Punctuated at times by outbursts from the audience, Bowling Green Council on Thursday held a public forum on the city’s proposed zoning code update.
The meeting, held at the Veterans Building at City Park, focused largely on topics related to the controversial Pedestrian Residential zoning district included in the update.
“I know sometimes it tends to feel like an adversarial relationship,” Council President Mark Hollenbaugh said near the forum’s end.
“We certainly don’t view this as an adversarial relationship,” he said. “We view this as a collaborative relationship.”
Referred to frequently as the “PR”, the proposed Pedestrian Residential district is a neighborhood area located in a rough, elongated 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. Concerns about the area have in large part revolved around concerns about allowing certain commercial uses in the district, as well as worries about the potential for increased rental properties there.
The forum was divided into a number of phases. First, presentations were made explaining the PR; the Central Residential District, proposed by the Save Our BG Neighborhoods group as a replacement to the PR; and a proposed amended version of the PR, and a new zone, formulated by council members Jeff Dennis and Rachel Phipps.
Phipps discussed the PR, noting that, as currently written in the latest version of the code update, one and two-unit dwellings would be permitted, and there would also be some limited business uses available, such as corner stores, bed and breakfasts, day care centers, and funeral homes and – as conditional uses – a barber shop, beauty shop or day spa and a bar or tavern.
The draft code, she said, places regulations on the limited types of small businesses “to make sure that the businesses are right-sized for the neighborhood.”
Phipps said that “the PR district is not an attempt to expand our downtown.” The purpose is to expand opportunities for entrepreneurs and small businesses while adding amenities in the form of walkable destinations for residents in the neighborhoods.
John Sampen, representing Save Our BG Neighborhoods, discussed the Central Residential District proposal. This would permit home occupation, one-unit dwellings, passive green space and side yard or rear-yard parking pads, and would, among other things, prohibit two-unit dwellings. No new businesses would be established, Sampen said, and lot coverage would be kept at 60%, as opposed to the 80% proposed in the PR, to discourage greater density.
He said they have no objection to the long-established businesses located in the area already. However, Sampen said that, as originally proposed, the PR would allow some homes to be repurposed for commercial uses “bringing congestion, noise, litter, light pollution,” and other issues into the neighborhoods.
Dennis spoke on the proposed amendment to the PR which, he said, would remove nearly all commercial uses from that area. It would also address islands of areas currently zoned M-1 Light Manufacturing and B-2 Limited business already located in the PR. He said that in those areas, uses such as airports, hotels, mobile home parks and lumber yards are already permitted.
Instead, the new, as-yet-unnamed zoning would address those areas, introducing residential uses while limiting commercial uses.
“This proposal represents a far more incremental, measured approach than anything that has been proposed thus far,” Dennis said.
Attendees sat at one of seven tables set up for the event, each accommodating eight or more people and supplied with a large copy of the proposed zoning map, a copy of the draft zoning code update, and other documents. Approximately 60 people were in attendance – excluding council members, city staff, and media – by the forum’s 6 p.m. start time.
One council member sat at each table, and after the presentations the tables took 15 minutes to discuss the proposals. Afterward, each table reported out about their discussions.
“We had a very lively discussion, very strong discussion, and I’m just glad that so many people came and showed up to this,” said Councilman Nick Rubando.
He said at his table there was still strong concern that, even if commercial uses are removed, landlords would still buy up old homes and turn them into duplexes. He said there was a feeling at the table that the city needs to look at what other, similar cities have had success with, and that there is a desire to look more into the inspection of rental properties.
Among other topics brought up by the groups were reducing the number of single family homes turned into duplexes or split up into rental units, aesthetic issues of properties, the issue of lot coverage, how the zoning change would affect current property holders, code enforcement, the need for affordable single-family homes, and the importance of improving on what already exists instead of a focus on new construction.
Attendees also had the opportunity to submit questions on note cards. More than 75 questions were submitted.
One question revolved around the fear that if new businesses were allowed in the proposed area defined by the unnamed new zone, it might take away from downtown businesses.
“Our entire community benefits from having a strong ecosystem for locally-owned businesses,” Dennis responded. “We all benefit when we make it easier for someone to start and run a small business in the community. … I don’t think people investing in this community is a bad thing.”
“We have those businesses in our community right now,” said Councilman Joel O’Dorisio. “We want to make sure that the businesses allowed to be in the communities” fit the nature of those communities.
Among the questions fielded by Planning Director Heather Sayler was a concern that businesses in neighborhoods could cause light pollution. She noted that in the proposed new code, a photometric plan is required as part of any development, to regulate lighting.
“We only have a glare requirement right now that’s in the building code,” she said.
Another question focused on the issue of defining short term rentals, such as Airbnb and Vrbo, in the code.
O’Dorisio noted that a legal opinion from city attorney is that the rental registration requirements already approved in the city do apply to short-term rentals. He said that, while the topic is not currently included in the zoning, he is interested in making sure they separate it out.
Another question asked why duplexes would be wanted in the areas that would fall under the PR.
Sayler noted that, under the current zoning there isn’t a middle zoning classification to allow different kinds of housing units, and 70% of the city is zoned as single family residential.
“Not everyone can afford a house, not everyone wants to live in a house,” she said. “We’re trying to build balance in our code” in general.
Speaking later, Phipps noted that a major goal of the new zoning code was simplification – under the update, the city would go from 24 zones and districts to 12.
“Every single zone and district is doing some lifting here to allow us to diversify our housing citywide,” she said.