Design Review Board discusses its process in case suspension ends
The Design Review Board met Sept. 30 for the first time in nearly a year.
Last November, the City Commission voted to suspend the board for six months and in May, voted to continue the suspension for another six months.
That hiatus could potentially end on Dec. 4 so city staff convened the five-member board to discuss any changes to the process board members might suggest ahead of time if the Commission ends the suspension.
Last fall, City Manager Greg Doyon recommended suspending the DRB because city planning was short staffed and strained by their workload. The city is also in the midst of a major effort to revamp Title 17, the land development code, and the overall development review process.
The planning office has since filled the planner positions, though there are now different vacancies in the department.
“We believe that we can support the DRB is that is the will of the board and the City Commission,” Tom Micuda, deputy city planning director, said during the Sept. 30 meeting.
Over the last year, city staff has gathered feedback from DRB members, others in the development community and researched similar board in other communities.
“This is really designed to see if we want to make changes to our process,” Micuda said of the Sept. 30 discussion.
One of the concerns has been how late in the process the DRB review comes.
Several of the board members are architects, engineers or landscapers and often bring projects before the DRB, but recuse themselves.
They said that project are often so far in the process that any meaningful recommendations or changes by the DRB could require significant and costly revisions to the designs.
Tyson Kraft, an architect, said that can make some architects and owners less receptive to DRB comments.
It all boils down to cost, said David Grosse, a DRB member and engineer.
Micuda said staff’s general thought has been to have the DRB meeting earlier in the development process.
Grosse said the flip side of that is that the board would then be more conceptual designs versus the near complete plans that are typically submitted to DRB.
There has been criticism that the DRB review is redundant since staff reviews for code compliance. Grosse said some redundancy is good since more eyes on a project could yield better results.
Micuda said the planning director is allowed under code to grant design waivers in certain circumstances. The city is currently updating the land development code and those changes may result in fewer design waivers, said Erin Borland, a city planner.
Dani Grebe, an architect and DRB member, said “our feedback is subjective if there isn’t a citywide rule.”
It’s clear in some other communities, such as Bozeman, that there are stricter style rules, she said. The ultimate dilemma of the DRB is that “our subjective input doesn’t have teeth, so what’s the point,” Grebe said.
While DRB has been suspended, city planning staff have reviewed plans and given comments based on the design guidelines.
Feedback from the development community is that some miss the DRB and some do not, but most see it as an extra step, Borland said.
Grosse said the DRB meetings are a place for the public to comment on projects.
Eventually, the discussion turned to having a DRB meeting early in the process with early designs, before engineering and other details are finalized, and offer comments that could be incorporated. Then depending on the complexity of the project, a second DRB meeting could be set to review firmer plans and see how the developers incorporated their suggestions.
Grebe said that could allow for more collaborative discussion and gives some teeth if developers know there’s a second meeting where they’d have to explain why they didn’t implement the requests.
Based on the discussion, not all projects would require a second meeting and how that would be determined was still up for debate by the end of the meeting.
Grosse said one of the complaints is redundancy, the idea of a second meeting “could go over very badly.”
Grebe said second meetings are required in Kalispell and other local architects have said they’d been through multiple meetings in other cities for some projects.
Staff suggested having applicants make presentations of their project to the DRB, versus staff doing it, which could allow for more collaboration. Staff would continue to provide code analysis.
City Manager Greg Doyon attended the meeting and said he appreciates the DRB and their volunteer service, but said he was surprised by the discussion.
He said more than one meeting for DRB “will not be received well” and he doesn’t support the idea.
Doyon said at some point, Great Falls will become the preferred alternative community for people who want to live in Montana, and when that happens, perhaps the community would be more receptive of stronger design standards.
Doyon said that though new planners had been hired, they are young and not as seasoned and the workload in that department is still high so he didn’t think from a management perspective, it was a good idea to add the DRB back into their fold just yet.
He said he values the DRB’s input, but the “best thing you can do for anyone trying to develop, is be very clear of expectations when they start.”
Doyon said the goal is to take the instability out of the process.
“I just don’t think the community is ready for stronger requirements,” he said. “I’m just cautioning you very strongly” that adding a second meeting isn’t going to go over well with the community.
Kevin Vining, a DRB member and president of landscape operations at Forde Nursery, said moving the review earlier would make it easier and he’d “relish” the opportunity for early input since some development teams may not be familiar with all the local rules and it would potentially save them time and money.
“I don’t think that we need the Design Review Board as we’re currently structured,” Doyon said.
Grosse questioned how the public would participate in the process without DRB.
Doyon said through the planning board or other development review processes and through the City Commission, which sets the policies by which staff operated.
Sherrie Arey, executive director of NeighborWorks Great Falls, said that as a developer she also cautioned against additional meetings, but wants clarity on what the board’s role would be and expectations for various types of projects.
Commissioner Bill Bronson also attended the meeting and said he remembers the history of why the DRB was established in the first place, when the community was complaining about the overall look of the community, which can have a negative impact.
He said no harm is done by having a professional discussion among colleagues on projects regarding what would make it best for the community.
“This is place where the public has the opportunity to comment,” though there’s seldom public participation at DRB meetings.
Bronson said there would likely still be tension since “this process is not designed to appease the developer every step of the way.”
If developers dictated design, he said the community would likely be unhappy and back asking for city driven design review.
DRB was created in 1997 and revised in 2005 to review specified types of development proposals to ensure that the design and aesthetics conform to the review criteria contained in the city’s land development code. DRB may approve or deny, in whole or in part, or may modify and set conditions for approval, or provide advice and counsel.
There are some standards, or requirements, under city rules, but but the bulk of DRB review involves offering design suggestions or advice based on their own expertise using the city’s design guidelines, which are not requirements. Developers can take those suggestions and implement them or not.
The DRB is made up of five members appointed by the City Commission and under code, commissioners “shall make an effort to achieve a diversity of expertise, background, and interest. Such diversity should preferably include two architects and three individuals chosen for their demonstrated interest in and expertise in design or community aesthetics. No member of the City Commission or employee of the city shall be eligible for membership on the board.”