Plan commission finishes zoning work, now on to BG council

The Bowling Green Planning Commission finished their work on the city’s proposed zoning code draft Wednesday – but not before issues like walkability, electronic signage and even backyard chickens got an airing.

The commission voted unanimously to move the code, with their own series of recommendations, on to council.

Mayor Mike Aspacher thanked the commission for their work.

“We knew at the very beginning that this was going to be an extensive process,” he said. “It would require hard work and dedication.”

Work on revising the city’s zoning code, which was adopted in the mid-1970s, has been ongoing for over a year. The city held a series of presentations by Cincinnati-based firm ZoneCo, which was contracted to revamp the code, in October, February and June to explain the contents of the draft. Wednesday’s meeting marked the fourth held by the planning commission focused on reviewing the draft code and making recommendations to council.

A major focus of public comment and commission discussion throughout their deliberations had been the proposed Pedestrian Residential district in the zoning code draft. The district, referred to frequently as the “PR,” is a neighborhood area located in a rough donut around the downtown.

The proposed area is bordered by Poe Road to the north, Napoleon Road to the south and on the east largely by Enterprise Street. To the west, it is substantially bordered by Maple Street, but it also extends to include portions along Eberly and Gorrell avenues. Among the Pedestrian Residential district’s major features is that it would allow some businesses to operate within that neighborhood district.

That district was again a focus of public comment Wednesday, lasting nearly an hour.

Rose Drain asked about her East Court Street property, which she said is currently a legal, non-conforming use. She asked how the district becoming PR would affect her property.

Commission Chair Bob McOmber said that rumors seem to persist that if this zoning is adopted, that residents will be “severly impacted by it and forced to tear down the property, that kind of thing.”

Planning Directly Heather Sayler said that under the new zoning, Drain’s residence would actually become a conforming property.

Drain also raised the issue of electronic signs with large LED screen boards, saying that those signs weren’t specifically addressed in relation to the PR. Referring to another structure that uses such a sign, she said “I would hate to see more signs illuminating our residential neighborhoods like that one.”

Late in Wednesday’s meeting, commission member Nathaniel Spitler raised the issue again. After discussion, McOmber moved that the commission recommend to council that such electronic message centers not be permitted in the PR. The motion carried unanimously by a vote of 8-0.

Also speaking about the PR, resident Brian Craft asked that if the proposal were so positive, why it wouldn’t be applied to other areas and subdivisions in town.

He said that the real challenge for the city moving forward is not whether there is a business in walking distance of a neighborhood, but for the community to figure out a new school levy that will make the city’s schools equal those in Perrysburg.

“They’re going to look at schools first,” Craft said of people who might wish to move into the city.

“We moved there because it was an R-2 (zoned district), it wasn’t going to be a public residential walking type district,” said resident David Wilson, who lives in what would become the PR. “Please listen to us. Otherwise you force us to either leave or ask for a referendum. … We’re the citizens that pay taxes and live in these neighborhoods.”

McOmber said that the planning commission was simply asked to review the proposed code and make recommendations – the ultimate decision to adopt the code is solely with council.

“Our recommendation addresses the ways we think the proposed zoning code could be improved,” McOmber said, adding whether council takes up those recommendations is up to them.

Resident Sean Brennan said he supports the PR and the proposed Neighborhood Commercial zoning, saying that businesses commingled with neighborhoods is nothing new to the city and goes back a century. He displayed a map he’d created with marks for related businesses.

“There were stores all over this town,” he said. “Many stores.”

Brennan said that a number of the businesses were a part of residences, including “undocumented from history” offices of doctors and lawyers located in their homes.

“As a society we need to encourage living communities,” he said.

Resident Anesa Miller said she was concerned whether any zoning changes might end up at odds with the city’s historical preservation goals. And, while she said she’s not bothered by the prospect of businesses in neighborhoods, Miller said she was concerned about making neighborhoods more dense.

“I’m not sure business and residence should mix,” said Christen Giblin, also saying she was worried about more density.

“I kind of wish that this proposal hadn’t gotten this far,” she said. “I think it’s a bad idea.”

Penny Evans-Meyer, noting that the PR is located in all four of the city’s wards, raised the issue of walkability, asking what in the zoning document will make the PR more walkable.

She said that repairing sidewalks, having crosswalks at each intersection and enforcing traffic laws related to pedestrians would promote walkability.

“We can’t just say ‘walkability’ in our document, and then put in more buildings and those people are going to come to town,” Evans-Meyer said.

Commission member Abhishek Bhati, who said he lives in what would become the PR, and noted that he, like Evans-Meyer, also walks extensively, said that getting people to walk is “an attitude, and we know how hard it is to change attitudes. And this town does not have the attitude.”

However, “attitudes do change if we keep pushing to positive change,” he said. “We are going in the right direction, but the document cannot make people certainly walk more.”

Later in the meeting, speaking on the PR, McOmber said that there is no denying the potential for it to affect some neighborhoods, and there is no way to know how that will happen in advance, but they have taken steps to achieve a favorable outcome, such as limiting uses in the PR to “a relatively small number of things. … This is a concept that has been utilized in a number of other towns and cities in the country,” McOmber said. “And certainly the intent here is to improve the quality of life in our city. But the proof is in the pudding. If this is adopted, as time goes on, we’ll see how this works out.”

The zoning code “may need to be amended as time goes on,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

As the commission moved into their work session, they discussed and voted on a series of additional recommendations to council.

The commission voted 5-3 on a proposal by member Will Airhart asking council to amend a section of the code related to conditional uses to clarify that the planning director must find certain criteria are in place before a conditional use is approved. It also asked that council consider whether to add “quality of life” as a criteria for the planning director’s review in that case. Members Judy Ennis, Mark Remeis and Tom Stalter voted against the matter.

Airhart further noted that the current zoning code draft doesn’t include anything about community gardens. He moved that they recommend council include a new definition of “community garden” in the code, and that it be included as a conditional permitted use in the PR and also R-1 and R-2 residential zoning. The matter passed 8-0.

Airhart additionally raised the issue of backyard chickens. McOmber, who formerly sat on city council, noted there was a lengthy discussion on that topic on council approximately a decade ago.

While he said he wasn’t against revisiting the matter, “I do have some concern that if council considers backyard chickens as part of the zoning code,” it could lengthen the process of adopting the code. He suggested that council address it separately.

After some discussion, Airhart moved that the commission recommend that council consider whether the use of the term “household agriculture” in the proposed code’s definition of “accessory use” includes backyard chickens.

The matter passed 7-1, with Ennis voting against.

Additionally, after a lengthy discussion proposed by Remeis, McOmber moved that the commission recommend to council that they closely review building height restrictions in the proposed code to determine if they should be eliminated, modified, or kept as is. The matter passed 8-0.