An Editorial Inside Look at Serving on Planning Commission: Special Land Use Review

While Mother Nature is dragging her heels as far as it feeling like spring outside, yet another indication of the change of seasons, according to the calendar, is construction.  Roads and buildings undergo major construction or a facelift during warmer months and in some instances within the city these projects need approval from the Planning Commission prior to commencing.  

Since the introduction to this editorial series I’ve gone from a paper insert to an actual nameplate!

What is a Special Land Use?
Different sections of the city are designated by districts.  There are certain rules which apply to homes and businesses in a residential district compared to a business district.  Residential and business districts are also broken down further depending upon things including home density and whether a business is in the historical part of downtown.  

If any change to a residence or building is sought, falling outside the district’s rules, an application must be submitted to the Planning Commission for approval.  During the monthly Planning Commission meeting this past Monday, three items were on the agenda pertaining to approval for special land use.

During special land use reviews, members of the public are also able to provide comment for or against the approval of a request.  The Planning Commission must also review the request and ensure it meets certain standards outlined in Chapter 17 of the city’s zoning ordinance.  The standards are reviewed separately, discussed, and accepted one by one prior to approval or denial of a special land use request. During discussion, conditions can be added which must be followed by the applicant.  When a structure will be dramatically changed, a site plan must also be included and approved along with the special land use application.

Review of Applications – Adding Apartments above a Downtown Business
The first application reviewed was submitted by Eric and Beryl Bartkus.  They are the owners of Ability Weavers, located at 215 W. Main Street. The two want to create two apartments above their business.  A residence occupying the same building as a business in the Central Business District is only permitted via special land use. Because the existing building will not be changed as far as its footprint or significant external design, a site plan was not required at the time of review.  Site plans will be required when working with the zoning enforcement and any issues with compliance will be viewed there.

It was also noted the Planning Commission will be reviewing the definitions and requirements of the various zoning districts in the coming months as part of reviewing all of the chapters in the ordinance to update and change anything.  The point in question was whether an apartment in the same building as a business in the downtown area should require a special land use permit. Typically special land use permits are not required when a change is being made for a situation where if similar requests were made in the same area would be seen as beneficial.  

Adding living space above businesses in the downtown area is considered a positive thing for the area, which would not hamper the development, growth, or purpose of the district.  This is similar to questioning whether an ordinance should be changed if a number of similar variance requests are received. Basically, if something makes sense, the ordinance should be changed rather than having to continually approve special requests which fall outside the rules.  

Members of the Planning Commission unanimously voted to pass the special land use permit, allowing two apartments to be established above Ability Weavers on Main Street.

Review of Applications – Betten Baker

The second item for review was a special land use application from Betten Baker, located at 930 W. Main.  The current car dealership is looking to tear down existing buildings and build a single building on the property.  Car dealerships are considered open air businesses and must operate under a special land use permit in the General Business District, where the property is located.  The six special land use standards were reviewed and approved. This was the easy part of the processes because the type of business will remain the same.

Due to the construction of new buildings and changing the look of the current business, a site plan was also required for approval by the Planning Commission.  A letter from a concerned citizen was read into the record and a husband and wife who live adjacent to the dealership property also spoke against the project submitted by Betten Baker.  The concerns of both parties included noise from vehicle car alarms going off and an outdoor public address (PA) system, traffic along Center Street, and light pollution. Michael Bouman of Pioneer Construction was present at the meeting to represent Betten Baker and answer questions.  

There was quite a bit of dialog between one of the residents of a nearby home, Kelly Taylor, who voiced concerns.  She mentioned ongoing sounds of car alarms going off as Betten Baker staff searched for cars on their lot. She questioned whether there would be any kind of natural barrier to block light and dull sound coming from the dealership property.  

Reviewing the proposed landscaping and lighting on the site plan revealed largely adequate measures to keep business sounds and lighting on the property.  The Planning Commission did add a few conditions to the approval of the site plan review.

No outside PA system should be used with the reconfiguration of the dealership.  It was felt having one building rather than three would alleviate the need for an outdoor paging system.  Additionally, the use of cell phones could be used to reach a staff member outside on the lot. Regarding the practice of setting off car alarms as a means for finding vehicles in the lot, the Planning Commission included a condition stating staff members of the business should not use this method for locating vehicles.  It was noted that this wouldn’t mean a car alarm wouldn’t go off from time to time or that regular beeps when setting an alarm would be deterred, however, the commission did want to note the importance of not causing excess noise.

There was some discussion regarding the amount of light coming from the property.  The plan falls within ordinance rules concerning the brightness of lights. With the use of newer light technology and the positioning of light poles and direction light fixtures would be pointing, it was determined no conditions of approval were needed.  

The Planning Commission unanimously approved the special land use application and site plan with a list of conditions which should also be met to be in compliance with the approval.  

Review of Applications – Short-term Rental
The topic of short-term rentals was brought before City Council in August of last year.  The Planning Commission was given the task to include a short-term rental definition and conditions needing to be met in order to have this type of rental in the city zoning ordinance.  Earlier this year this new verbiage was approved by both the Planning Commission and City Council.  With that, the residence where short-term rental activity was taking place submitted an application to allow such activity through a special land use permit.

Two citizens spoke opposing the short-term rental at 2179 Gee Drive.  One person lives next to the address and the other lives across the street.  The property owner’s neighbor voiced concerns about the party type atmosphere when the property was being rented out prior to having an ordinance in place.  

The applicant was not present at the meeting on Monday.  Prior to reviewing the standards needing to be met to grant a special land use permit it was decided to table the application until next month when the applicant, or a representative for him, could be present to answer questions.  

Commissioner Thoughts
This article is considered an editorial because as its author and a member of the Planning Commission, it didn’t want to “report” on something I’m directly involved in.  However, I do want to share my experience from time to time.

Typically Planning Commission meetings aren’t as interactive as it was this week.  There was actually an audience! This was my first meeting, since being appointed to the board in October of last year, where concerns from residents were heard and considered.  It was nice getting used to how things work for a few months before reviewing applications with potential concerns came before us.

I enjoyed the process of listening to citizens and applicants.  In these instances, the Planning Commission’s job is to make sure applicants are staying within ordinance rules while also taking into considerations how changes may affect businesses and residents nearby.  That’s not always an easy task.

Approving the site plan for Betten Baker is one of those instances.  It’s great to have the community growing such that an improved car dealership is needed – and that the dealership is willing to invest money into their business in Lowell.  Once construction is completed the entire look of the property will be improved. Sidewalks will allow better and safer travels for those on foot. Reconfiguring entrances and exits to the property for vehicle traffic will also improve current confusion on where how to get on to the property.  

As a way to address resident concerns, conditions of approval of the site plan included installation of a fence and upkeep of landscaping to dampen light and noise coming from the business.  Also, employee tactics of setting off car alarms to locate vehicles is prohibited as well as the use of an outdoor PA system.

I’m looking forward to continuing to review and contribute to applications and tasks taken on by the Planning Commission.

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