The city must move quickly to change its zoning laws to make sure the goals spelled out in the recently adopted Bellaire Comprehensive Plan actually jump off of paper into reality.
That was the view of Bill Thorogood, chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, at a special meeting this week in which commission members reviewed a report analyzing how the city’s zoning regulations stack up to the Comprehensive Plan’s visions for Bellaire.
“This is getting on the street that Bellaire is interested in doing something,” Thorogood said at the Jan. 12 meeting. “Folks are going to be doing things, and we’re not going to have our ducks in a row.”
Indeed, Community Development Director John McDonald said he already knows of one property owner in the city’s Research, Development and Distribution district — An area envisioned as a future light rail hub — who is dreaming up a project for his land.
“The plan calls for things that aren’t allowed in the current regulations,” McDonald said about the property owner’s project.
The Planning and Zoning Commission met with Gary Mitchell of Kendig Keast Collaborative, who helped draft the Comprehensive Plan, to discuss the company’s review of the city’s code. Major zoning changes will be necessary to reach the redevelopment visions for Bellaire’s downtown and the future rail station hub.
“I see the zoning changes as sort of a two-phase process. One, to look at transitional changes: The things that can allow us to get some movement and deal with some development that’s coming up,” McDonald said. “I think we need, at some point in the future with council support, to bring in an outside consultant to do an overall zoning review.”
Mitchell said he thought the most pressing goals should be adjusting the zoning regulations for the future rail station area, followed by citywide landscaping requirements and then changes to the zoning rules in Bellaire’s City Center.
“Those are the ones that rose to the top for me,” Mitchell said. “The timeline of transit coming is what really pulls that one to the top.”
In the future rail district, Kendig Keast’s review suggested the city allow buildings that cover more area on their lots, encourage mixing of retail and residential uses in the same building, and encourage developments that rise vertically instead of sprawling outwards. The city could create an urban character in the rail area by setting standards for architectural design, including minimum and maximum building heights.
Many of the same changes would be necessary for redevelopment of Bellaire’s downtown area.
Lynn McBee, a Bellaire resident and community activist, was concerned about building heights and addressed the commission before the meeting.
“When you say higher than, or lesser than, it doesn’t get quantified until you get to the regulations,” McBee said. “This is a call to the entire community to watch and follow this like hawks.”
On a fundamental level, the review by Kendig Keast Collaborative calls for basic changes in how the city uses its zoning regulations.
“One of the recurring themes is the reliance on planned development over the years in Bellaire,” Mitchell said. The planned development process requires prospective developers to file applications for zoning changes, go before the city and receive approval for plans. Many times, everything in the zoning code is up for negotiation. As a result, Mitchell said that development hasn’t followed uniform standards to create a community character.
The current code uses regulations to set districts for certain uses — residential, commercial — instead of using regulations to determine an area’s character — For example, urban or suburban. Kendig Keast recommended that the city change the code to clearly define an area’s desired character.
The review also discussed changes necessary to attain the Comprehensive Plan’s goals for more housing variety in Bellaire, better landscaping standards, creation of bicycle and pedestrian routes and building standards that help promote security control crime.