San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

June 23rd, 2010
P&Z delays 'SmartCode' approval until late July

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Speaking on behalf of the San Marcos Area Board of Realtors, Monica McNabb outlined disagreement with a proposed form-based development code before the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday night. Photo by Sean Batura.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

Planning and Zoning (P&Z) commissioners in San Marcos decided Tuesday night to hold back their approval of form-based zoning for more than a month after hearing from two dozen residents who asked to at least slow down.

Commissioners said they would take up the matter again on July 27 after registering a 7-2 vote for postponement.

More than 100 San Marcos residents crowded the City Hall council chambers and waiting area, a large portion of them voicing displeasure with the “SmartCode.” No one who spoke to the commission said they favored adding the proposed system to the city’s land development code.

At least two commissioners said they had not had time to fully review a recently-released SmartCode draft document prepared by city staff.

The proposed SmartCode was originally proposed to replace the current zoning system for only the downtown area. The San Marcos City Council later agreed, upon city staff’s recommendation, to consider implementing the new code in the historic neighborhoods adjacent to downtown.

Residents asked the city to better inform neighborhoods that would be affected by the zoning change and said the city should gather more public input before acting on the SmartCode. Most of the residents who spoke said they reside in the areas that would be affected by the zoning changes.

Though the city’s development services staff, pursuant to the official review process, mailed notices on June 11 to all property owners in and within 200 feet of the proposed rezoning areas, many of the residents who spoke said the notices were insufficient and that the approval process was happening too fast.

“Y’all had to go through a two-hour workshop already — we didn’t, we had a letter we couldn’t read and explanations that weren’t satisfying to us,” said San Marcos historic neighborhood resident Rodney Van Oudekerke to commissioners. “Let’s take our time and do this the right way.”

Oudekerke, a retired police sergeant and Leadership San Marcos alumnus, said the best course of action may be to implement the SmartCode in the downtown area only.

P&Z Chairman Sherwood Bishop said the SmartCode would protect neighborhoods by allowing residents to collaborate with city staff to define additional zoning criteria.

“I don’t think that process has happened yet, and it needs to involve, hopefully, all those people who are here tonight who will be involved in doing that so next time it comes up, everyone’s happy with it and probably none of you will come back,” Bishop said. “Maybe one or two of you will come back and say how good it is.”

Commissioners Randy Bryan and Jim Stark voiced agreement with Bishop’s statement. Commissioner Curtis Seebeck said that he could not in good conscience vote for a zoning system that he did not yet fully understand, and said he doubted most of his colleagues had time to fully digest the document.

Commissioners Stark and Bill Taylor cast the only votes against postponing action on the SmartCode. Taylor said he supported recommending that the SmartCode be inserted into the Land Development Code, but said he would not support applying the code to the historic neighborhoods.

The city held a public meeting every night between April 6-9 to inform residents about the proposed form-based code and to gather input for use in creating the SmartCode. After city staff, in conjunction with consultant firm Placemakers, created the code, the city presented an overview of the SmartCode to residents at a public workshop on June 9.

San Marcos Assistant Planning Director Matthew Lewis said about 170 people attended the April meetings. Fewer than 50 residents attended the June 9 workshop. Lewis said the city notified residents about the April and June SmartCode events by issuing press releases and posting notices on the city’s website. Lewis said it can be costly to mail notices, and said the city did not notify residents of the affected areas about the April 6-9 meetings or the June 9 meeting.

Lewis said there will be at least one public workshop before July 27, adding that the city may advertise the event by sending out notices attached to utility bills, in addition to the aforementioned means.

The SmartCode is intended to facilitate implementation of the Downtown Master Plan’s recommendations. Earlier this year, planning consultant Bruce F. Donnelly found that the current land development code clashed with Downtown Master Plan goals such as establishing predictable development environments, ensuring a consistent look-and-feel on each thoroughfare, enhancing the distinctiveness of the neighborhoods within and around downtown, establishing stormwater regulations that “work with density, not against it,” building a parking garage or garages, implementing a paid model for parking, and allowing the construction of mid-rise “garden apartments” against the open space along the San Marcos River on C.M. Allen Parkway with development oriented to rail transit.

The proposed SmartCode designates more than half of the historic neighborhood districts as Transect Zone 3 (T-3) or T-3. T-3 would mostly consist of single family dwellings, though residents at the P&Z meeting objected that the proposed code does not limit the number of people who can live there. Lewis said the city could easily impose occupancy restrictions in T-3 zones.

The proposed T-3 and T-3.5 zones would allow for the building of duplexes, sideyard houses, cottages, houses, accessory units, “live-work” office units, open market buildings, outdoor auditorium, playgrounds, religious assembly structures, childcare centers, fire stations, bus shelters, and fountains or public art. With special authorization, T-3 and T-3.5 would allow for liquor selling establishments, single-room occupancy hostels, bed and breakfasts with as many as five rooms, greenhouses, stables, kennels, cemeteries, elementary schools, and electric substations.

The downtown area would be designated as a T-5 “Urban Center” under the proposed SmartCode. The T-5 zone consists of higher density mixed use buildings that accommodate retail, offices, rowhouses and apartments, according to the San Marcos SmartCode draft, which says, “It has a tight network of streets, with wide sidewalks, steady street tree planting and buildings set close to the sidewalks.”

Residents expressed concern that portions of the historic neighborhood districts are proposed for T-4 and T-4.5. The SmartCode allows the following uses in T-4 and T-4.5 without special permission:

• flexible building
• apartment building
• rowhouse
• duplex
• courtyard house
• sideyard house
• cottage
• house
• accessory unit
• inn (as many as 12 rooms)
• bed and breakfast
• school dormitory
• office building
• live-work unit
• open-market building
• retail building
• display gallery
• bar/restaurant
• kiosk
• bus shelter
• fountain or public art
• library
• playground
• religious assembly
• childcare center
• funeral homes
• police station
• fire station

The SmartCode allows the following uses in T-4 and T-4.5 with special permission:

• single room occupancy hostel
• kennel
• cemetery
• medical clinic
• high school
• electric substation
• liquor selling establishment
• surface parking lot

To illustrate the environment of a T-4 area, Lewis said it would be like Moore Street minus Sanctuary Lofts, which are too tall for compliance with T-4. Lewis said the SmartCode would result in a faster approval process for people who wish to build or modify uses in compliance with city zoning laws.

Main Street San Marcos advisory board representative David Newman said his board does not have a position regarding whether to implement the SmartCode in the historic neighborhood area. Newman, a former mayoral candidate, said there is a “lack of any kind of architectural standards” in the proposed SmartCode, adding that the Main Street board wants to limit downtown building heights to four stories rather than the five stories he said is proposed by the SmartCode.

Newman said the SmartCode’s allowance of two bars per block face may turn downtown San Marcos into something like Austin’s Sixth Street, which, he said, “is a pretty rough neighborhood late at night.” Newman said his board recommends the current conditional use permit process to limit the number of bars that can exist downtown.

Lewis said the SmartCode could potentially restrict the amount of bars downtown to a greater degree than the current code.

“On some block faces, we actually have four or five bars,” Lewis said. “So it’s trying to decrease that so you don’t create a Sixth Street situation. Two (bars) per block face allows many businesses in between on each of those block faces to become thriving businesses.”

San Marcos Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) President Amy Kirwin told commissioners she supports applying the SmartCode to downtown. Kirwin said she received “many phone calls” from residents in the Victory Gardens, Dunbar, Heritage, and Westover neighborhoods asked what the transect zones are and what they mean. Kirwin supported postponing adoption of the SmartCode until people can get a better idea of how it would affect them.

Representing the San Marcos Area Board of Realtors government affairs committee, Monica McNabb said the proposed code would place too many dwellings on the market that are too large.

“If we consider a one-acre parcel zoned T-5 downtown, the SmartCode would allow 3-4 stories of residential, so conservatively, we’re looking at 100,000 to 120,000 square feet of residential floor space,” McNabb said. “The SmartCode right now is proposed to limit 24 dwellings as a maximum, so if you do the math, you’re looking at 4,200 to 5,000 square feet per dwelling. And we all who live in San Marcos know that there aren’t houses that size, let alone a condo or loft, so to create a product that can be on the market, that can be sold to people wanting to live in the urban areas, this is sort of counter-intuitive. So, because (the SmartCode) was not made available until last Thursday, we’ll probably come before you if this continues, on other issues. Right now, this was one of the main issues that jumped out, so we strongly encourage you to revise the (dwelling units per acre) metrics.”

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0 thoughts on “P&Z delays 'SmartCode' approval until late July

  1. Would somebody tell City Council that “consultants” merely go to their file drawers, see what they have sold in similar instances, and use a well defined process (the same almost everywhere, every time) to “tailor to the local needs”? A major part of consulting, both before and after the fact, is selling the product, which is usually mass-produced.

    One reason for the need to “consult” is to acquire the “flexibility” to do what one wants, whatever that may be, with not much dissension. Like manipulating zoning. Like avoiding code requirements. Like “speeding the process.” Like “opening old areas for new possibilities.” You know, like our beloved Governor. Like our beloved city leaders.

    A hidden assumption is that wiser minds from elsewhere have vision that is lacking among the billpayers. A better one is that once the “consulting process” is over, the real decision-drivers can defer to the will of the “focus groups,” thus taking any credit due and avoiding any blame. “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

  2. Pingback: QUOTE CORNER - San Marcos Local News

  3. I may have just had a BFO (“Blinding Flash of the Obvious”). Are the people pushing these new “SmartCodes” through so quickly, connected with and/or the same people who want to benefit from the changes that will take place when the various county functions move to the new county high rise?

    I know, I know, just another conspiracy theory… but, seriously, there must be some background (hidden) reason(s) for some of the things we see foisted upon us, with such an aggressive timeline yet not fully thought out (and that point was corroborated by the outside consultants in the recent Main Street review).

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