In a pair of 3-2 decisions Thursday, the City Commission voted down a motion opposing the expansion of administrative development review — only to approve a similar motion moments later.
The votes highlight conflicting priorities among the commission on what has become a contentious issue. As it considers the new citywide zoning regulations outlined in a proposed form-based code, the board is weighing a public push for more input on development against planners’ advice for creating a more consistent review process.
Although the commission seemingly ended up taking a stance against expanded administrative review, it remains possible the board could reverse course once more.
The decisions hinged on the vote of Vice Mayor Liz Alpert. She initially voted against Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch’s proposal to rule out the possible expansion of administrative review beyond its current parameters. Because the city is just beginning its review of the form-based code — a full draft of the document was first released March 9 — Alpert said she did not want to limit the options staff could consider.
But after Ahearn-Koch’s motion failed, Alpert made her own motion. She asked staff to explore the proposals in the form-based code and come back with their own input for future discussion on the city’s development approval procedures. And then, she also suggested staff should not consider the expansion of administrative review.
That motion passed. After the meeting, though, Alpert said she still wanted staff to study all options available — including, possibly, expanding of administrative review.
“When we discuss it again, we don’t have to have a hard and fast rule,” Alpert said. “This doesn’t mean, just because we voted this way tonight, that it can’t be expanded at a later point — if staff really thinks it should.”
Thursday’s meeting was held specifically to discuss the administrative review process. The process empowers staff to approve large projects in the downtown area that, in other segments of the city, would be subject to public hearings in front of the Planning Board and City Commission. Those projects must comply with regulations outlined in the zoning code.
The form-based code proposes expanding the use of administrative review outside of downtown. It still carves out cases in which public hearings are required, using project size and proposed uses as standards to determine when staff is allowed to approve a site plan.
Karin Murphy, director of the city’s Urban Design Studio and primary author of the form-based code, said administrative review can help streamline the development process. The key, she said, was to properly define the types of projects the community was willing to accept without public hearings, versus projects that demanded an official forum for resident input.
She pushed back against the suggestion that administrative review produced lower quality developments than a public hearing process. She referred to a presentation from planner Chris Gallagher that highlighted projects developed under both systems, arguing that administrative review could produce consistently good developments if the proper regulations are in place.
“Going to public hearing doesn’t always produce the greatest building,” Murphy said.
“When the neighborhoods have the opportunity, often, win-win solutions are achieved.” — Susan Chapman
The resident activist group STOP formed, in part, to oppose the expansion of administrative review. At Thursday’s meeting, the commission chamber was filled with residents wearing red in support of STOP.
Those residents said public hearings are necessary to give the public an opportunity to comment on proposed developments near where they live. When the city establishes a process that allows direct interaction between residents and developers, supporters of STOP said it facilitates a dialogue that can improve projects for all parties.
“When the neighborhoods have the opportunity, often, win-win solutions are achieved,” former City Commissioner Susan Chapman said. “That’s a reason why it’s important to have public input.”
Few speakers voiced support for administrative review. Developer Jay Tallman did offer one contrasting perspective. He said he appreciates public input, but he criticized the public hearing process because it creates opportunities for feedback toward the end of the review process. By that point, Tallman said, developers have invested significant money into producing plans, making them less flexible.
“It’s the early input from the neighborhood that’s very important,” Tallman said. “To have subjective input at the very tail end — after I’ve spent, in some cases, over a million dollars on the planning of the project — that’s not the time to do that.”
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, a founding member of STOP, argued there was enough community opposition to conclude residents didn’t want to expand administrative review.
“I absolutely do not think we should be expanding on something that is causing community outrage,” Ahearn-Koch said. “I cannot support that in any way, shape or form.”
Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said she thought the city needed to do more research and gather more input before coming to that conclusion.
“The assumption is that you’ve heard from the entire community,” Eddie said. “You can’t make that assumption.”
Commissioner Hagen Brody went a step further in defense of administrative review. He called it an important tool for facilitating redevelopment because it provides certainty for builders regarding what is allowed by right.
“Demonizing it — and, at this premature point, excluding it — I think is a huge mistake,” Brody said.
“Demonizing it — and, at this premature point, excluding it — I think is a huge mistake.” — Hagen Brody
Alpert ultimately said she favored a system that reflected both sides of the discussion. She wants residents to have more opportunities to comment on proposed developments. At the same time, she agreed with Tallman’s assertion that public input is most useful at the beginning of the process, and that staff is qualified to apply the standards in the code afterwards.
She suggested a system similar to what is currently in place on the edge of the Laurel Park neighborhood. The Laurel Park Overlay District requires developers to hold two community workshops before a project can gain site plan approval. After the community workshops, though, staff can administratively determine whether the plan meets the standards in the code.
Despite the commission’s final conclusion, Alpert said she’s interested in seeing what additional information staff has to present the next time the topic comes up. As a result, it remains unclear whether the city will ultimately consider expansion of administrative review beyond its existing parameters.
“I think the staff really should come back with data for us as to what should be administratively approved and what should not be,” Alpert said.