City grapples with growth-related issues

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Residential and commercial developers are facing a local version of a statewide dilemma: how to plan responsibly for growth and continue to benefit from it.

City Council decided Tuesday to postpone yet again any decision on how to fund a grade-separated interchange at the intersection of Woodmen Road and Academy Boulevard, until the city completes its East West Mobility study. The study is expected to be finished on Oct. 23. Since its introduction in November 1999, council has postponed eight times passing an ordinance to assess impact fees to fund the interchange, said Allen Ziegler, assistant city attorney.

Once the East-West Mobility Study is completed, council will address several aspects of the interchange, including whether to assess impact fees, and if so, how to go about establishing an influence zone and a methodology for calculating fees.

In a meeting with council on Feb. 23, 1998, Woodmen Retail Center LLC agreed with the city to create a three year deadline by which to establish an influence zone by ordinance. An influence zone is based upon a study that determines which properties are, in part, creating the need for transportation infrastructure.

The document stated that if council did not adhere to the deadline, council would be responsible for “return of the moneys (sic) to the General Improvement District if no ordinance has been enacted.” The agreement also required developer reimbursement if the interchange was not completed within six years; and, if the funds collected within 10 years were insufficient to construct the interchange the money would be used to benefit the Woodmen Commons property.

Councilman Richard Skorman said the city attorney is negotiating with Woodmen Commons developers to determine what to do about the impact fees. Skorman said he could not disclose any details because discussions with developers concerning the fees are a business deal that they are trying to get “worked out.”

Council is primarily waiting for the East-West Mobility Study to be completed because “when it’s done we (council) can predict costs and who will pay for it,” he said.

Bruce Wright, an attorney for several of the business owners and developers of Woodmen Commons, said he’s pleased that progress is being made.

“We did have a draft agreement that did settle up the agreements or obligations between the city and the developer (of Woodmen Commons),” said Wright. “And whether the city wants to sign, that I don’t know. I have a call into Al (Ziegler) to find out.”

Wright said under the original agreement the city owes about $2.5 million to the developers.

“We are happy with that obligation, but if the city wants to work out something else, we are willing to work with them on that too,” he said.

In the meantime Councilwoman Linda Barley said the council will launch into discussions about the definition and validity of impact fees in October. Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace said it is illegal to establish formulas for assessing impact fees on a case-by-case basis.

“The mayor is right,” said Wright. “If there is a rational basis for dividing the city up into two or more subcategories, then (applying different formula is) OK,” he explained. “But the way Duncan went about it, we think it was indefensible.”

Texas-based Duncan Associates was the consultant that conducted a series of studies to find the best methodology. Controversy ensued when The Business Journal reported that the city had the company perform the study three separate times to determine fair and proportional assessment of impact fees, and the costs charged to developers rose as the city’s share fell. Developers contended that they were always willing to pay their fair share for the impact of growth, but not to be unfairly assessed.

Now, impact fee issues will wait until October.

“No one has been able to put a finger on the limitations of impact fees,” Barley said. “(And) just because there’s new development in an area doesn’t mean 100 percent accountability for the people in that area.”

Comprehending the plan

In an attempt to plan responsibly for growth, the city created the Comprehensive Plan, which was presented in final draft form to City Council Tuesday.

The plan, which passed unanimously, replaces the 1991 plan. Discussion of small changes will be held until the March 27 meeting. The plan took three years to complete and was developed to address long-term growth and physical development for the city.

One significant change that drew particular attention from developers was the 2020 Land Use Map chapter, said Ira Joseph, comprehensive planning unit manager for the city. Joseph said this is the first time a citywide map presents framework for future city growth. The purpose of the map is to provide a context for council and government decisions regarding the development and redevelopment of areas, “both master planned (by developers) and non-master planned throughout the city.”

While council stressed that the plan is a guideline document, not a regulatory document, Councilman Jim Null said that after the plan is approved, developers will have to come before council for approval of “big” development differences with the land-use map.

Two developers embarked on Null’s statement and presented changes they would already like to make to the map concerning future development.

Mark Loeb, director of planning for La Plata Investments LLC, said while La Plata supports the Comprehensive Plan, it disagreed with the Land Use Map’s representation of La Plata’s future mixed-use development. Loeb said the company was concerned with the potential interpretation of the map by future clients and neighbors, because “people will take the map literally.”

“Our concern is that the area shown in range (on the land-use map) is not how it is shown on La Plata’s master design,” he said. “We don’t want to have to come back and amend it (to fit the company’s master plan).”

John Maynard, a member of the steering committee for the Comprehensive Plan, said he understood La Plata’s position.

“They want to be precise because citizens are likely to assume the change (as seen on the land-use map) is gospel,” said Maynard.

In response to Loeb, Joseph said if La Plata, the developer of the Briargate master-planned community, wanted to change the map, then that change – as well as those other developers wanted to submit — needed to be issued before the passage of the plan.

“We met with all the folks (developers),” said Joseph. “What we’re down to is needed clarification.”

Council agreed to change the land-use map to complement La Plata’s master plan and asked the Comprehensive Plan committee if other developers had voiced concerns about the land-use map conflicting with their master plans.

“We met with Briargate (La Plata) a lot (about) altering the map,” said Quinn Peitz, city planning-group support manager. “Other developers’ master plans aren’t significant, or else they’d be here today.”

However, a second developer, Steve Sharkey, vice president for Northgate Corporate Village, also expressed the same predicament. Peitz said the committee agreed that “the commitment made to Briargate, or La Plata, is the same commitment to Northgate. And the concerns will be worked out.”

And for developers, that’s as it should be.

“The master plan (from a developer) ought to be reflected precisely in the land-use map, rather than the land-use map having the effect of changing the master plan,” Sharkey said.

“Master plans have gone through many reviews, and in many cases rewrites as of recently, and we (Northgate) feel the land-use map has got to reflect the in-depth analysis of our master plans
.”

Ralph Braden, vice president of Nor’wood, did not have a conflict with the maps.

“We have to go through and see how it works,” said Braden. “Council can make changes, flexible changes, to everything implemented in the plan. And that goes on with time. ”