Concerned about potential changes to the city’s zoning ordinance, about 70 people packed the August meeting of the Fort Thomas City Council last week. Several people had already reached out to city officials asking for clarification, asking for more opportunities for citizen involvement.
The confusion seemed to center on an earlier planning and zoning discussion that gave examples of a code that would allow multi-family housing or townhouses, although no decisions were made regarding the code or the developments. possible.
But before the discussion began, city administrator Matt Kremer told the crowd that the zoning review process, which began in September last year, would be on hold until the year next. He said with emails and calls from citizens and questions from council members as well, it seemed appropriate to extend the process until a new council takes office in January 2023.
“After I got here and realized that this process wasn’t going to be finished by the end of this year, the end of this term on the board,” Kremer said. “A new board would be in the middle of the process, which is not a good scenario for a new board to come. So what we’re going to do is put that process on hold.
“We will get him back in January. In January we will brief any new council and the existing council to make sure they understand the process…Along with this we will also be holding an information meeting with the citizens,” he added.
Kremer said he hopes this break gives everyone more time to understand the process.
“We want to make sure we let everyone know,” he said. “Especially the officials who didn’t have to vote on this, and make sure everyone fully understands that.”
Confusion and worry
About 10 people came to the podium to voice their concerns, and many said they were happy to hear the process would be put on hold so people could catch up on the matter. They pointed out that last September, when the Planning and Zoning Commission met to discuss a zoning ordinance review, few were aware of the meeting or the project or the process.
Many also expressed confusion about the aims of the project, especially after hearing about some of the planning and zoning ideas and recommendations made through CT Consultants, an external architectural and planning firm contracted to help with the exam. In her initial presentation, CT representative Alisa Duffey Rogers shared information about a relatively new method of reviewing the organization of zoning codes, known as “forms-based” codes.
Forms-based code has become popular in some cities in recent years. It emphasizes the form of a building and its relationship to the streets and other buildings around it. More traditional code, such as the Fort Thomas zoning ordinance, emphasizes building uses. Both have restrictions and settings on what can be included in a zone, but the emphasis is different.
To explain the differences between traditional zoning codes and forms-based codes, Duffey Rogers looked at commercial areas in the city to illustrate how the forms-based code could be applied. A feature mentioned in the discussion was the modification or addition of multi-family dwellings and townhouses in certain areas within or near commercial areas.
Since few residents attended planning and zoning meetings, the public knew little about the zoning update process. When it was said that multi-family residential buildings could be considered in businesses and some single-family residential areas, people worried and worried that a decision had been made, and the community was not involved in decision.
No recommendation, no decision
The state requires a citywide plan update every five years, Mayor Eric Haas said. A review and update of the city’s zoning ordinance is also required as part of the process. After the overall city plan was completed in 2018, the next step was to begin the zoning review. After the COVID-19 pandemic caused some delay, the Planning and Zoning Commission began the process of this review.
“It’s a tough process, and it’s hard to do,” Haas said. “Planning and Zoning is currently studying different styles of zoning in the United States to better control what happens in the city.”
Haas added that no decision or even recommendation has been made and that the commission is still in its exploratory phase.
The plan has always been to share the information with the public, he said. Yet, after hearing from residents, he agreed that more time was needed for public information and discussion. Putting the whole process on hold is a good move, he said.
Call for more – and better – communication
Several of those who spoke last week mentioned the need for better communication between the city and residents. Some improvements have been made to the city’s website – the calendar appears on the site’s homepage and people can choose to add events to their own calendars.
A resident noted that many people, especially older residents, do not use their computers and do not access social media regularly. She said she hopes the city would consider a printed newsletter sent to residents each month. Others asked to sign up to receive an email alert for information about upcoming meetings.
Resident Peggy Maggio noted at the first zoning review meeting last September that the commission had approved a proposal to hold a public meeting in October to discuss the review process and seek public input. Yet few residents came to this meeting even though interest was high.
The reason, she said, was that few people knew about it.
Maggio said she liked the idea of a printed mailer sent to residents with details of meeting times and agendas.
Role of the board: decision maker
Maggio spoke at length about his concerns and frustrations with the lack of communication and the conduct of the review process.
She expressed concern that, based on her understanding of the minutes of the first review meeting in September, the consultant placed more emphasis on one aspect of her zoning discussion – that of townhouses and multifamily in the central business district. She wondered why this particular aspect was highlighted. She noted that there had been a request at the same meeting for a change in CBD zoning to allow multi-family buildings.
“So that night it looked like the promoter, who wasn’t there, was driving the train,” Maggio said. “We don’t want developers to drive the train.”
She stressed that the Planning Commission should not make policy and that only elected councilors should do so.
But Haas said the process was working exactly as it should in that regard.
“A promoter comes into town and asks for a change,” Haas said. “Planning and zoning said no.”
Haas said any recommendations would go to the board for decision.
“The part that I think frustrates people is a misunderstanding of what we’re going to do,” Haas said. “We don’t know yet what we’re going to do. He hasn’t come to the council yet. We’re going to make them stop now and let us know where they think they’re heading.
Kremer agreed, emphasizing that nothing a developer proposes will happen until the board approves it.
“So once they get a proposal, they can change any aspect,” Kremer said. “The Planning Commission can make recommendations, but the council can completely reject anything it recommends.”
Kremer said the Planning Commission worked through the review process to come up with ideas. But with the pause, the goal is to ensure that the panel’s discussion is informed by input from council and the public.
“We want to get some extra advice from the council to guide them along the way to make sure they don’t waste a lot of time looking at townhouses, if that’s something the council doesn’t want “, said Kremer.
Maggio said she’s glad there’s more time to discuss and contribute to the zoning ordinance. She added that another reason she came to council was with a specific request that the city create a committee to explore the idea of historic preservation districts.
“The city consultant who was talking to the Planning Commission talked about a forms-based code,” Maggio said. “What she said was that Bellevue is an example of form-based zoning. But what she didn’t say is that all along Fairfield Avenue is a historic preservation district. I suggest that Fort Thomas look into what it is. Not that we’re going to do it, but to consider it.
Maggio said she understands historic preservation has different levels and guidelines. Some of these guidelines may apply to both new buildings and historic buildings in a designated historic district. She volunteered to serve on a committee to look at what was done in Bellevue and see if it could be applied to areas of Fort Thomas.