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Friday, October 29, 2021

Fort Thomas Planning Kicks Off Zoning Review With Discussion of Central Business District

The Fort Thomas Central Business District was a first focus for the city's zoning ordinance update.

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by Robin Gee

On October 20, the Fort Thomas Planning and Zoning Commission held the first of what promises to be several public meetings to discuss the city’s zoning ordinance and how to revise it to better fit the vision outlined in the city’s comprehensive Community Plan.

The meeting was attended by about 15 city residents and business owners, as well as Mayor Eric Haas and council members in the audience. City Administrator Ron Dill introduced Alisa Duffey Rogers, an architect and planner with city contractor CT Consultants, who has been engaged to guide the revision process. She presented an overview and introduced some proposed zoning changes for the city’s business districts.

No decisions were made, but residents took the opportunity to ask questions and to voice their concerns abut the proposed changes that have been introduced so far. Some also asked about the timeline and the revision process.

Duffey Rogers explained the relationship between update of the city plan and the revision of the zoning ordinance. “A community plan is really a policy document. It has no legal standing. What does have legal standing is your zoning ...The community plan talks in vision, zoning ordinance talks in rules.”

The process going forward

"The zoning ordinance is a tool to help shape our city," said Dill. "It’s a tool used by staff for enforcement to guide developers or other individuals who own property in the community about how they can go about making changes to their property or maintaining their property."

Duffey Rogers outlined four phases of the revision process and gave a broad timeline for each step:

  • Phase One (November 2021 to February 2022): Assessing existing conditions, diagnostic review and report. Looking at what is there on the ground, do they conform? Recommendations for moving forward.
  • Phase Two (March to August 2020): Creating regulations, blueprint document, fleshing out regulations
  • Phase Three (September to November 2022): Formalizing ordinance amendments, zoning map alignment
  • Phase Four (December 2022 to February 2023): Ordinance adoption 

Form-based vs tradition zoning

The proposals for the city’s business district zones introduce the concept of form-based zoning, a departure from the way the current ordinance is written. Duffey Rogers explained the different approaches to zoning.

Traditional zoning ordinances, such as Fort Thomas’s ordinance, put an emphasis on land use within the zone. Besides set backs and a few other parameters, little attention is paid to what a building looks like or how it relates to other buildings. How the property will be used drives how the zones are developed.

In traditional zoning, land uses are kept separate with commercial and business zones in one area and residences in another. In the past, it was necessary to keep places where people lived away from the smoke stakes and other hazards of factories. Today, the nature of commercial enterprises and business has changed so much many cities are taking a different approach, she said.

Form-based zoning first started in the 1980s, but has become more popular in the past decade. It puts the emphasis on the form and placement, how buildings and properties relate to the community and to each other. While use is taken into consideration, form-based codes include specific and detailed rules about the form of the structure and how it is situated.

Most cities, Duffey Rogers said, employ a hybrid approach. For Fort Thomas, she recommended moving toward a form-based code for commercial zones and sticking with traditional zoning in residential areas. The advantage of form-based code was it gives the community more control and provides predictable results in the physical form of the building.

Orangetheory Fitness. Newport Pavilion. 

The business district proposal

A proposal that applied form-based zoning to the city’s business districts was shared earlier this month and was a point of concern for those who attended. The most notable change was to allow for residential uses on the ground floor.

The ordinance contained specific details about what types of residential units would be allowed. In the initial proposal, the use would allow single family row houses, live/work units and multifamily dwellings in which the ground floor is designed as flex space, allowing it to be repurposed for business should it become available in the future. Live/work units would allow for work spaces within a single family dwelling as long as the space occupied less than 50 percent of the dwelling unit space.

RELATED: Fort Thomas Planning Will Discuss Update of City Zoning Ordinance

Duffey Rogers explained the goal was to increase the density of residential in the district to attract and support businesses in the district. The strict guidelines about how the buildings would look and relate to the rest of the community was designed to encourage engagement within the zone.

Caileen Tallant-Adams, director of Tallant Music Studio at 122 North Fort Thomas, said she felt adding more residential could harshly impact her business. She expressed concern that buildings housing businesses might be knocked down to make way for residential units. She also noted getting a business loan to purchase a mixed-use building can be difficult.

Dill explained that under the current zoning ordinance there is nothing that would prohibit buildings being knocked down. By providing very specific requirements, the form-based code would give the city more control and could give building owners more flexibility. He noted the difficulties many businesses face when trying to adapt homes for business purposes. Providing parking spaces and bringing these buildings ADA compliant can be cost prohibitive.

In addition, the form-based code could put rules in place so that buildings would be easier to repurpose if they should become vacant. He noted how difficult it was in the past to adapt gas stations to other uses and noted that vacant bank buildings, too, could pose problems. Controlling the form of the building can make it easier should that building become available for reuse.

Others were concerned that row houses might not provide enough green space, and questioned if adding a handful of row houses in a small area would really provide the density the planners say is needed.

Tom Morrison, 96 Hawthorne, asked if the number of residential units could be limited in the code. "If it’s 10 percent residential, 90 percent commercial, I think that would work, but if it’s 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial...can there be a limit?"

Duffey Rogers said the proposed ordinance does not provide limits but it was indeed possible to do that. Through the course of discussion, she noted that form-based zoning allows for a level of specificity that would allow planners to designate certain blocks or areas for residential and others for business only. In other words, one approach might be to designate a block to be only business and then allow for residential in other blocks within the district. 

Next steps: more research and review

Planning and Zoning commissioners asked for maps of the business districts so that they could see how many parcels might be involved.

Dill and Duffey Rogers agreed that maps would be needed and said that the next step in the process will be to review what exists in the business districts and do the research needed to answer the questions posed that evening.

Dill invited people to spread the word and to return for future discussions. Public input was key in the 2018 revision of the city plan, he said, and it is equally important in revision of the zoning code.

"Please feel free to share what you’re thinking. Hopefully, you stay engaged in the process throughout. Some of it’s not that exciting. We will talk about signage, nuisance complaints, talk about loading and unloading zones, parking requirements and the full gamut of what’s in a zoning ordinance," he said.

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