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Penn Street Overlay District may get overhaul

NORTH LIBERTY– A proposed change to zoning requirements for development along North Liberty’s Penn Street won’t have to wait through three readings for approval.
Therefore, one developer with plans to expand his business there can move forward with his project.
The North Liberty City Council was asked to approve changes to the Penn Street Overlay District section of the code last Tuesday, Sept. 24, and to condense all three readings into one.
They did, and that allowed Dean Moore to move forward with plans to build additional units and an office space for his Quality Care Storage business. Prior to the changes, the site plan for the industrial building was not in strict compliance with the overlay’s checklist.
The Penn Street Overlay District is a set of provisions in the city’s code that were adopted before 2005 and intended to “enhance the visual appearance and image of the Penn Street corridor,” the ordinance states. It sets forth certain requirements for new development along Penn Street, dictating the way a developer designs his landscape, erects signage, includes masonry on the fronts of buildings, and provides bicycle racks.
Essentially, it was meant to keep the Penn Street corridor looking good.
But the Overlay District has become outdated, according to city officials.
“Since the time of the Penn Street Overlay amendment to the zoning ordinance, the city has adopted design standards and other regulations that supersede, surpass, or in some cases conflict with this part of the ordinance,” North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heair said in a memo to the council.
Therefore, city staff is recommending changes to the overlay district ordinance to comply with the updated designs standards currently in place.
Eventually, the district overlay may be eliminated all together.
City Planner Dean Wheatley said in the Sept. 11 council meeting that the city has amended its general zoning ordinances enough that it has made the overlay district requirements almost unnecessary.
But Wheatley wants to consider it further.
“We have been successful in requesting buildings with a lot of masonry content in commercial buildings, but if that overlay district went away, we could have industrial buildings with as little as 25 percent masonry content,” Wheatley told the council. “There is not a lot of land zoned industrial along Penn Street, so it wouldn’t have a huge impact, but those are some things we will have to come back to you with. I am a big fan of deleting excess language whenever possible in an ordinance.”
Wheatley returned to the council in the Sept. 24 meeting proposing changes in the ordinance that would allow Moore to proceed with his building permit process.
Moore’s plan met or exceeded the city’s design standards for development in other parts of the city, but conflicted with the overlay district requirements.
Therefore, the three changes were rather in consequential in light of the city’s more recent design standards, Wheatley noted.
First, the overlay ordinance required a solid berm of plantings in front of each building. Today’s commercial design standards now require all developments to screen their parking lots with plants. And because Moore’s building will be constructed with a great deal of masonry on its front, “it seems a shame to screen what is a nice looking building with masonry,” Wheatley said.
Second, the overlay district required 8 foot sidewalks to be constructed by the developer.
“Our recently-approved trails plan requires an 8 foot walk on one side of the street and a 4 foot sidewalk on the other,” Wheatley explained. Since Moore’s building is located on the north side of Penn Street, a 4 foot sidewalk would be allowable under the new design standards, instead of an 8 foot walkway.
Finally, the overlay district requirement was that entire buildings should be constructed of glass and masonry.
“While we have insisted and changed the ordinance to require more masonry on commercial buildings, many times the buildings in industrial districts are very large, and it would be difficult to enforce a standard to require it to be all masonry.” Moore’s building would have a glass and masonry front, but the sides could be constructed of another material.
The proposed Quality Care Storage facility would be similar to the storage warehouse already located on Penn Street, with climate-controlled storage units and a staffed office. There will also be an automated kiosk that will take credit cards and issue units outside business hours.
The city council didn’t have a problem with changing the overlay ordinance– they passed the first reading without discussion– but two council members expressed concern over condensing the additional two readings into one last week.
Coleen Chipman and Chris Hoffman would rather have waited, they said.
“I just want to give the public a chance to comment if they want to,” said Hoffman. “But since there wasn’t anyone here tonight (during the public hearing), so it doesn’t look like there might be anyway. It’s a very minimal amount of language being changed.”
“I am in favor of waiting,” said Chipman. “The law states we should have three readings. It gives people a chance to comment. If we did the three readings and someone does have a concern, it’s already done. If we treat this case differently, we could have many developers coming in and asking us to condense all the readings. I think you always have to let the public have a chance to comment if they want to.”
Chipman asked if the council could give the developer an informal approval to proceed, while also taking the next two meetings to conduct the final readings on the ordinance amendment.
City Attorney Scott Peterson said the changes relatively routine, weren’t controversial, and there was a public hearing scheduled for last Tuesday and no one appeared.
“I think to not take the action and then give staff or the developer an informal consent, I am uncomfortable with that,” Peterson said.
“Really this is just a clean-up measure to get this process moving along. That’s why we are recommending condensing the readings,” Heair said.
Council member Brian Wayson asked if delaying the readings would affect the project.
“We are under the gun to get this project done by January, so it’s important to get it done,” Moore replied. “But I respect the problems and questions you are dealing with. The sooner the better for us, but I don’t want it to be a problem for you either.
Chipman conceded to condensing the three readings after hearing more discussion from staff and council.
“I can change my mind just for the fact that it is city-driven. It is not condensing the reading of zonings or other projects such as preliminary plats. When you have a project that does look very nice, I don’t want to discourage a developer from bringing those projects forward,” said Chipman.
Wheatley and Peterson both reminded the council that the overlay district as a whole would be reviewed in the near future.
“We will come back to you most likely and try to look at the Penn Street overlay district in an overall sense to see if we need it anymore, and if so, how might we change it to bring it up to date,” Wheatley said.