Manhattan Tuesday narrowly approved new development codes attempting to modernize and unify the city’s zoning and subdivision regulations, leaving some residents concerned.
The Manhattan Development Code, once referred to as the Unified Development Ordinance, has been in the works for five years and includes numerous amendments that city planners say reflect modern conditions in the city. The unified ordinance features numerous changes such as consolidation of certain zoning districts, new site and building design requirements, and a streamlined project review process among others.
“We adopted a new comprehensive plan in 2015, and the [Manhattan Area Transportation Strategy] about the same time,” says Senior Planner John Adam. “Bike/Ped System Plan was adopted last year, there are other adopted plans including Aggieville that necessitated this overhaul.
“It was time to look at this again, open it up, rewrite it.”
You can see past coverage by KMAN of the MDC and its provisions here. Manhattan has more information on updates and changes, including a video series on the MDC here.
“The MDC has new ideas and practices, but it is still pretty much familiar as a development code,” Adam says. “Districts are consolidated, new uses have been added, new development requirements exist, there are new development options for developers to use and it embodies the direction from several adopted plans.”
Adam also says the city received extensive feedback from the public and various boards and committees in the community, though resident Mel Borst indicated a different view on the city’s efforts to inform the public and said city staff did not do enough to provide information on proposed changes in lay terms.
“Zoning regulation changes contained in the Manhattan Development Code […],” Borst says. “Not only can further damage established neighborhood integrity and historic environs, but they also conflict with the Manhattan Urban Area Comprehensive Plan’s intent, purpose, policies and goals.”
Borst spoke during public comments at Tuesday’s Manhattan City Commission meeting. He was especially concerned about the prospect of opening up traditional and historic neighborhoods to the development of oversized homes if the MDC were passed as is.
Adam, though, says the code changes reflect conditions already set in neighborhoods and will reduce the number of applications for variances coming before the Board of Zoning Appeals.
“When you have that happening and the BZA coming back at you and saying every single time, ‘yeah, we can grant that exception, it’s in keeping with the character of the neighborhood’,” Adam says. “That is a good indicator that your code is wrong […] because it is not tracking with reality.”
Adam says he has ‘no doubt’ they’ve made the right decisions with the MDC, though noted they expect small tweaks will be necessary as the new regulations roll out and anticipate feedback from the community on the matter.
Adam says they have relief valves built in, also, and that the option of variances, waivers and allowances for developments remain and that the option to go before the BZA continues to be available.
“We don’t think that we’re going to catch everything and we think there’s going to be some hiccups that emerge from this.”
Commissioner Linda Morse also noted the interruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that may have hindered public engagement on the MDC and expressed her openness to make amendments ‘at such time as we feel like it is appropriate.’
“It is important that we express a willingness to make changes in this,” says Morse. “This is not cast in stone.”
Multiple commissioners expressed less than total support for the entirety of the changes included in the MDC, though a supermajority continued to support the proposal including Commissioner Mark Hatesohl. He says it’s time to get something in place and make amendments as needed going forward.
“I don’t like everything [in it], I don’t like the idea of having to put sidewalks on both sides of the streets,” says Hatesohl. “On one hand, people talk about affordable housing — making everybody put a sidewalk in front of their house does not make your house more affordable.”
Commissioner Aaron Estabrook was the sole dissenting vote. He objected to the definition of family under the code, which includes two or more persons related by blood, adoption, marriage or guardianship, or not more than four unrelated persons operating as a single housekeeping unit. Estabrook says he’s requested the definition be amended dating back to his election.
“As I compromised and negotiated with the other commissioners on their wants and their needs and balanced those things, I let go of some of my items,” says Estabrook. “But I did make it clear that I wouldn’t let go of the definition of family so I won’t be able to support this version as it is.”
The item passed 4 to 1 on first reading and will return for final approval. Given the need for a supermajority in the commission due to a late amendment required by the state, the item received the exact number of votes to be approved.