Brainerd: Planning commission looks to update zoning regulations, promote economic development
A complete rewrite of Brainerd's zoning ordinance may be in the city's near future. The idea unfolded while the planning commission met for a beginning of the year retreat Wednesday, Feb. 13, to discuss plans for the coming year. With the recent ...
A complete rewrite of Brainerd's zoning ordinance may be in the city's near future.
The idea unfolded while the planning commission met for a beginning of the year retreat Wednesday, Feb. 13, to discuss plans for the coming year.
With the recent retirement of longtime city planner Mark Ostgarden and the restructuring of the planning department under the leadership of David Chanski, new community development director, commission members wanted to develop specific objectives going forward.
The first item on the docket: zoning and related ordinances.
The city's current zoning ordinance was written in the 1980s and revised most recently in 2004.
"I think we should do a full rewrite," commission member Justin Burslie said Wednesday. "A lot of things that are in there don't even apply to what we have today."
Burslie mentioned the zoning districts as one example, as Brainerd currently has 17 different districts-three rural, six residential, five commercial, two industrial and one mixed use. In comparison, Minneapolis-with an area more than quadruple the size of Brainerd-has about 24 primary zoning districts, Burslie said, suggesting six or seven in Brainerd should be the maximum.
An abundance of districts, combined with outdated regulations, make the zoning ordinance bulky, cumbersome and difficult to amend, Burslie added. He noted a recent instance where it took three months to amend the code for a property owner to be able to build a single-family home in a multi-family residential district.
"Why would we put that on residents?" he said.
Chanski also supported changes to zoning regulations, noting much of the language is confusing for the average citizen, and some parts are a little too cookie cutter and might not specifically apply to Brainerd well enough.
"One of the big things is making it clear," Chanski said. "When people read the ordinance, they can read it and go, 'OK, this is what's expected.' They don't read it and feel like they need to pull out a dictionary or call me to translate for them. It's user friendly to all of our residents."
And being user-friendly, City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson noted, could help further economic development in the city.
"When you look at economic development, one of the hurdles and barriers to people wanting to come into your community or stay in your community is perhaps your ordinances. If they're complicated, complex, difficult to follow, not current and modern, don't fit the needs of the evolving times, it's kind of a deterrent," she said, adding economic development isn't just the addition of businesses, but also redevelopment and residential housing.
Torstenson told the commission potential developers may decide not to build in a particular city solely based upon the zoning codes, before even visiting a city.
"One of my goals as city administrator is for the city of Brainerd to become the city of choice in the state of Minnesota," she said. "We want to be able to invite our residents to stay, to enjoy their experience here. We want to be able to encourage new residents to also settle here. We want to encourage new business and industry to come, but we also want to sustain the ones we have. And so for me, my priority would be this set of ordinances you guys are talking about because that's what's going to do it for our city."
The commission agreed to look at updating, not only the city's zoning ordinance, but the two chapters of city code relating to building, housing, construction, planning and land use regulations, with Torstenson stressing the importance of those sections all working together.
While taking on a rewrite, Burslie suggested exploring the idea of a form-based code.
"Right now we regulate uses based on zones, whereas in form-based code, we would regulate the size of the building, and you don't dictate the use," he said.
Under the form-based system, buildings would have to comply with certain physical standards. Different kinds of buildings could be placed in the same area as long as they follow the specified form, with some exceptions allowed if needed.
"It might not work for every area of the city, like industrial districts," Burslie said, "but there are some spots where I think it would work well."
The form standards, Chanski said, can get as detailed as the commission wants.
Torstenson noted buildings would still have to be compatible with one another, giving the extreme example of not putting a hog farm in the middle of the city.
Though all the commission seemed to be on board with a zoning code rewrite, Torstenson let them know it would likely be two or three years before the new code is approved and functional.
First, the commission must reach out to potential consultants to learn how much a project like this would cost. Chanski said he could do it himself, but it would be the only thing he'd be able to do for two years, making a consultant necessary.
Jan Lambert, council liaison to the planning commission, said she was involved in the 2004 rewrite, which took two years with the help of a consultant. Though a lot of work went into that project, she supports another rewrite, noting enough time has elapsed to make some parts outdated.
After figuring out the cost, the commission would have to present a plan to the council and wait until the city's 2020 budget cycle for funding authorization. That would mean putting a budget together no later than July but not necessarily knowing if the funds would be available until the city council approves the final budget in December.
After that, the commission could secure a consultant and start reviewing the ordinance to determine what works and what doesn't, a process Torstenson estimated to take at least a year. Another couple months would then be needed to get the new codes approved.
Burslie said he knows of some national firms that could help and some potential funding opportunities for the project.
"I think it would be a great opportunity to have an outside firm come in that has no knowledge base of Brainerd and just come in and immerse themselves in the community, hold community events, hold demonstration projects," Burslie said, noting the community should be involved in the process as well as city staff and the planning commission.
Commission Chair Donald Gorham said he is interested in learning more about form-based code, and new member Mike Duval liked the idea as well, saying it could be a more useful, dynamic tool for the city.
The commission advised Burslie and Chanski to bring examples of form-based code and an idea of the scope of work to be done on the ordinances to the commission's March 20 meeting.
In the meantime, Mayor Ed Menk said the commission should instruct staff to make smaller ordinance changes as needed and treat it as a living document.
"Because that will become the basis of the rewrite," he said. "So if we don't do that stuff now as it comes up or as David (Chanski) or staff find it, it may get missed in the rewrite."
Regular meetings of the planning commission are at 6 p.m. the third Wednesday of the month at city hall.