Commission to consider another 6-month suspension of city’s design review board

On Tuesday, City Commissioners will consider whether to suspend the Design Review Board for another six months.

The commission voted in November to suspend the board for six months to reduce the workload for staff until several vacant positions were filled.

The Planning and Community Development Department is still down two key positions, according to staff, and the department’s leadership requested another six month suspension.

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

The board was technically back in force beginning May 7, but staff was awaiting guidance from the commission.

During his report at the May 21 meeting, City Manager Greg Doyon said he didn’t believe the city needs a board. There’s some argument that the DRB results in better development products for the community.

City recommending temporary halt to Design Review Board in effort to streamline development process

In a May 1 memo, Doyon wrote that “my strong sense is that this is partially true because of the perceived authority of the DRB to approve the project beyond its current authority. I believe applicants have been more inclined to accommodate DRB “suggestions” to gain approval. City policy should be clear about its design expectations right up front and not rely on this approach to improve outcomes.”

Since DRB has limited authority that is primarily related to parking and certain landscape elements, Doyon wrote in his May 1 memo, “if the city wants to improve outcomes, then it should consider amending its design standards to be more consistent with DRB recommendations where the outcome was believed ‘to be better.'”

Doyon recommended years ago that the DRB be eliminated.

During the May 21 meeting, City Commissioner Owen Robinson said he’d prefer to suspend for the board for six months.

Commissioner Bill Bronson said he’d support suspending another six months, but doesn’t concur with eliminating the board.

City Attorney Sara Sexe stopped the commission’s discussion about specifics telling then that they should put it on an agenda for action.

In April, planning staff provided a memo to the city manager’s office with the recommendation to suspend the board for another six months so staff can revamp the process as it’s working through a larger development review process overhaul. The city manager’s office had requested feedback from the planning department.

On May 1, City Manager Greg Doyon provided a memo to commissioners outlining his recommendation to suspend the DRB another six months and then eliminate the board when it revises Title 17.

In their April memo, Craig Raymond and Tom Micuda, planning director and deputy director respectively, wrote that in late March, staff solicited input via email from 16 people who either have regularly worked on projects reviewed by the DRB or were member of the board.

Staff received input from 10 of those people. Of them, six responded that the DRB should be reactivated and had value to improve the quality of development in the city. Three respondents indicated the DRB should be eliminated and it did not add value to the development review process. One person indicated that guidelines administered by staff or the DRB should be maintained to improve the quality of development in the city.

According to staff’s memo, all current DRB members favored bringing back the board in some capacity.

“Most of the individuals who supported re-activating the DRB also added the following key observations:

  • That some level of board oversight is needed to improve the overall quality of
    development and protect the community against bad development outcomes;
  • DRB review should occur earlier in the design process and not be too subjective. If
    DRB review could take place at the beginning of project design, input from the DRB
    could be incorporated without leading to re-design and unnecessary project delays.
  • The DRB’s scope of review should not duplicate city staff code review.”

The planning department is currently advertising for the two unfilled planner positions and is currently working with other city departments to revamp the development review process, which is coming with substantial changes for city staff.

“For those reasons, a reactivation of the DRB in May would come at the worst possible time,” Raymond and Micuda wrote in their April memo.

Staff and people involved in the development process have identified problems with the DRB process and planning staff is planning to use the suspension to consider improvements to the process.

According to planning’s April memo, “the following are possible avenues for discussion:

  • Conducting DRB meetings much earlier in the design process, prior to initial staff
    code review being conducted rather than after review has taken place. Materials
    submitted by the applicant for the DRB would be more preliminary in nature.
    • Eliminating or at least revising the following components of the DRB process: 1) PCD staff reports, and 2) staff presentations. Project presentations would be conducted by applicants, with staff simply providing comments to focus DRB discussion on review criteria.
    • That a clear decision be made on what action should be taken on development projects that do not incorporate DRB recommendations concerning the Table 28-1 Guidelines contained in the city’s Land Development Code. Currently, DRB has the power to approve, deny (in whole or in part), or add conditions. There is confusion about the Board’s authority, and this issue should be resolved – particularly if the DRB is to become a more informal part of the development review process.”

During the DRB suspension from November 2018 to May 2019, city staff continued to enforce development guidelines and standards established by the city code.

The city manager’s office hasn’t received any complaints regarding the suspension, according to the staff report.

In November, Doyon asked commissioners to suspend the DRB to reduce strain on city staff. In November, he said the suspension would also provide an opportunity to observe any impacts on the overall process.

Doyon wrote in his May memo to commissioners that he hasn’t hear anything from the public regarding the DRB suspension, but continues to hear negative comments about the development review process.

Doyon wrote that staff and the DRB members have committed significant time and effort to improve the appearance and quality of development in the city, but he is continuing to recommend that the DRB be eliminated.

Doyon wrote that using staff for the review process works well and reduces time for the developer and staffing in the planning department has been a “chronic challenge” in recent years.

He wrote that the Planning Advisory Board could verify through a revised process that the appropriate design standards were met for applicable projects.

Doyon wrote in his memo that beginning design review conversations earlier in the process sounds good, but is concerned that will open the city to more criticism that the process is subjective.

“The city should be clear and specific as to the standards so there is no guessing or feeling from applicants that they will be required to do more than is necessary in order to be approved,” he wrote.

Doyon wrote that the DRB works better in a community with stronger design requirements, such as Bozeman, Missoula or Kalispell. Those cities all have a design review board.

“Great Falls is not like these other communities and there is general distaste for additional regulations that appear to impede development. Perhaps if the city had more development, there would be a greater desire to standardize designs, improve aesthetics, and architectural features and the DRB could be revisited in the future.”