City considering reduced parking, landscaping requirements for development; increased fees

Parking and landscaping requirements for development in Great Falls have long been points of contention and in their effort to revamp the development process, city staff have developed proposals to make substantial changes.

Last month, staff reviewed their proposal to reduce parking requirements for some land uses and make other changes that would give developers greater flexibility for parking with their projects.

City considering changes to parking code, including reducing minimum parking requirements for some land uses

During the Jan. 7 meeting, staff recapped those proposals.

Staff is planning to bring the proposed development code changes to the planning board for consideration on Jan. 14 and to the City Commission in March with a targeted implementation in March to coincide with the planned mid-March launch of the city’s new development software.

City planning office closed May 3 (2019), effort to revamp development review process continuing

City Manager Greg Doyon asked if staff foresaw any possible unintended consequences that would have them back to reverse the proposed parking changes in the future.

Planning Director Craig Raymond said he didn’t think so.

Nationally, there’s been a trend to eliminate parking minimums.

[View: Documents with proposed fee increases, code changes and others related to the development review process]

“That’s pretty scary,” Raymond said.

He said staff often receives complaints, particularly about apartment complexes that don’t provide enough off-street parking for residents causing problems for neighbors who can’t park in front of their own homes in residential areas.

“I don’t know if we’re quite ready to eliminate minimums,” Raymond said.

But he said staff wants to make changes.

First batch of development code changes moving forward

“We have to try things and be willing to experiment,” he told commissioners on Jan. 7.

The parking proposals aren’t radical, but staff’s proposal for changes to landscaping requirements is “pretty aggressive,” Raymond said.

Lonnie Hill, a recent hire in city planning with a background in landscape design, said staff reached out to design professionals for feedback on the current code.

Staff is proposing to reduce the landscaping requirements for a number of land uses, adding design flexibility and removing outdated sections of code.

Staff is also proposing to take the list of allowable street trees out of the municipal code so that staff can better adapt to changing conditions, particularly tree diseases, Hill said.

The proposed changes include a reduction in the number of required trees for single and two family residences. The code would still require that turf grass or ground cover plants cover at least 50 percent of the lot area not covered by a structures, but would be change to require at least one interior tree in addition to the required boulevard trees. The existing code requires one tree per 1,500 square foot of net lot area.

Process underway to update city land development code

Staff is also proposing to codify design flexibility using low maintenance plants, sculptures and boulders into landscaping to give developers more options. Staff has been testing those ideas with some recent projects, including West Bank Landing and is now proposing building that into the code.

The proposed changes would allow developers to substitute two perennials or one ornamental grass for one shrub to up to 30 percent of the total required shrubs; nine cubic feet of sculpture integrated into the landscaping can substitute for one shrub up to 10 percent of the required shrubs; and each two foot boulder or larger can substitute for up to one shrub up to 10 percent of the total required shrubs.

Currently, the code requires 1 boulevard tree per 35 lineal feet for non-residential developments. The proposed change would reduce that to one per 50 lineal feet and exclude driveways, sidewalks or other approved hard surfaces from that calculation.

Using one existing project, staff said the existing code would require 17 boulevard trees for the project while the proposed code would require 10.

Planting rates would also be reduced under staff’s recommendations.

Existing code for project sites under two areas requires one tree and seven shrubs for every 400 square feet of required landscaping. The proposed code would require one tree and four shrubs for every 400 square feet.

Staff used the example of a one-third acre site with 2,176 square feet of interior landscaping.

The existing code would require six trees and 39 shrubs.

The proposed code would require five trees, a 17 percent reduction, and 22 shrubs, a 43 percent reduction.

For project sites two acres and larger, the current code requires one tree and seven shrubs per 400 square feet. The proposed code would require one tree and four shrubs per 500 square feet.

Using an example of a two acre site with 13,038 square feet of interior landscaping area, the current code would require 33 trees and 229 shrubs.

The proposed code would require 26 trees, a 21 percent reduction, and 105 shrubs, a 54 percent reduction.

Staff are also proposing a change to engineering fees to a percentage of the project to make them more predictable for developers.

Erin Borland, a city planner and former landscape designer, said that the reduced requirements could give developers more flexibility with their site designs and ideally, they will integrate their landscaping with storm water management systems to accomplish multiple things at once.

In recent weeks, city planning staff were directed by the city manager to review their development related fees to reduce their general fund subsidy.

The engineering department is primarily funded through fees for service and development review. They department gets about $65,000 from the general fund to cover the environmental division which doesn’t generate revenue but their tasks are required under federal and state regulations.

The planning department’s budget is funded by multiple sources, including development related fees. Staff presented preliminary fee increases for development actions like annexation, subdivisions, conditional uses, planned unit development, variances and more during the Jan. 7 commission work session and Jan. 8 town hall.

Staff said they are seeking feedback on the proposed fees before taking their proposal to the city commission in the coming months.

Craig Raymond, planning director, and Borland, city planner, said with the increased fees, the department could potentially drop their general fund subsidy about $31,000, freeing up those funds for public safety or other citywide needs.

The proposed fees include a new $500 fee for Design Review Board review, which staff said was not something they had considered during the discussions last fall on whether to reinstate the DRB.

Commission reinstates Design Review Board, with process changes

City Manager Greg Doyon advocated dissolving the DRB but staff and others recommended keeping it with changes to the process. Commissioners opted to keep the board and end its suspension.

During the Jan. 8 town hall, Raymond said that in revamping the development review process, as requested by many in the community and the commission, “we didn’t design the system to be easier for us and cheap, we designed it to be good.”