Changing a zoning ordinance often takes months of process and public meetings yet it’s the effective date that may cause the most disruption for property owners. Addressing this simple issue can significantly improve the process.
The City of Roswell (north of Atlanta) is preparing to adopt a new Unified Development Code (zoning ordinance) after many months of public discussion. An end date was set yet the city council has delayed the final vote due to confusion about the changes to the drafts of the UDC.
This is a common issue. In the development of building codes and zoning ordinances, we often track changes in spreadsheets. It takes a lot of work to monitor what’s changing and update other code sections that reference what’s being changed. That’s why it’s critically important that municipalities push back their effective date to at least ninety days after a change has been adopted.
We’ve learned this lesson in other municipalities. The City of Atlanta is an excellent example. The significant changes to the residential sections of Atlanta’s zoning ordinance in 2007 took a tremendous amount of work yet when they were adopted, property owners needed time to figure out what was in them before they became effective.
This happens when changes are made until the 11th hour before the City Council votes to adopted the proposed changes. That’s common with legislation as various groups contribute their opinions and issues are addressed yet it makes it difficult, if not impossible, for property owners to figure out what the rules will be before the changes are formally adopted. We have to pass it to see what’s in it.
Minor changes to regulations and ordinances may not create a hardship yet an overhaul may significantly change projects that are already planned. They’re effectively punished for not being able to navigate the process of obtaining a permit, variance or other government-issued permission for the project. That’s an important consideration for two reasons:
- Earning a government-issued instrument like a building permit, demolition permit or variance often moves along a process that has a minimum time associated with it. For example, a variance often requires public hearings so it can’t be completed in less than 60 or 90 days because of requirements to advertise the public hearings. Not all agencies are timely in their review so these permissions may not be granted for months beyond the minimum requirement, despite the best efforts of the property owner.
- A change in the regulations or ordinances governing a property may significantly change the project. That, in turn, can significantly change the value and cost of the work. Municipalities should take great care to protect projects already put in for a permit or other instrument by maintain a transparent process AND a transition period that doesn’t change the rules on proposed projects. Changing the rules on projects already underway (under the existing rules) can discourage improvements that raise the value of local properties.
The combination of efficient permitting processes that keep up with demand and adequate transition periods to protect proposed projects when new rules are adopted seems to be the best way to continually encourage improvements to the properties in a community. The City of Roswell appears to be making an effort to strike that balance yet pushing adoption of its UDC closer to its effective date puts the burden on property owners, rather than the government that serves them.
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