GENEVA – After more than two hours of debate, aldermen approved portions of an ordinance Aug. 5 that combines the Zoning Board of Appeals with the Plan Commission as one body, and adopted zoning amendments to match up with the Downtown Station-Area Master Plan, which was approved in 2012.
The changes were to provide consistency between the downtown master plan and the city’s zoning ordinance to remove barriers to investment and development, and to streamline the review process without compromising quality, officials said.
The last comprehensive zoning map was adopted in 1995, officials said. current zoning ordinance was in 1995, officials said.
Aldermen voted 9-0 with one absent to approve the portion of the ordinance that combined the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Plan Commission and other changes. Second Ward Alderman Michael Clements was absent.
They voted 8-1 with one absent to accept the recommended zoning changes for the downtown business district.
Fifth Ward Alderman Robert Swanson cast the lone no vote.
"People are very protective of the existing character of the downtown and of their neighborhoods," Swanson said. "Anything that upsets that – we need to tread very carefully. That is why I’m apprehensive."
Aldermen voted 7-2 with one absent against allowing administrative review of development proposals.
First Ward Alderman Michael Bruno and 4th Ward Alderman Jeanne McGowan cast the two yes votes.
Community Development Director David DeGroot said combining the Plan Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals into one body would streamline the process for applicants and for the city. He said 41 of 63 municipalities surveyed had consolidated the two functions into one board.
As to the zoning changes, DeGroot said current zoning regulations were too rigid, as business owners said they needed more flexibility. One example was that restaurants on South Third Street all needed a special permit.
“It’s pretty much become a dining district," DeGroot said. "There really shouldn’t be a need to apply for a special use permit to open a new restaurant (there). The new ordinance eliminates that need for a special use.”
But aldermen were not ready to give staff administrative review to approve development and redevelopment allowed by zoning.
DeGroot said when a development proposal comes to administrative review, if the applicant checks all the boxes, issues can be resolved then.
For Burghart, giving staff more power to approve those developments already permitted by the zoning code, means less transparency.
“Even if the process slows up some development, the benefit is neighbors are noticed (of the proposal) and have an opportunity to air their grievances before the Plan Commission and the City Council,” Burghart said.
To clarify, Mayor Kevin Burns said by-right development means a developer “checks all the boxes” of the city’s requirements.
“From a legal standpoint, the regulatory bodies have no legal authority to deny a by-right development, other than – forgive me – politics,” Burns said.
“Therein lies my conflict,” Maladra said. “We have no legal authority to stop it, but the public process may still inform it. What ends up being constructed quite possibly – and in our history, most likely – reflects what was heard.”
Burns provided another example:
“I have the right to mow my lawn in a diagonal and you want a checkerboard,” Burns said. “‘I don’t care what you like. This is my property.’ That becomes a conflict in and of itself. Are we creating drama where none exists? Or are we preserving the opportunity to have drama that might help shape what may or may not be developed?”
DeGroot said that in the 10 years he has been with the city, he could not think of a single instance where a developer “ticked all the boxes” and still did not require some site plan review by the Plan Commission and City Council.
“It provides some incentive to a developer to check all the boxes because they don’t want to go through the public process,” DeGroot said. “You streamline it that way if a developer meets all the requirements.”
Burns said later that he was disappointed aldermen rejected administrative review.
“I’m delighted with the council support of comprehensive rezoning of downtown as well as reaffirmation to streamline the Plan Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals into one effective body,” Burns said. “I’m confident we will continue to study the impact of not allowing for greater administrative review and approval, and see how many things could have been administratively approved – and I trust there won’t be many.”