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SHERIDAN — As a city grows, its codes and ordinances must often grow and change with it. Such is the case in a recent series of work sessions held by Sheridan Planning Commission members who expressed a desire to make a confusing ordinance more clear and ensure that Planning Commission and City Council are working together effectively to move Sheridan into the future.
The ordinance under review is part of an appendix to Sheridan’s subdivision regulations dealing with planned unit development subdivisions. A planned unit development is used “to provide opportunities to create more desirable environments through the application of flexible and diversified land development standards under a professional, prepared comprehensive plan and program,” according to Sheridan’s current PUD ordinance purpose statement.
“The planned unit development ordinance has never received a comprehensive rewrite. It was adopted in the late ‘90s, so it’s not a particularly old section of code, but it was just time to go through and make sure that the planned unit development was achieving the objectives that we want it to achieve,” Sheridan Planning and Development Director Robert Briggs said.
After one recent PUD project caused uproar among adjacent neighbors and another proposed development resulted in city staff suggesting a PUD may have been a better choice, the Planning Commission agreed it was time to clarify the PUD ordinance to foster a productive relationship between developers, city officials and community members.
The city hired a local consultant who had served as a past president of the American Planning Association to review the city’s PUD ordinance and make suggested revisions. On Monday, the Planning Commission will review her edits in a work session set to begin at 6 p.m.
Planning Commission members hope to meet with members of City Council to officially revise Sheridan’s PUD ordinance by late summer or early fall, Briggs said.
A little background
A planned unit development is used to allow flexibility and creativity with new developments. The underlying idea is that one set of zoning standards does not work for every parcel of land, Orion Planning Group consultant Joanne Garnett said.
For example, a PUD may allow higher density than an area’s original zoning, but the tradeoff will be more open space or areas that promote community living, Garnett said. PUDs allow for cohesive neighborhood designs and creative uses of space.
In Sheridan, planned unit developments came into play in the mid-90s with the development of Falcon Ridge near the airport off of West Brundage Lane, Briggs said. Since that time, several planned unit developments have popped up around the city in a variety of forms. These have included: Holly Ponds near the hospital, Bridge Creek near Kendrick Park, Whitney Plaza off of Broadway and Blue Sky Court on Sheridan Avenue near Sheltered Acres Park.
Briggs said that when Sheridan was booming, there were a couple planned unit developments proposed per year. That has slowed with the economic recession, but planning staff and city officials see the PUD as a desirable development option for future growth, which is why Planning Commissioner Robert Webster wants to make sure the PUD ordinance is as clear as it can be.
“As far as the formal process, you could say I made the call to action,” Webster said.
He wanted to work with the city’s planning division to champion a PUD revision process that began with revisions to Ordinance No. 2124, which pertains to Sheridan’s entryway design standards. He also wanted to make sure the Planning Commission sat down with City Council, which hasn’t happened in two or three commissions, to make sure interpretations were clear.
“It’s pretty clear to me and the other commissioners who picked up the ball on this that when we finish this PUD revision, we need to sit down with City Council so, one, both organizations get on the same sheet of music, and two, there is a clear understanding of what the PUD is and what we’re doing with it,” Webster said.
What the PUD?
In March and April of this year, a proposed planned unit development on the corner of Big Horn Avenue and Brundage Lane known as Skyview West caused a ruckus in two Planning Commission and two City Council meetings. It was tabled once by each body due to outcry from neighboring residents and was eventually nixed by the developer who has yet to announce further plans.
While both Briggs and Webster confirm that contention didn’t come as a direct result of the multi-family housing project being a PUD, trying to interpret the PUD ordinance in light of the proposed plans proved confusing at best.
The property had a history of struggle centered on whether one half of it was zoned R-1 or R-3 residential. A court order deemed the whole property R-3, which allows for apartment style complexes up to four stories in height. The developer agreed to a compromise with adjacent landowners by planning the development as a PUD, limiting building height in the area closest to the adjoining neighborhood to two stories.
However, in discussions between city staff, the developer and nearby residents, PUD terminology — namely floating general purpose district versus floating overlay district — became muddled in people’s minds and several residents felt the plans did not represent what had been discussed.
“What became kind of a challenge that really called it out to the whole group was overlay versus general purpose district. It wasn’t entirely clear. Even if you take all of the emotion out of the issue, you still had the challenge of working with what we have in front of us to clearly line up the PUD solution with the challenges of that particular piece of real estate,” Webster said.
Much of the problem arose from terminology and the fact that Sheridan is one of the few towns Garnett found that allows PUDs to be either a floating general district or a floating overlay. Though both terms include the term “floating,” they are quite different in meaning and Garnett said Sheridan would be better off to choose just one.
In fact, many of Garnett’s suggestions for revision centered on making the ordinance tighter, clearer and more specific.
Pushing the PUD forward
The review process used by Garnett and her partners at Orion Planning Group was a combination of decades of working knowledge in the planning field and a meticulous review of nearly 20 PUD ordinances from cities of similar size, Garnett said. The team looked in detail at PUDs in Laramie, Bozeman, Mont., Aspen, Colo. and Sumner, Wash., among five others. They also did a cursory examination of ordinances in states across the nation including Oregon, Montana, New York and North Carolina.
What they found was that the best codes were direct enough to provide clear guidance but open enough to allow the flexibility and creativity that are the cornerstone of planned unit developments.
Many of the proposed edits Garnett made on Sheridan’s PUD ordinance revolved around streamlining and removing inconsistencies within the code itself and with other zoning and subdivision regulations. Garnett also suggested dealing more with the conceptual ideas of a PUD than the technical, engineering specifics, which would foster flexibility.
From the outset, Garnett said the purpose statement needs to be just that: a purpose statement and not the mix of purpose, processes and technical information that it currently includes.
Developers need to know right off the bat if a PUD is a good option for their land. Essentially, as Garnett and her partners wrote in the purpose statement, a PUD allows “a combination of uses developed in accordance with an approved plan that protects adjacent properties.” PUDs foster community, protection of natural resources, open space and efficient infrastructure.
“Neighborhoods can look like a broken comb with missing teeth,” Garnett said.
PUDs can alleviate that broken effect and give neighborhoods — and towns — a sense of cohesiveness, Garnett said.
Apart from tightening and clarifying, Garnett and her partners recommended that Sheridan work to take the uncertainty away from PUDs. This could be done through two main avenues.
One, make sure that PUDs are fully developed at the conceptual stage and a complete master plan — consisting of a conceptual plan and conceptual design report — is submitted with the application for PUD rezoning. This master plan will be subject to public hearings and approval at both Planning Commission and City Council meetings and should prevent a somewhat scattered approval process that leaves wiggle room in development, leading to frustration.
“Part of the problem with PUDs is there is a degree of uncertainty when really it should be developed at the conceptual stage so people have a good idea of what is involved,” Garnett said.
Two, pick a PUD. And preferably, pick a PUD that is a general use district.
Right now, Sheridan allows developers to plop a PUD “overlay” on top of an existing zoning district. This requires only one reading to be approved as a resolution, but it also gets messy because the underlying zone — be it R-1 or R-3 residential — holds sway over what can and cannot be done in the PUD while still allowing uses outside zone requirements on a case-by-case basis.
Making the PUD its own zoning district with site specific purposes, requirements and restrictions fosters flexibility with mixed uses and unique ideas and certainty because it’s all laid out in the master plan. As a general use district, a PUD rezone will require three readings to be passed as an ordinance.
At the end of Monday’s work session and subsequent meetings with City Council, Planning Commission members and city staff hope they will more effectively use the PUD as a planning and development tool.
“Planning Commission wants to get to a good spot, and then they want to approach the Council and help them understand why they want to move forward with this,” Briggs said.
“I’ve talked with members of the Council and they recognize that we can always be improving the way that we do development review and the way that expectations for development can be conveyed to people who own land or would like to develop within the community,” he added. “To that extent, they’re supportive of anything that makes development easier to understand.”