Commission reinstates Design Review Board, with process changes
City Commissioners voted unanimously during their Dec. 3 meeting to reinstate the Design Review Board with changes to the process proposed by staff.
They also directed staff to come back to the commission within a year to report on whether those changes have been helpful to the process before the city codifies the new process.
Staff and members of the DRB have argued that the board, made up of architects, landscapers and other design professionals, offer free expertise that often improve projects and the overall look of the community.
Others have argued that the board adds an unnecessary step in the development process, is too subjective, oversteps its authority and is fraught with potential conflicts of interest since many of the board members also work in the development community.
Board members themselves had concerns that the DRB review came so late in the process that developers wouldn’t make changes, even if they improved a project, because it was too costly at that stage in development.
Over the years there has been confusion and concern over the board’s authority to impose conditions on developments that some deemed subjective. In recent years, city planning staff has emphasized the difference between the design standards required by city code versus the guidelines that are used as recommendations but aren’t actual requirements.
Last year, staff proposed suspending the DRB for six months since the planning department was understaffed and working on major revisions to the city’s development review process. In May, the city suspended the board for another six months.
In the meantime, city staff have been reviewing projects for the types of things the DRB would review and there have been no complaints, according to staff. Some city planners were former landscape designers.
City Manager Greg Doyon said last year that he recommended suspending the board temporarily to relieve strain on the planning department and continues to believe that staff should review projects for design rather than reinstate the board.
In an Oct. 30 memo to commissioners, Doyon wrote that he appreciates the work of the board but doesn’t believe it’s necessary for it to continue in its current form.
“The best thing city government can do for development in Great Falls is to make sure
that whatever process is in place, the expectations are clear and meet community
objectives. I believe developers are still confused about the role and authority of the DRB.
I believe that the authority of the DRB is perceived to be greater than it actually is pursuant to city code. Applicants are more inclined to accommodate DRB ‘suggestions’ to gain approval. City policy should be clear about its design expectations up front and not rely on this approach to improve outcomes. Furthermore, it is faster and easier to have a planner review the number of parking spots needed, screening and other landscaping requirements,” Doyon wrote in his memo.
During the Dec. 3 meeting, Commissioner Bill Bronson said that the staff proposal for the new DRB process was an “appropriate compromise” of the “disparate views” of what the board should be.
“We live in a society that values private property rights,” Bronson said, but the board is an effort to find the balance between private property rights and the community interest.
He said the city’s design review process had the “lightest touch” in the state and was weary of the argument that it was that process hindering development since other communities have more stringent design review regulations but were growing.
Commissioner Mary Moe said that it could likely be said about most boards that they aren’t necessary, but that it gives the public access to the process and allows for input from design professionals.
She said the staff proposal improves the DRB process.
Mayor Bob Kelly said that he wasn’t really supportive of continuing the DRB since the city had gone a year without it and that the city planning department had “created a culture of flexibility.”