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Archive for Saturday, April 22, 2006

New development code could reshape feel of city

April 22, 2006

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Lawrence developers soon will have a chance to build different-looking neighborhoods.

After five years of haggling and hand-wringing, city commissioners in March approved the city's Development Code - a 300-page document that will guide how everything from new retail projects to neighborhoods can develop in the city for decades to come.

Although a long time in the making, the final version of the new code has been generally well-received by both developers and neighborhoods.

Part of the enthusiasm stems from changes that will allow builders more flexibility in how they build neighborhoods. Under the new code, which takes effect July 1, builders will be able to develop smaller lots, which could give neighborhoods more of an old-style neighborhood feel. Adding meandering walking trails and other pedestrian access features will be easier and encouraged in many cases.

"There will be new areas of town that have a different feel," said Mark Andersen, a Lawrence attorney who frequently works on development projects. "Currently, we just can't build new parts of town without using fairly large lots."

The code also has provisions that require developers to notify and meet with neighborhood associations before they begin certain projects in an area. That has neighborhood leaders happy.

"You'll have a lot better neighborhood participation in development matters with this code," said Gwen Klingenberg, president of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods.

The code replaces the city's current Zoning Code, which is 40 years old and frequently was cited by planners as constantly in need of updating because the size and types of developments had changed greatly since it was adopted in 1966. For example, a 1966 code doesn't provide much guidance on which zoning category a wireless telephone store should be placed in, since planners in the 1960s had little clue what a cellular telephone was.

The new code produces a multitude of changes in how developers will do business. The code will provide new options for homebuilders to build on smaller lots in an effort to promote affordability, will require greater pedestrian access in new areas of town, ensure that neighborhood associations are contacted by developers before certain projects begin, create more buffering requirements between residential and nonresidential pieces of property, and in some cases will streamline the process by giving city staff members more ability to administratively approve details of projects.

Commissioners had attempted to approve the code last year, but held off after members of the development community said it was replete with errors and contradictions. There was particular concern that hundreds of single-family homes and businesses with particular types of zoning would become "nonconforming uses" under the new code. The nonconforming use label would make it difficult for those property owners to rebuild their homes or businesses if they were destroyed.

But commissioners hired a private Kansas City attorney to help staff members review the code and make necessary changes. Those changes eliminated most of the cases where properties would become nonconforming uses.

"I'm glad to finally have this day," City Commissioner Mike Rundle said. "My excitement was more at the beginning of the project. I think I lost my excitement when it took so long to get this accomplished. But I think this will help us work to make our community a better community."

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