Today’s guest post is written by Julie Zavon, a resident of Clifton Heights.
It took me two years to get the City to install street lights on my street. Street lights are important to public safety and routine city infrastructure, but the City did not automatically approve my request. I had to get the consent and signatures of neighbors even on the next street over. Yet developers are not required to get neighbors’ signatures when they ask the City for an exemption from the zoning code. Seeking release from zoning requirements is routine business, and these requests are reviewed and granted through routine administrative processes.
The City’s Municipal Code, Chapter 1445, provides for exemptions to zoning that is “unreasonable or creates practical difficulties.” Widespread exemptions undermine the intent of zoning. What value does zoning have in urban development when exemptions, granted one by one, mean that zoning is not defined by neighborhood but parcel by parcel?
The city reviews applications for exemptions—classified as “variances”, “special exceptions”, and “conditional uses,” and many cases go to public hearing. Citizens are free to attend and present their positions before the Zoning Hearing Examiner who makes the final decision. To be sure, the Examiner does not approve all applications. The Examiner’s duty is to “maximize public interest and private benefit.” Nice words, but not straightforward when parties hold opposing views. Who comes out on top when, for example, a bar owner whose property abuts a residential area seeks an exemption from zoning in order to install an outdoor sound system? The exemption process doesn’t require the bar owner to get the signatures and active consent from neighbors as I had to for street lights. The decision is up to the Examiner.
The City is in the process* of approving language outlining exemption (variance) procedures for Form-based Code (FBC). FBC is a kind of zoning that neighborhoods can chose instead of traditional zoning. To implement a FBC, all neighborhood stakeholders—businesses, residents, property owners—must come together and reach consensus on a vision for the neighborhood (such things as building heights, setbacks, walkability, etc.). The process can take several years as stakeholders work through their differences to reach a common vision. It is inherently democratic in bringing together representatives of diverse groups. After such an effort, whose interests are served when the exemption procedure concentrates power in a zoning hearing examiner? Compare that to my street lights—is it reasonable that getting street lights requires active buy-in by neighbors, but releasing property owners from zoning requirements does not? What degree of active public consent do we want in a system that grants exemptions to our zoning and urban design?
*Learn more and participate by attending:
- Staff Conference on April 30, 2015 at 5:00 PM
- Public Hearing (City Planning Commission) on May 15, 2015 at 9:00 AM
Location for both meetings:
Department of City Planning and Buildings
- Martin Griesel Conference Room
7th Floor, Two Centennial Plaza
805 Central Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45202