Land use – more of the story

I was pleased by the Council’s reception of the first portion of the revised land development code last Tuesday.  The Planning Commission brought the regulations relating to existing residential areas to the worksession on Tuesday.   Council members asked good questions and teased out some of the lingering policy snags.

The new code emphasizes compatibility over meeting fixed setback, size, height requirements in our existing neighborhoods.   In the case of building a new home in an existing neighborhood, the builder would have to meet standards calculated from the houses on either side of the building lot rather than, say, simply putting the front of the house 20′ back from the property line.   The new house couldn’t be too much taller, shorter, farther back or farther forward than neighboring structures.   Planning Commission discussion focused on preventing “monster houses” on smaller lots which dwarfed neighbors, but also included regulations which would prevent building homes that were significantly smaller than surrounding structures.   Council discussion emphasized that building smaller was not seen as a problem; indeed allowing smaller homes had advantages for affordability, options of housing types, and other goals from the Comprehensive Plan.

The Council also directed the Planning Commission to focus on facilitating “life cycle” housing so people could remain in their neighborhoods even as housing needs change.  Toward this end, “accessory dwelling units” will be allowed in older neighborhoods.  That space over the detached garage can now be used as an apartment to increase density and provide an additional housing option (this kicks up rental code issues, but I’m not going there now).  Further options exist for new residential areas (the area planned for residential use, but not yet built – mostly the south edge of the city).

Then there is the continuing problem of where and how to allow some commercial uses into residential areas.  I call it a problem because the Planning Commission has struggled with crafting regulations for neighborhood scale commercial uses for about 10 years without great success.   My sense of the conversation is that we like having the Ole Cafe in a residential neighborhood and we’d like to be able to have somewhere to buy a gallon of milk, have a cup of coffee, and maybe get our hair cut close to our homes.  On the other hand, we do not want a convenience store on the corner  nor any operation which requires parking lots, traffic, noise, or excess lighting.   Sometimes the conversation pits “Mom-and-Pop live above the store ownership” against corporate America with all its perceived problems.  I don’t think land use regulations – a rather blunt instrument – will solve this last issue, but suffice to say it is not easy to write regulations which allow or encourage the “good” stuff and prohibit the “bad” stuff.  The particular problem I see is simply with Northfield’s size.  We’re not very big and have built quite low density neighborhoods which makes it difficult economically for a small, stand-alone business away from a “business district.”  The Planning Commission has discussed leaving this issue aside until the bulk of the code has been adopted in order to allow more focused discussion without the time pressures facing the code adoption process.

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