economic waste and economic hardship, or; that there would be no substantial adverse effects of the rebuilt structure and that the square footage would be substantially the same.

West U resident Vernon Tyger, who has closely followed the zoning ordinance review, said the Town Center Commercial District “may cause problems in the future.

“This is, of course, primarily a residential community. We shouldn’t let the tail wag the dog,” Tyger said. “We don’t need to allow for unintended consequences, and again, does it benefit the community?”

West U resident Brennan Riley also opposed the Town Center Commercial District plan, particularly the section that would allow the Zoning Board of Adjustment to grant special exceptions.

Steve Brown also objected to the “special exception” proposal.

“It is not a good idea,” Brown said. “I am opposed to it. I hope the ZPC will rethink this and delete it from your final report to the city council.”

Larry Kelly, a West U resident who served on the ZPC in 1979, also cautioned against the special exception process.

“Be mindful of the exception to rebuild it just the way it was,” Kelly said.

West U resident Bruce Frankel, who chaired the 2011 Town Center committee, endorsed the proposed zoning changes.

“I think this report has been incredibly well thought out,” Frankel said. “I think it’s the best report and the best proposed changes to the ordinance that you’re ever going to get. I urged the council to approve them and move forward.

The proposed changes to the commercial zoning ordinance also would allow two properties on Kirby Dr. that are zoned for townhomes to be converted to commercial properties. Mitchell noted that the two properties, which are located between Tangley and Plumb, are already in commercial use.

Other changes to the commercial zoning ordinance include a “grab bag” of changes aimed at improving the aesthetics of West U, such as requiring all roof-top equipment to be screened from street view, and stricter regulations on commercial properties’ “maintenance” efforts like power-washing and trash pick-up.

The Planning and Zoning Commission will meet Thursday to consider the public’s input from the hearing, and will submit a final report to the city council for consideration.

West U City Manager Michael Ross said the council could consider the changes to the zoning ordinance at its next regular meeting February 23. But zoning changes must be considered in two separate regularly scheduled meetings, so the city council’s final consideration of the changes will take place in early March.