A proposal two years in the making soon will become law. A new unified development code — comprised of subdivision and zoning regulations, along with other related documents — unanimously was approved by the Hays City Commission on Thursday.
“Not that I’ve been counting, but approximately two years, four months, one day and six hours ago, we actually held our first kickoff meeting for this project, which is a rewrite of the zoning and subdivision regulations,” said Jesse Rohr, superintendent of planning, inspection and enforcement for the city of Hays.
The new document is lengthy — partly due to the inclusion of stormwater and floodplain regulations and more definitions — but a great deal of effort was expended to make the ordinance easier to understand and more development-friendly, Rohr said.
Commissioners indicated that was a key priority. Commissioner Lance Jones asked consultant Bret Keast if the new code will make it easier or more difficult for homeowners to make improvements and for new developments to progress.
In both situations, the new document is expected to simplify the process.
“For me, the importance of this is to make it simpler for somebody like myself who doesn’t do this a lot,” Jones said. “I have gone down and got a permit to do stuff. I just don’t want to make it a harder process for somebody who’s already not comfortable with that process.”
Significant changes to the regulations include reducing the number of zoning districts from 21 to 12. A revised zoning map is attached to the regulations and also was approved 5-0 at Thursday’s meeting.
The map calls for certain undeveloped areas to be reverted back to agricultural use. A zoning map adopted by the city in 1988 had zoned a few undeveloped areas as industrial or commercial in anticipation of potential city growth at that time, Rohr said, noting that really is the function of a comprehensive plan, not a zoning map.
Those areas that remain undeveloped 28 years later will be switched back to agriculture use. If property owners desire their status to remain the same, they can request to do so, he said. Approximately a dozen properties are affected by the change.
The result of having fewer zoning districts will result in more inclusive developments. For example, some neighborhoods in Hays have four different residential zoning distinctions, only due to differences in lot size.
One of three new zoning districts is “mixed use,” which would allow a blend of commercial and residential structures in the same neighborhood. Commissioners had expressed interest in that option due to possible proposals in the future for more living quarters above businesses in the downtown vicinity.
Another highlight of the unified development code is the addition of neighborhood conservation zones, which essentially “grandfather in” all properties that were built in accordance with city laws at the time of construction. Without those districts, many existing properties would be considered “non-conforming” with the new code, which could result in difficulties during property transactions, Keast said.
“Instead of doing that, we said we’re inheriting these homes. They were built in different periods, under different circumstances and regulations,” Keast said. “So we’re essentially going to lock those regulations in.”
The code also was created to reduce the number of appeals processes developers must go through for variances. More authority now will rest with a zoning administrator — presumably Rohr — who will be appointed by the city manager.
The Board of Zoning Appeals from 2015 to 2016 has heard 15 requests for variances. If the new code had been applied, that number would have been cut in half. The move should streamline development and speed up the process, Keast said.
“Fewer zoning districts means fewer zone changes, fewer planning commission meetings, fewer council meetings, less time, less expense,” he said. “Those who are used to going through that process will be tickled pink they won’t have to go through it nearly as often.”
The increased administrative authority, however, was cited as an initial concern by the Hays Board of Realtors, local realtor Doug Williams said.
Williams noted the advocacy group initially “strongly opposed” the proposal when work began two years ago. Since then, the document has undergone public hearings and many changes, and the organization feels more comfortable, he said.
“We do still have some concerns, but this point ... I think it maybe needs to be passed so the rest of it can be vetted out and figure out what the bad parts are,” Williams said. “Some concerns we still have, it puts a lot of authority in the zoning administrator, that would be Jesse (Rohr). I have no issue with that, as long as it’s Jesse.”
Commissioner James Meier said that also was one of his initial concerns, but noted there is an appeals process if a resident or developer believes they were treated unfairly. That process would include taking the issue before the Hays Area Planning Commission.
“Ultimately, there is recourse for somebody who thinks that maybe they haven’t been treated in a fair manner,” Meier said. “I appreciate your comments very much.”
Commissioners asked questions about other specific parts of the resolution, but ultimately agreed the zoning and subdivision regulations are intended to be flexible and can be amended if necessary.
“The old document has been tweaked and amended many times, and I look at this as the same thing,” Mayor Eber Phelps said. “Like you, I want to say let’s pass it and see what happens. I think, for the most part, it’s going to work. But obviously, building trends change, housing needs change, a lot of things change. Over the years, we’re going to see some various tweaking in this.”
The code and map are available at haysusa.com. Paper versions also will be available at the city public works office.