The St. Marys City Council voted to send back the controversial zoning ordinances to the city’s planning commission board on Monday.
The zoning ordinances came under fire by the public last fall where many citizens showed up to voice their opposition to what some called “homeowner’s association” style zoning ordinances.
St. Marys has not had a substantial change in its building and zoning ordinances since 1994. The Planning Commission denied the newly revised ordinances on November 9th, 2017 at a special called meeting. The City Council can overturn the Planning Commission’s vote, but the city planning director recommended that the Planning Commission review the newly revised changes with extra opportunities to learn the design standards.
The city’s planning commission voted down the ordinances citing that many citizens did not want rigid covenant and restrictions that resemble homeowner’s association style regulations throughout the city.
Before the revisions, some of the ordinances restricted color, types of house forms, RV parking restrictions, and type of building materials among others.
Some of the citizens that were not in favor of the ordinances said they have read them and still have some concerns, but were encouraged by some of the revisions since last November’s meeting. Some of the citizens asked the council to refer the new changes back to the planning commission.
The City Council’s vote now requires the planning commission to revisit the newly proposed ordinance codes using specific standards recommended by the City Planning Director. Planning commission members are expected to review the standards and justify any changes using the specific planning standards supported by specific criteria.
In the work session meeting before the vote, Councilman Jim Gant asked Jeff Adams why he thought the planning commission flat our denied the ordinances.
“I personally think that they got caught up in kind of a populist point. At the very last minute, they got all the negative, and it takes a lot for people to understand an ordinance. It takes time to come to those decisions. They have to participate and work as a commission,” said Adams.
Adams further explained that communities are at a crisis in our democracy to get people involved as he related the lack of involvement to the defeat of the new zoning ordinances by the planning commission last fall.
“It is a very difficult thing to get people involved in these processes. The state code is the only thing jurisdictions have to do, and that is usually fifteen days in the [local] [news]paper. Most people do not read the local public paper or the official [legal] organ; I am sorry to say. We need better avenues of working with our citizens and get them involved,” said Adams. He further went on that state legislators will have to change such notice publications in the age of social media.
Adams went on to say that older generations of people read the newspaper while others get their information on social media platforms. He further added that the city updates all their digital platforms, but informing the citizens is still a difficult process.
Even with all the meetings leading up to the changes in the zoning ordinances, Adams maintains that the city planning commission denied the zoning changes without considering the planning standards as their guide for decision making. The City has been in a two-year process of creating a Master Plan which identifies key areas for adding more residential and commercial opportunities in the downtown area “to more definitive design guidelines for a more aesthetically appealing community” according to a city planning department written recommendation to council.
In the work session before the vote to send back the zoning ordinances, Adams said: “It was said in the final public meeting that we were going to make ordinances similar to that of a gated community down here.” Adams said some residents told him that the city is “trying to turn this place into an Osprey Cove or Cumberland Harbor.”
Adams referenced that in 1941, the city projected that lots sizes would have to be smaller due to changes in growth and that is what the newly proposed ordinances continue to consider to accommodate for growth thus increasing density in the city.
“We’ve already put up that gate,” contends Adams to the City Council. Adams further states to the council that anywhere in the country there are design guidelines that are followed, and St. Marys has very large lot setbacks of any city he has seen.
Stressing to the council, Adams felt that the ordinances do not restrict landowners the use of the property, but instead, it creates more opportunities.
He further stated that he wanted to dispel rumors that the Tiny Home and Cluster Cottages will not align along Osborne Street because the proposed ordinances do not allow for those types of lots in those areas of the plan.
“I would like to see less developments because I would like to see what our zoning codes are going to do,” explained Adams. “We do not have to have special agreements on every single that we do.”
Adams further informed the council that increased densities are the trend and references that Fernandina Beach, FL has 32 units per acre and St. Marys has ten units per acre.
“I am not saying we want 32 units per acre. I am saying that is the trend and that is where it is going.” Adam states.
Adams presented to the City Council example communities with considerable more foot traffic and visitors such as Key West, FL, Buford, SC, and cities in Idaho to create a frame of reference to see a larger picture of where the trends in city densities are advancing.
“And you ask why we do not have businesses downtown?” said Adams. Councilman Bob Nutter stated that we do not have a major street that runs through our community like Darien, GA, such as Highway 17 to bring in that type of foot traffic to downtown.
“We are not going to get that kind of traffic unless we create the traffic,” explained Adams. “[St. Marys] does not have that luxury unless you want to put a bridge over to Fernandina.”
Exit 1 was also considered and Adams mentioned that future growth elsewhere in the city would have to include a traffic artery which is toward the Exit 1 area off St. Marys Rd. near I-95.
The City Council voted to send the contested ordinances back to the planning commission and review the new amendments and justify any changes to specific design guidelines.
In the link below is the list of the revised changes to be considered by the planning commission as directed by City Council –