Process underway to update city land development code

The city’s development processes and requirements are often blasted as impediments to development, but much of the land use code was revised in 2005 as part of a major community effort after continued complaints about the overall appearance of the city.

Now, the city is working to update Title 17, the land development code, as staff continues to revise the municipal code, cleaning up typographical errors and correcting areas where the code conflicts with itself, state or federal laws.

Assistant City Attorney Joseph Cik has spearheaded the comprehensive review and revision of the entire municipal code, an effort that began in 2017.

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Title 17 is the largest and most complex section of city code and includes about 400 pages of rules related to zoning, landscaping, parking and more.

For the most part, the code revisions don’t include major policy shifts except for the sake of clarity and conformance with current laws and practice. But there have been some significant changes as staff works through each section and commissioners have indicated in multiple public meetings a desire to look at changing the city’s development process.

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Commissioner Bill Bronson cautioned during an October meeting against making changes without careful consideration and said 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.

During that October meeting, Cik presented proposed changes to a different code section to the City Commission at a work session. During the meeting, commissioners indicated a desire to completely overhaul Title 17 and asked for drafts early in the process to give feedback.

Within a week, Cik sent a working draft to commissioners.

As of Jan. 4, staff said no feedback had been received from commissioners on the draft and during the Jan. 3 commission meeting, City Manager Greg Doyon asked commissioners to please read and comment on the draft since the process is underway.

“You had some concerns,” Doyon told commissioners on Jan. 3. “Now is the opportunity to propose changes to the current process.”

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Next week, the city planning board will take a first look at the first few chapters of Title 17 to consider proposed revisions.

City staffers are starting with some non-substantive changes, including establishing and reserving Chapters 1-3 and correcting typographical, grammatical, formatting, and referencing deficiencies in Chapter 4.

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The proposed ordinance on the planning board’s Jan. 8 agenda includes a significant substantive change pertaining to the applicability of zoning regulations to public entities.

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Staff has proposed changes to clarify what city zoning regulations apply to public entities developing land and would clarify that public entities are only exempt from regulations that are specifically designated by state law which are:

  • the height, number of stories, and size of buildings and other structures;
  • the percentage of lot that may be occupied;
  • the size of yards, courts, and other open spaces;
  • the density of population; and
  • the location and use of buildings, structures, and land for trade, industry, residence, or other purposes.

The proposed amendments clarify the process the public entity would be required to follow to be exempt from the above listed regulations. It would also specifically require that public entities developing property to comply with all other development and property maintenance standards outlined in the city code.

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Those changes stem directly from issues identified in the code and processes as Great Falls Public Schools has been building new schools under the bond levy. The city and GFPS have disagreed on interpretation of state law and what development regulations apply to the school district.

GFPS has argued that the district doesn’t have to comply with zoning or development standards, but city staff contend that the development standards, which include landscaping, parking, setbacks and more, do apply to other government entities when they develop contrary to zoning.

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During the Oct. 16 work session, Mayor Bob Kelly asked about zoning and when commissioners should get involved.

Cik said then that 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 during the Oct. 16 meeting. “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 during the Oct. 16 meeting that commissioners could start looking at the working draft and provide feedback to staff. According to Doyon, the draft was emailed to commissioners on Oct. 22.

In 2018, there were several major development projects — GFPS, North 40 Outfitters and Love’s Travel Stop — that caused some frustration over city requirements though the variance process was available and used by both commercial developers.

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North 40 garnered a significant amount of public comment on the city’s landscaping and parking requirements since the company didn’t want to comply with some aspects. Commissioners were contacted about those frustrations and in turn contacted city staff about speeding the process.

An important distinction to remember is that staff is obligated to follow the rules established by commissioners and state law. Commissioners are able to change some of those rules, particularly related to parking and landscaping, if they deem them overly burdensome.

In an Oct. 12 email to commissioners, City Manager Greg Doyon wrote about the North 40 landscaping discussion that: “there is no perfect city code or ordinance. Fortunately, there are ways to address situations where the applicant feels aggrieved. There are also times that the commission, upon hearing from the broader community, may want to revise standards used by staff because they are no longer generally acceptable by the public served. If landscaping issues continue to be an issue (and Iʼll lump in some other requirements like parking or signs), the City Commission can direct staff to reduce the standards. The appeal process is available to applicants, but it should not be used to skirt adopted standards because the developer does not like it.”

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Craig Raymond, city planning director, said during the Oct. 16 work session that “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 during the Oct. 16 meeting 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.”

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Commissioner Mary 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.

Staff is currently updating the development review process and updated commissioners on that effort during a November work session. The Design Review Board is temporarily suspended and staff is getting close to choosing a new software system that would allow for digital submissions of development applications, plans and other documents.