First batch of development code changes moving forward

The city planning board voted unanimously to recommend that the City Commission adopt the proposed changes to city code related to land development rules.

The city has been working for years to update city code, primarily for typographical errors, correcting numbering issues, and areas where the code conflicts with itself, state or federal laws.

Process underway to update city land development code

While not necessarily intended as a major policy overhaul, there have been some significant, substantive changes throughout the process that has been spearheaded by Assistant City Attorney Joseph Cik for the last two years.

For the last several months, city staff have been working through Title 17, the city’s land development code, to identify needed changes and they’ll likely be bringing recommended updates to the planning board and commission chapter by chapter versus trying to wade through the entire 448 code section at once.

Commission to consider changes to city code related to buildings and construction

On Tuesday, the planning board reviewed Chapter 4 of the land development code and with limited discussion, voted to recommend that commissioners adopt the changes. They also voted to recommend establishing and reserving Chapters 1-3 for future regulations to correct numbering issues within the code.

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Two members of the public, representing the Home Builders Association of Great Falls and the Great Falls Association of REALTORS, attended the meeting but didn’t provide comment.

City revising section of code dealing with vehicles and traffic

Cik told planning board members that the land development code was adopted in 2005 after a multiyear community effort with the help of a consultant and the code has been largely untouched since.

The revisions considered on Tuesday were largely non-substantive, including correcting typographical, grammatical, formatting, and referencing deficiencies in Chapter 4.

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But it does include 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. Those standards include parking and landscaping.

City, GFPS at odds over development regulations

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.

The caveat to that, Cik said, is that any privately owned property being developed for public use will not be exempt from any zoning or development standards. An example of that in Great Falls is the federal courthouse, which is privately owned and leased to the government.

During Tuesday’s meeting, some planning board members asked for updates on some city issues, including downtown parking, which is outside their jurisdiction.

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Mike Wedekind asked for updated on the proposed changes to the city’s downtown parking system. He asked about parking during their Dec. 11 meeting as well.

The city’s Parking Advisory Commission had recommended that meter rates be increased to $2 per hour on Central Avenue, $1.50 per hour on feeder streets and around the county courthouse and $1 per hour at all other meters within the parking district.

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Based on community and commission reaction, that proposal will not be going forward. City staff and the PAC are working on alternate proposals, through they already voted on one in November that has not yet been presented to commissioners. The Electric will have more extensive updates on the parking proposals over the coming weeks.

Patrick VanWorth asked if the Tourism Business Improvement District had been asked about funding some parking improvements. He said that the TBID collects $1 for each head in a bed at local hotels and can use that funding for local improvements.

Tourism district approved for another decade in Great Falls

In fact, the TBID renewed last year and as of July 1, 2018, the assessment is $2 per head.

The TBID is regulated under state statute and the city ordinance that established the district.

According to the 2008 city resolution that originally established the district, the services to be provided by the TBID are “marketing of convention and trade shows that benefit local tourism and lodging businesses in Great Falls; the marketing of Great Falls to the travel industry in order to benefit local tourism and the lodging businesses located within the Great Falls TBID; and the marketing of Great Falls to recruit major sporting events in order to promote local tourism and to benefit the lodging businesses within the Great Falls TBID.”

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Wedekind also asked about changes at the city public works department, which planning staff said were related to the city’s effort to overhaul the development review process.

That overhaul has been ongoing for months as the city has created a working group from various departments to find ways to improve and streamline the process.

Some of those ideas include creating a single point of contact for projects meaning the developer will interact with one city staffer and that staffer will coordinate with other departments, versus developers talking with multiple city staffers about different aspects of the project. That change has already been implemented.

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Tom Micuda, deputy planning director, said the goals of the working group include creating a one-stop shop web presence with all of the information developers need to get through the process; develop more checklists for the process depending on the type of development; and creating outlines of the timeline for each development process.

Craig Raymond, city planning director, said they’re also creating a standards manual and if developers don’t follow the manual, they can expect to have their application pushed right back across the table.

He said it will be adjustment for many developers and will take time, but “the days of half-baked plans are coming to an end.”

Raymond said staff has internal improvements to make but that they’re moving toward a system that will not accept incomplete plans from developers.

Wedekind asked how the city will communicate those changes to the public and Raymond said many in the development community are aware of the changes underway and there will be public meetings and communication.

Currently, even after communicating directly with developers about the requirements, “we’re still struggling to get decent plans in,” Raymond said.

The city is also in the contract negotiating phase with Tyler Technologies for software that will allow for applications, plans, fees, inspections and more to be submitted online.

That “will pay dividends in the future,” Pete Fontana, planning board chair, said on Tuesday.