The city’s Zoning Ordinance Committee on Thursday takes up proposed changes to the process for creating conservation districts.

The committee asked city staff to review its process for conservation districts back in 2010 but a reduction in staff in the Sustainable Development and Construction department delayed the work until last year.

The changes are intended to “make the process easier and above board and more transparent,” says Historic Preservation manager Neva Dean.

One of the biggest changes has to do with the petition that is required for a neighborhood to start the process. Currently, the petition asks the city to study whether a conservation district is feasible. Proposed changes would skip that and instead require a petition stating that homeowners want the zoning change to a conservation district. The city also wants to increase the number of signatures required to as many as 75 percent of the homeowners in the area.

Melissa Kingston of the Belmont Addition says some changes to the process might be needed, but she and other neighbors are concerned that the changes are overreaching, could make it more difficult for a neighborhood to obtain conservation district zoning and could pave the way for more changes to existing conservation districts.

Here are some of Kingston’s concerned, as outlined in a letter to the Zoning Ordinance Committee:

1. Discretion of Director: The revisions give the Director of Development Services significant discretion that could be used to defeat the purpose of the statute and limit the creation of new CDs. For example, see Section (d)(2)(H) and Section (g)(2)(C). These are new provisions that basically give the Director the authority to require applicants to do whatever she says without any guidance from the statute.

2. No Time Limits by When Director Must Act: There are no timeframes from some of the decisions and actions that are required by the Director. For example, under section (g)(3) and (4), there is no time by when the Director has to determine whether the application is complete. There is no time frame by when the Director must schedule the pre-meetings or the public meetings. All action required by the neighborhood seeking to become or modify a CD has strict timeframes. We see no reason why City Staff should not be held to the same standards.

3. Reduced Appeal Rights: Section (g)(5) does away with City Council appeal. Similarly, Section (f)(4) makes the Director’s decision whether an area is eligible for CD status not subject to appeal. We oppose limiting the right to appeal the Director’s decisions.

4. Poorly Drafted Lists: The lists under Section (h) regarding what “must” and “may” be regulated by a CD need work. For example, I think (a) doors, (b) alteration of lots (building up or scraping) and any other alterations to the lot that could create run-off issues for neighboring properties, and (c) trees should be included in the “must be regulated” category. I believe that the list of what “may be regulated” should not be so limiting and should include a catch-all that allows neighborhoods discretion to address specific and unique aspects of their neighborhoods. As the proposed changes are written now, if the feature a neighborhood wants to regulate through its CD is not on the “may be regulated” list, that neighborhood cannot regulate it. Examples of things not on the “may be regulated” list that might be something a neighborhood wants to regulate include some unique feature that a certain land use or architectural style has that is not on one of these lists or simply things like placement of satellite dishes and mail boxes.

5. New Application / Petition Process is ONEROUS: City Staff routinely complains that administering CDs takes too much of the City’s resources, which is why we are baffled that the Staff wants to create more processes. In our view, the new petition/application process is designed to make it almost impossible to get people on board with becoming a CD early on and makes it logistically almost impossible for any neighborhood to jump through all of the hoops in the time frames mandated.

a.) The current process allows one person to initiate the process of becoming a CD by submitting an application with the required information. From that, staff determines whether the application is complete and whether the proposed CD is eligible to become a CD. The application has to have the signature of 50% of the property owners in the proposed CD, but that petition merely says the people are interested in determining whether they want to become a CD. This process, as it now stands, takes most neighborhoods months of hard work to achieve.

b.) The new process requires the formation of a 10-member Neighborhood Committee to seek the Director’s determination whether the proposed CD is eligible to become a CD. If so, the Neighborhood Committee must have 2 pre-application meetings where the proposed changes that will be included in the CD are discussed (meaning you have to know what you want the CD ordinance will likely say before any public meetings), at the end of these 2 pre-application meetings, the Director provides a Petition that the neighborhood has to get signed by 75% (or 66%) of the property owners (up from 50%) that lays out all of the things the Neighborhood Committee thinks it wants in the CD Ordinance. This petition has detailed information about what the new CD might look like before the public drafting meetings (including a list of development and architectural standards that the Neighborhood Committee of 10 thinks it might want). And the neighborhood must have the “original petition” signed, which means that you cannot submit copies and have teams of people (like block captains or street captains) working the neighborhood to gather signatures. And now you have 60 days or 6 months to get your signatures. There previously was no time limit.

If the committee approves the proposed changes, they will go to the City Plan Commission in April, then the city’s Quality of Life Committee and then the full City Council.