City moving forward with plan to suspend design review board; looking at changes to development codes

The city is moving forward with plans to temporarily suspend its Design Review Board in an effort to relieve some stress on the planning staff.

City Manager Greg Doyon is requesting a six month hiatus for the DRB and explained his reasoning during the Oct. 16 City Commission work session.

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The suspension will require a commission vote, which will likely be scheduled for November.

During the work session, commissioners had questions but indicated that city staff should progress with their proposal to suspend the DRB temporarily.

“It’s not a knee jerk reaction,” Doyon told commissioners. “I wouldn’t ask this if I didn’t feel it necessary.”

The city planning department currently has three vacancies that it has struggled to fill for a variety of reasons and that’s putting more strain on existing staff.

The staffing struggle is coming at a time when the planning office is particularly busy with major projects such as the Great Falls Public Schools projects, Wheat Ridge Estates, North 40 variances and others, as well as a high volume of smaller projects.

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“We’re asking too much of them and it’s not sustainable,” Doyon said.

He’s concerned about staff burnout, but also the efficiency in processing projects and responding to developers.

Preparing for DRB meetings is time-consuming, staff said, and the temporary pause will relieve some pressure on staff while also allowing staff to determine if there are better ways to simply the process.

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Craig Raymond, city planning director, said staff spends considerable time with applicants before a project would go to a review board and staff are well versed in the codes and guidelines. But there have been times when a better result was achieved because an applicant knew the project needed DRB approval, Raymond said. Those equate to about five percent of all projects, he said.

The regulations will not change and staff will continue to review project applications for compliance.

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“There’s been some benefit,” Doyon said, since some projects have been improved through the DRB process, but staff can handle most of that review in-house. Major projects typically need other levels of review, either through the planning board or city commission, allowing for public comment in the process. Neighborhood councils often discuss large projects in their areas as well.

Staff would review the situation throughout the six-month DRB suspension, Doyon said.

The planning department has also been strained by ongoing parking discussions that have had staff largely spinning their wheels. Doyon said once they get through the strategic plan with the Parking Advisory Commission that is currently under contract with SP+, the city’s parking contractor, “we’re going to take a break from parking.”

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Commissioner Bill Bronson said that the could commission consider the suspension, but “we have a symptom of a much larger issue,” in terms of staff recruitment.

Doyon said they’ve adjusted wages and are started to look at other factors, but the immediate concern is the strain on current staff.

Commissioner Owen Robinson said, “I think it’s a good idea,” though it’s unfortunate but necessary.

Commissioner Mary Moe asked if the city could add a design review person to the planning board and Bronson said the city can structure the planning board as they like, so long as it meets state requirements, so that’s an option.

During the same work session, Assistant City Attorney Joseph Cik presented proposed changes to Title 15 of the city code, pertaining to buildings and construction.

The city is required to adopt the international fire and building codes that the state adopts, limiting the city’s ability to make changes to this particular section of the code.

But, it’s the next in city staff’s effort to clean up city code language for clarity, consistency and bringing it up to date with current practice. Cik has been working on updating the code for more than a year.

There are a handful of proposed substantive changes in Title 15 to include clarifying penalties for building moving permits; providing penalties for maintaining unsafe structures; providing penalties for operating without a special business license; providing specific penalties for fire code violations; and enhancing code enforcement options for property screening violations.

Cik said the proposed changes includes more penalty provisions in order to make the city’s code enforcement process more efficient and more clear to residents.

The proposed changes will first go the City Commission for a first reading and then will require a public hearing.

Staff has Titles 3, 13 and 17 remaining for review. Title 3 pertains to revenue and finance; Title 13 pertains to water service, sewer service and storm drainage and Title 17 is the land development code.

Title 13 and particularly Title 17 are expected to take considerable more time to work through and update.

Mayor Bob Kelly asked about zoning and when commissioners should get involved.

Cik pointed out that zoning is in Title 17, not the title currently being considered, but there is a working draft being developed and staff are picking out the areas that need attention.

Cik said staff was requesting direction from commissioners on future changes they’d like to see, though some things are required by state law.

“We would like some commission direction or guidance,” Cik said.

Kelly asked if this code revision process would be the time to discuss certain areas that come up again and again with developers and the public. Recently, areas that have been subject to public criticism include landscaping and parking requirements.

“This is a great opportunity for us to review whether they’re still valid,” Kelly said. “Is this the time to look at potentially adjusting some of these rules and regs that are out there?”

City staff said yes, now would be the time.

Cik said commissioners could start looking at the working draft and provide feedback to staff.

Raymond, the planning director, said “these are really big issues,” and changes can be complicated but “help us out by sharing what your vision is, what your expectation is.”

City Attorney Sara Sexe reminded commissioners that they set the policies by which staff is to do their jobs.

If they have concerns about policies or code provisions, “you need to tell us,” Sexe said. “If you want substantive changes, we need to hear that from you.”

Right now, the code revisions are largely to ensure its consistent with existing law, not for major policy changes, Sexe said.

Bronson said that many of the codes are dictated by state law and people unhappy with those rules should direct their comments to the Motnana Legislature. He said that the existing Title 17 land development code was the result of a 2.5 year study and community effort in the early 2000s and some of it is simply implementing state law.

Moe said she’d prefer a commission retreat to discuss the land development code revisions and her major concern is efficiency.

She said she didn’t think working from the existing framework would necessarily address some of the commission’s concerns.

Doyon suggested commissioners take some time and make a list of specific areas of the land development code they wanted to address but to consider that some of the issues lie in perception.

Staff is currently updating the development review process and will update commissioners on that effort during a November work session.