Amid assessment of Lawrence development code, consultant lays out some anticipated changes

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

The Land Development Code Update Steering Committee meets at city offices on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

After assessing Lawrence’s development code for the past few months, city-hired consultants have laid out some changes for an update that will affect where and how the city grows. Those include changes to the setup of both residential and commercial districts and what types of developments and uses are allowed where.

Consultants with Clarion Associates went through an outline of the code assessment during the second meeting of the Land Development Code Update Steering Committee on Thursday at city offices. Elizabeth Garvin, of Clarion, told the committee that ultimately the assessment will be about 60 pages, and that she was going through the approximately five-page outline to introduce the higher-level ideas for the code update, and to pose some key questions to the committee.

“We have put our preliminary thoughts down on paper, following up on the meetings that we had in the city and looking at the plans and the code,” Garvin said.

The development code update will implement the community’s comprehensive plan, Plan 2040, and the development-related aspects of the Downtown Lawrence Plan. It also seeks to establish simpler and more consistent development procedures, according to a project overview. The purpose of the code assessment is to establish a framework for the code update. Specifically, the assessment will identify issues with the current code; identify potential regulatory approaches to address the issues; and create an organizational framework to ensure that the code drafting process is comprehensive. The code assessment, which began in September, will be released for review in early January, ahead of the committee’s next meeting on Jan. 26.

Anticipated changes included in the code assessment outline are as follows:

• Update the city’s zoning districts to better delineate the multiple types, characters, and scales of development in Lawrence. Some examples of anticipated changes include: consolidating some residential districts to better reflect neighborhood character and Plan 2040 recommended densities; converting most commercial districts into mixed-use districts; and expanding the downtown zoning district to better reflect the Downtown Plan.

• Organize and update the use regulations. Some examples of anticipated changes include consolidating the residential and nonresidential use tables; updating and relocating the use category descriptions; and reviewing and updating current uses and use allocations.

• Improve and tailor development standards. Some examples of anticipated improvements include the addition of “character-based, tailored” development standards; a focus on infill and redevelopment; addressing transitions between different development types; and refining parking standards to reflect Plan 2040.

• Protect environmentally sensitive areas and incorporate sustainability. Some examples include enhancing the environmentally sensitive land standards; updating the landscaping standards to include environmental priorities; and adding standards that regulate development on steep slopes.

• The code update will also focus on making the code more user-friendly, “predictable,” and streamlined. Some improvements will be focused on the layout, such as improving the organization, page and document layout, and adding illustrations, tables and graphics. Others will seek to make outcomes more predictable by eliminating unnecessarily complicated and legalistic language; using objective rather than subjective standards wherever possible; and reconciling any internal inconsistencies. To streamline development procedures, creating a process for minor modifications and some regulatory departures to be approved administratively will be considered.

Garvin said the procedures process will look at where applicants get jammed up and why, as well as where the process should move faster and where it should get more input.

“So a balance between what should move through quickly and what should get a lot of touch from the community,” she said.

Other “special topics” will include zoning for affordable housing, equity considerations, and ensuring environmental sustainability. As part of the meeting, the committee was asked to weigh in on the following topics that will be considerations as the code update is drafted:

• What does neighborhood character mean in Lawrence?

• What does the Steering Committee need to know to think about the future of commercial and industrial “business parks”?

• How do we start to get to better coordination between historic preservation and infill/redevelopment?

• Will it be helpful to explore adding a required neighborhood meeting prior to Planning Commission review for some application types (for example, rezoning, conditional use permit)?

• How does the community think about water use in development?

One of the questions that got a good amount of discussion was whether it would be helpful to have a required neighborhood meeting as an initial step for some development projects. There were some mixed opinions on how helpful such meetings were, but more than one committee member indicated they thought it could potentially help the process run smoother. Garvin said based on the responses the issue would be further discussed, and the city would likely put out a community survey on all five questions.

The code update will be broken into three components — districts and uses, development standards, and administration and procedures — and go through three drafts, according to the project overview. Each draft will go to the committee and public for input, which will inform the subsequent draft. The final draft will ultimately go to the Planning Commission and City Commission for review and ultimate adoption. Following the completion of the code assessment, it’s anticipated the code drafting process will begin in January 2023 and conclude in October 2023, while the review and adoption process will begin in November 2023 and conclude in June of 2024.

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