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City of NL to consider changes to parking, storage regulations

NORTH LIBERTY– As residential and commercial growth continues in North Liberty, the city must also make sure its rules and regulations keep up.
That’s the reason behind a proposed set of changes to the city’s on-site parking and storage ordinance.
At the North Liberty Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission’s November meeting, City Planner Dean Wheatley presented significant amendments regarding where and how vehicles and equipment can be parked and stored on various types of properties. The commission members had several questions, and asked for additional time to review the changes before making a formal recommendation to the council.
Wheatley said in a post-meeting interview the process for writing and amending ordinances is very difficult, but important for the sake of consistency.
“We are trying to better define the ordinance as it’s written,” Wheatley said. “As we work with and enforce ordinances, times change, people change and situations change, so that our ordinances need to be tweaked to keep with current times. As time goes on, administratively we adopt ways to consider and enforce ordinances, and they need to be codified so everyone understands the rules and we don’t vary in our enforcement.”
Wheatley said some ongoing issues have included complaints about RVs and boats parked on individual properties.
“Usually they come from people complaining about large trailers parked for long periods of time in a certain spot,” Wheatley said. “They end up being parked in commercial parking lots, maybe used as billboards, or people are unhooking them from vehicles, leaving them on the street and using them for home business purposes. That creates problems for snow plowing, street cleaning, traffic, they are unsightly and even dangerous if there is a potential for them to roll away.”
The volume of such complaints is fairly low; building official Ben Yoder, whose role is to enforce zoning ordinances and the city’s housing code, said he receives them only occasionally.
“We have ordinances in place to hopefully prevent the types of parking and outside storage that citizens would complain about,” Yoder said in an email. “People will put up with a fair amount before they are bothered enough to file a complaint. We are tweaking our parking and outside storage ordinances to make them clearer as well as addressing some concerns that have been identified by citizens and staff.”
When Yoder receives a verbal or written complaint, he verifies whether a violation has been made and registers the case in the building department’s system and follows up by contacting the property owner through email or standard mail, or sometimes in person.
“Time is always given to correct a violation unless records show they had been warned before, or are an ongoing problem for the city,” Yoder noted. “The most important thing for a person to do if they receive any notification from the city is to keep information and communication flowing. We are always willing to work with someone (if) they are willing to define a plan and agreeable timeline to bring everything into compliance. Many times they may not even know that what they were doing was a violation.”
Not all complaints pertain to things that are clearly spelled out in city code, but Wheatley is hoping the proposed changes to the current ordinance will address more residents’ concerns and safety.
Not everyone agrees with the current standards, Wheatley noted, and some will balk at the changes.
“The biggest one is, if you are going to park a vehicle on your property, it has to be on a paved surface, and a number of people don’t think that’s reasonable,” he told the P&Z Commission. “We have folks who are storing boats and RVs on their lots– or multiple boats and RVs– and it can get pretty unsightly.”
And unwieldy, he added. That’s why the new regulations state an RV in a side yard must be under 15,000 pounds, and parked on a paved surface that also meets the required side-yard setbacks.
“Boats and RVs can get pretty big. We had a person park the biggest RV I’ve ever seen in their side yard a few years ago and had complaints from their neighbors, and there was nothing we could do about it,” Wheatley said. “It was not unlike having a house sitting right next to the property line.”
Certain zoning districts allow for outside storage of automobiles, recreational vehicles and equipment, but only with specific rules for screening, hard-surfacing and location.
One of the most restricted class of vehicles is semi-tractors and semi-trailers; they simply won’t be allowed to be parked or stored on private or commercial lots unless shown on an approved site plan.
“Most over-the-road truckers have a (commercial) home-base where they park now,” Wheatley said. “There are very few private contractors any more.”
Also prohibited will be storing vehicles or equipment for anyone other than the property owner or immediate family.
“We have some cases in towns where folks have very large lots, and some of them have wanted to rent space for people to park vehicles, and that’s really a warehouse use, not residential,” Wheatley told the commission.
Another big problem the city hopes to address is the proliferation of open and enclosed trailers being parked in various locations. The new regulations would restrict trailers to one per lot, which must fit within an approved parking space, not be used for accessory storage and not be parked in a front yard unless no other spot is available on site. Also, large apparatus like snow blades and mower decks would only be allowed in outside storage areas when related to the business use of the lot; for example, lawn care or snow removal services.
Commissioners asked if there would be a grandfather clause for certain parking or storage situations that existed prior to adopting the new regulations, and Wheatley said it would be taken under consideration, but chronology would be very difficult to determine.
“It’s tough, once something is allowed, to go back,” Wheatley said. “That’s why the recommendation is not to disallow boats and RVs in side yards. But if they are required to be on pavement, it’s at least a little less unsightly, and less easy for people just to pull boats into their side yard.”
A separate section of the city’s code of ordinances addresses on-street parking, which has no recommended changes at this time. Also, temporary and movable storage trailers like PODS® are addressed as an accessory use and carry their own set of regulations.
Enforcement of the regulations are both complaint-driven and initiated by city staff, who may see violations as they drive throughout North Liberty.
“Staff does look for infractions to some extent; it’s always a matter of degree,” said Wheatley. “The single most important thing is for us to be consistent. Because we do have regulations, and we are trying to keep the city looking neat and tidy and not have things parked all over the place.”
As with all ordinances, residents have recourse if they disagree with city regulations. They can request a variance through the city’s Board of Adjustment, or simply request that a regulation be changed.
“We would take it under consideration as a staff,” Wheatley said. “The process of crafting regulations and enforcing them is much more difficult than people understand. When we look at ordinance provisions, we ask: have we had complaints about it; how does it impact neighborhoods; and how would I like it if my neighbor did it?”
The P&Z Commission is expected to discuss the proposed rule changes in a future meeting. The commission’s next meeting will be Dec. 1 at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers at 1 Quail Creek Cr. All meetings are open to the public.
Comments may be offered at the meeting, or the public may contact city staff directly by calling 626-5700 or emailing Ben Yoder at byoder@northlibertyiowa.org or Dean Wheatley at dwheatley@northlibertyiowa.org.